Charles Borromeo was born on October 2, 1538 into a wealthy, aristocratic family. Charles was brought up in an exemplar home as his parents were very generous to the poor, orphaned, and widowed, and he was raised with a very good religious education. At the age of twenty-one, Charles Borromeo was appointed Cardinal and from that time he sought to reform himself and the Church until his death in 1584.

On January 6, 1560, Angelo Medici, Charles’ uncle, became Pope Pius IV. Soon after, on January 23rd, Charles Borromeo was appointed Cardinal in Rome and Administrator of the Diocese of Milan. At this time, Borromeo was a twenty-one year old cleric, not yet a priest. For five years Charles Borromeo stayed in Rome as Papal Secretary to Pius IV. The first year in Rome the young Cardinal was kept extremely busy writing letters and sending Papal Nuncios all over Europe to gather the Cardinals and Bishops back to Italy for the re-opening of the Council of Trent. The Council had been called for by Clement VII, and Pope Paul III was the one to open the Council in 1545, but then it had to be suspended shortly after. Pius IV wanted Trent re-opened to bring about reform in the Church. Trent was set to begin again on Easter Day of 1561, however, only four Bishops had shown up by then, so the solemn opening actually happened on January 18th, 1562. Trent called for reform in the Papacy, Cardinals, Bishops, and all clergy. It also made many important decrees on things such as Sacraments, absenteeism, Purgatory, Saints, relics, and salvation- all upholding what the Church has always believed and denying what the Protestant Reformation was saying. St. Charles Borromeo is known as a key person of the Council even though he stayed in Rome the whole time and never went to Trent. He guarded the Church by influencing Trent “indirectly and by personal persuasion” through his great letter writing to get the Bishops and Cardinals to Trent, and then once the Council had re-opened he wrote many personal and official letters as well.[1]

The Council of Trent closed in December 1563, and earlier that year Charles had been ordained a priest and then Bishop. Cardinal Borromeo took Trent to heart and began immediately putting its decrees into action in himself and his diocese. First, he knew that no one would listen to him if he did not reform himself to focus his life totally on God. So Charles went through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and spent hours praying and receiving spiritual direction from close Jesuit friends and also St. Philip Neri. He already had been living an austere life considering the wealth he had, but he decided to go deeper and get rid of all unnecessary income and material goods and gave it to the poor. At this time, he thought he was being called to the monastic life for he greatly desired to renounce worldly things and be alone with God. But an elderly Cardinal spoke to him saying, “Do not ask which is the safest way, but what is the Will of God. You will do harm to the Church if you desert your post. If you loved the world I should say, flee from it. But you do not love it. God has called you to reform the Church. Finish the work you have begun.”[2] Also during this time of personal reformation, Cardinal Borromeo, as Papal Secretary, worked hard on writing the Roman Catechism (finishing it within a year of the closing of Trent) and made the necessary changes and updates to the Breviary, Missal, and Vulgate.

In 1566, Cardinal Borromeo decided it was time for him to return to Milan and take up his position as head of the church there. Trent had called for an end to absenteeism, clergy living in places different from where their churches were, and the young Cardinal wanted to be with his flock implementing reform. After three months in Milan though, he was called back to Rome because Pius IV was dying. He hurried back to his uncle’s side and stayed in Rome through his death and the election of the new Pope. Borromeo wanted Michael Ghisleri to be the new Pontiff and at the Conclave, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the other Cardinals agreed. So Pope St. Pius V was elected at the end of December 1566 and Charles was asked to stay on as Papal Secretary until an adequate replacement could be appointed. As soon as he could go back to Milan however, Borromeo did so that he could reform the diocese and protect it from Protestants and Protestant Theology trying to get in through the Swiss border. Once back in Milan, Cardinal Borromeo began with the clergy. Milan was the Metropolitan See of the area so the Cardinal had to keep watch over fifteen dioceses. The reforms of Trent called for provincial councils every three years and Borromeo did just that.[3] Then Borromeo looked to his specific diocese, calling the yearly diocesan synod of priests that Trent asked to be done. He also started setting up the diocesan seminary right away and set up smaller seminaries in rural mountain areas to provide local men for the priestly apostolate there and also along the Swiss border to have priests specifically trained to guard the Church against Protestant Theology. Borromeo wanted to reform the clergy because it would only be holy clergy who could bring about the moral reform that the laity needed.

Cardinal Borromeo loved the people of his diocese, for he knew that all the reform he was bringing about was for their sake, that they might draw closer to God and grow in holiness. The Cardinal began personal parish visits, like the Apostles had done, to see how his flock was doing and what they needed. At first he found the parishes missing baptismal fonts, confessionals, sacristies, and bell towers, and had a severe lack of the priests caring for the souls of the people.[4] So he provided for the churches making sure they got the furnishings they needed and giving money to the poorer parishes that could not afford it. Also, he made sure his priests moved back to their parishes and were taking care of souls. A great thing he instituted were “Schools of Christian Doctrine” where the parish priest would teach on Sunday afternoons for students of all ages so the laity could learn the doctrine of the Church clearly, as put out in the Roman Catechism.[5] The people loved it.

Charles Borromeo was a humble man and he always made sure that the reform he was demanding in his diocese he carried out himself. At first the clergy and people did not like it, but then they were set on fire by his holiness and zeal. He was a Cardinal much loved by his flock. Cardinal Charles Borromeo died on November 3rd, 1584 after working hard and wearing his body out in guarding the Church from heresy and reforming it. He died from illness and in his last hours he meditated on Christ’s passion, wore sackcloth and ashes, and eventually passed into eternal happiness with a smile on his face. St. Charles Borromeo was canonized by Pope Paul V on November 1, 1610. His feast day in the Church is on November 4th and he is the Patron Saint of Bishops, catechists, catechumens, seminarians, spiritual directors, and spiritual leaders. (Courtesy of catecheticsonline.com)

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