St. Charles Borromeo (November 4)
Born: October 2, 1538 in Arona, Italy
Died: November 3, 1584 in Milan, Italy
Church sacristies (the room where everything needed for the celebration of the Holy Mass is kept) can become the dumping ground of many decades of liturgical vestments, altar linens and countless other items. Some are of exquisite quality, while others are in need of being thrown into a liturgical bonfire!
If a priest or sacristan takes the time to periodically give the sacristy a decent cleaning, then every so often he may come across an unexpected treasure. Such was the case when I was cleaning out a drawer and found a small metal case that contained the relic of a saint. Upon closer inspection, I learned that it was a relic of St Charles Borromeo, with the intials E.C. written beneath. This is an abbreviation for the Latin phrase ex corpore, which means that the relic is a piece of the flesh of the saintly 16th century Cardinal Archbishop of Milan.
Upon finding this relic, I realized that I knew very little about this great saint. However, I wanted to be sure that the relic would not be lost in the drawers of the sacristy again. I decided that it should instead be inside our church for the People of God to see and make into a devotional object of veneration and prayer.
Since this relic has been made visible in St. Bernard’s Church, I have watched as more and more people take time to pray before it, asking for the intercession of St Charles Borromeo in their lives. The devotion of the Lord’s faithful compelled me to learn more about the life and ministry of one of the great saints of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
Charles Borromeo was born in the castle of Arona, Italy on October 2nd, 1538. His father was Count Giberto Borromeo and his mother, Margherita de Medici. Margherita’s younger brother was Giovanni Angelo Cardinal de Medici, who became Pope in 1559. Charles was born into both the nobility and ecclesiastical elite of the Italian city-states. From a young age, his family looked to assure that Charles would one day be in charge of the material wealth of his family and also occupy a place of prominence in the Church. At the age of twelve, his father allowed him to receive the tonsure, which means the hair on the crown of his head was cut as a sign that he has entered the clerical state. Some time later, upon the resignation of his uncle, Julius Caesar Borromeo, he became titular Abbot of Sts. Gratinian and Felinus at Arona, despite being only a child.
After completing studies in both secular and canon law, Charles began to take a greater role in the governance of his family and also started his involvement in Church affairs. One of his first concerns was looking for ways to reform the Abbey of Sta Gratinian and Felinus and thus restore vigour and discipline to the monks who lived there.
In the summer of 1559, Charles’ uncle, Cardinal de Medici, was elected pope and took the name Pius IV. Even though Charles was not an ordained member of the clergy, Pius IV made him a cardinal and appointed him as the administrator of the Archdiocese of Milan, in addition to giving him the administration of all the Papal States. It was a prestigious yet volatile situation, which could have been a mighty temptation for this young prince of the Church. With such power at his disposal, the potential for Charles to become consumed by greed and misuse his ecclesiastical office for his own benefit and that of his family was a distinct possibility.
As the Pope’s Secretary of State, Charles was instrumental in helping to reconvene the Council of Trent and fortify the church in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. During the workings of the council, Charles’ older brother, Count Federigo, died. His brother’s death had a major impact on him, causing Charles to ponder his own mortality and resolve to be more dedicated to a life of prayer and service to the Church. He understood the need to forgo worldly pleasure and success that could lead to his damnation.
Without telling his family, Charles was secretly ordained a deacon and then, later, a priest, thus assuring that his primary vocation in life would be his total dedication to the mission of the Church and not the care of his family’s land holdings and fortune. A few months later, he was consecrated the Archbishop of Milan, one the oldest and most influential archdioceses in all of Europe, and was given the church of St Praxedes in Rome as his cardinatial church. (Every cardinal is given a church in the city of Rome and is expected to maintain its upkeep. The basilica of St. Praxedes is among the most renowned and ancient basilicas in Rome. It was built in honour of the martyr St. Praxedes who died in Rome in the year 165 AD.)
Upon becoming an archbishop, Cardinal Borromeo looked to implement the canons of the Council of Trent in his archdiocese, most especially in regards to the reform of the clergy. In many instances, priests had abandoned their pastoral work, had begun living with concubines and were guilty of charging excessive fees for the celebration of the Sacraments. He was also one of the first archbishops to establish a seminary in his archdiocese for the formation of future priests. As a means to educate his flock in the Catholic faith, Cardinal Borromeo commissioned the composition of a catechism that would become the standard teaching tool throughout his archdiocese and worked to assure that the celebration of the Holy Mass was in harmony with the reforms that had been mandated by St Pope Pius V.
Cardinal Borromeo was also on the commission that assured that polyphony would continue to be an approved form of liturgical music during celebration of the Holy Mass. (For those of you with a love for liturgical music, Cardinal Borromeo was among those who chose Palestrina to compose three Mass settings, including the renowned Missa Papae Marcelli.)
Cardinal Borromeo also sought to bring reform to the Church in regions outside his own archdiocese. He helped resolve conflicts in neighboring Italian dioceses and offered guidance in regions that had been overwhelmed by the torrential upheaval of the Protestant Reformation. For example, Cardinal Borromeo visited a number of dioceses in Switzerland that had been become strongholds of Calvinism and worked tirelessly to bring many souls back to the Catholic faith. He also helped to finance the new seminary in Douai, France, where English seminarians were trained (in exile) and then ordained as priests with the mission of returning to Protestant England. Most would die as martyrs for the Catholic faith.
In addition to his work of implementing the decrees of the Council of Trent and looking to heal the Church wounded by the Protestant Reformation, Cardinal Borromeo did not neglect to care for the needs of the poor in his own archdiocese. He sold much of his family’s wealth and property to care for the needs of the poor, sick and marginalized, while personally living a life of simplicity and mortification, when many of his cardinal brethren continued to live in luxury and decadence.
Near the end of 1584, Charles’ health began to decline and he knew that his time of labouring in the Lord’s earthly vineyard was soon coming to an end. It is said that in his final days, Charles would spend up to 8 hours a day praying on his knees. He continued to celebrate Mass and give Holy Communion to the faithful of his archdiocese despite his poor health. On All Saints Day (November 1st), he celebrated the Holy Mass for the final time and after receiving Extreme Unction on November 3rd, 1584, Charles began the sleep of eternal peace with Our Lord.
Devotion to the saintly archbishop began among the faithful of Milan immediately after his death, and in 1610, Pope Paul V canonized him a saint of the Church, designating November 4th as his feast day.
I consider it a tremendous honour that our parish is blessed to have a small relic of this remarkable pastor and servant of the Church. He is a noble reminder that despite being born into a world of privilege and power, one can become a humble servant of the Church and put the work of the Lord above the temptation to pursue personal ambition and success in both worldly and ecclesiastical affairs. His life of prayer, service to the poor and dedication to restoring the Catholic faith in a time of great confusion and upheaval is a powerful witness to our own times, when indifference towards God, a lack of care for the poor, and outright apostasy and denial of the Catholic faith is ever present in our Church and world.
Fr. Nathan Siray
All historical information for this post comes from the New Advent article on St. Charles Borromeo http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03619a.htm