…when the Jacobin Revolution threatened to destroy the Church, it was the institutional legacy of Borromeo that did most to help her survive… (Revised in St. Charles Borromeo: The Great Reformer)
November 4 was the Feast of St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), a great prelate and reformer of the Latin Church and the greatest Bishop of Milan after St. Ambrose. Today his pivotal role is largely forgotten, even in western Christendom, but even a cursory reading of his life would amply show that in him, the Church found perhaps her greatest bishop-ordinary after Sts. Augustine and John Chrysostom. (Thus Christopher M. Bellitto, in an article on the Saint Anthony Messenger, names Borromeo among the ten great Catholics of the second millenium.) To those who’d like to know more about him, we recommend the excellent online biographies on New Advent and Wikipedia.
How important Borromeo was in history is best explained if we consider the fact that many of the institutions of Christian formation and discipline we consider commonplace today were, for the most part, creations of his age. To take but one example, the seminary as an institution was largely unknown before the 16th century, when its formative role was performed by the Universities, the religious institutes, and the cathedral and monastic schools–adequately or inadequately under varying circumstances, but without much regularity in manner or effect. It was Borromeo who, in reforming his diocese and province, regularized the seminary system, thus providing a model to other bishops on how to apply of the decrees of Trent on priestly formation.
Likewise illuminating to his brother bishops was Borromeo’s brilliant and fruitful combination of the priestly, teaching, and administrative facets of the episcopal office to effect reform. For instance, besides taking measures for the education of priests, Borromeo also established a systematic manner of instructing children and other laity in the Faith; one must note that it was precisely the dearth of such instruction that allowed the growth in Latin Europe of such sects as the Brethren of the Free Spirit and their infiltration of otherwise healthy movements like the Beguines and Beghards. His enlisting of Jesuit assistance was likewise momentous, for it provided a model of cooperation that helped counter the first onset of anti-Jesuit sentiment and which became a powerful structural force in the Reform of Trent.
Having overcome both secular and religious opposition through prayer, example, diplomacy and sheer guts (not to mention a good deal of chutzpah), Borromeo thus joined the ranks of reformers like Cardinal Ximenes de Cisneros, St. John of the Cross, and St. Theresa of Avila, founders like St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Philip Neri, and writers like Francisco Suarez and St. Francis de Sales, who made the 16th century so illustrious. The influence of his writings went as far afield as England; and when the Tridentine reforms finally reached France, it was the model of Borromeo that won the day. History showed later how vital a role he really played, for when the Jacobin Revolution threatened to weaken and destroy the Church in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was the institutional legacy of Borromeo–the seminaries, the Sunday schools, the confraternities, and the catechisms–that did most to help her survive.
Lord Jesus Christ, we thank You for giving us Saint Charles Borromeo, through whose work You strengthened Your Church for the innumerable trials of the past centuries. Grant that we, the clergy and laity of Your Body on earth, may ever remember his example of faithful service and courage, and thus become ready instruments of Your grace for the world. Amen.
Saint Charles Borromeo, pray for us, unto the glory of God!
A prayer by St. Charles Borromeo may be found here, at the website of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary.