When the Jacobin Revolution threatened to destroy the Church, it was Borromeo’s legacy that did most to help her survive…
Today the Latin Christians of the one true Church celebrate the Feast of St. Charles Borromeo, Bishop and Confessor, under both the Johannine and the Pauline form of the Roman Rite. We therefore re-publish with revisions our brief 2007 post in honor of this great Saint through whom and with whom Christ our Lord reformed and strengthened His mystical Body:
November 4 is the Feast of St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), a great prelate and reformer of the Latin Church. 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 one true Church found one of her greatest bishops-ordinaries after Saints 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 online biographies on New Advent and Wikipedia, the former of which paints a vivid picture of the epic character of Borromeo’s life and times.
Carlo Borromeo was born to power and privilege, his father being the Count of Arona, but even in his teens Borromeo already demonstrated his mettle by giving to the poor the revenues of an uncle’s benefice. When his uncle was elected as Pope Pius IV, Borromeo was appointed a high curial official, an act that, by God’s mysterious workings, reaped great benefit for Christendom; for when Borromeo was pressed by his family to leave the service of the Church, he refused and went on to become a priest and, eventually, the greatest bishop of Milan after St. Ambrose, esteemed for both the excellence of his leadership and the holiness of his life.
Like his older contemporary St. Francis Borgia, therefore, Borromeo eschewed high estate for the pearl of great price; and like the former, Borromeo was more a St. Dominic than a St. Francis, making his mark through less “dramatic” fields of service–legislation, governance, organization–that are no less heroic or vital to the Kingdom of God. At the resumption of the Council of Trent, for example, Borromeo’s administrative and diplomatic skill was instrumental in assembling the Council Fathers, ensuring the sucesss of their work, and publicizing their reformatory decrees through the Roman Catechism; and when his effort to apply the reforms in his diocese met bitter, even violent opposition from the State and the clergy, it was through Borromeo’s prayerful patience and tact no less than though his courage and chutzpah that God gave him the victory.
How important Borromeo would become in history is seen in 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: before his time, it was precisely the dearth of such instruction that allowed the growth in Latin Europe of such heretical 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 became a powerful structural force in the Catholic Reformation.
In sum, Borromeo was one the reformers like Cardinal Ximenes de Cisneros, St. John of the Cross, and St. Theresa of Avila, pioneers like St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Philip Neri, and authors like Francisco de Vitoriam, Francisco Suarez, St. Robert Bellarmine, 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 bore the unmistakable stamp of Borromeo’s model. History showed later how vital a role he really played, for when the Jacobin Revolution and its totalitarian contagion assaulted the Church through the 18th and succeeding centuries, it was the institutional legacy of Borromeo–the seminaries, the Sunday schools, the confraternities, and the catechisms–that did most to fortify the faithful of Christ.
Lord Jesus Christ, we thank You for giving us Saint Charles Borromeo, through whose work You strengthened Your one true 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.