“If we wish to make any progress in the service of God, we must begin every day of our life with new eagerness. We must keep ourselves in the presence of God as much as possible and have no other view or end in all our actions but the divine honor.”
The profound and significant communication above is from St. Charles Borromeo, whose Feast Day we celebrate today, November 4th. Clearly, if we would simply use his life map as our every day goal, we would never be lost and we would always have joy, even in spite of suffering.
St. Charles Borromeo lead the universal Church in the Counter-Reformation in the troubled but dynamic 16th century, and therefore, is associated with reform. He sought the correction of abuses and evil, addressing the excuses made for the destructive and false reformation which was spreading and creating confusion in Europe. Indeed and in fact, he is one of the great Counter-Reformers, along with Pope St. Pius V, St. Philip Neri and St. Ignatius Loyola.
He was born on October 2, 1538 in a castle of Arona on Lake Maggiore, Italy, the second of two sons in a family of six. His father was Count Gilbert Borromeo and his mother was Margaret, a member of the Medici family. Even at the age of 12, he showed his serious and holy disposition, receiving the clerical tonsure, with another of his uncles resigning him to the Benedictine abbey of Sts. Gratinian and Felinus at Arona. At his young age, he reminded his father that the revenue, with the exception for what was spent on his necessary education for the service of the Church, was to be given to the poor and could not be applied to other more worldly uses. He learned Latin at Milan and thereafter attended the University of Pavia, and after the death of his parents, at the age of 22 he earned his doctor’s degree.
In 1559, his uncle was chosen as Pope Pius IV, wherein Charles used all of his influence to reopen the Council of Trent in 1562, since it had been suspended in 1552. He accomplished this reopening under most difficult ecclesiastical and political climates.
In 1563, Charles was ordained a priest and two months thereafter, was consecrated as a bishop. In this capacity, he drafted the Catechism of the Council of Trent and the reform of liturgical books and music.
Milan failed to have an in-house bishop for some eighty years. Accordingly, Charles arrived in Milan in April of 1566 and vigorously worked for the reformation of this diocese. He sold property in the amount of thirty thousand crowns and applied the entire amount to distressed families. Charles allotted most of his income to charity, forbade himself all luxury and imposed severe penances upon himself. During the horrible plague and famine of 1576, he tired to feed sixty to seventy thousand people daily, borrowing large sums of money that required years to repay. Civil authorities fled at the height of the plague, abandoning the populace; but Charles stayed in the city where he ministered to the sick and the dying. Charles assembled the superiors of the religious communities, wherein a number of religious right away volunteered to help the stricken victims of the plague, wherein he lodged these clerics in his house. The hospital of St. Gregory looked deplorable, bringing Charles to tears, overflowing with dead, dying, sick and others suspected of being struck by the plague. St. Charles literally exhausted all his resources in relief. Indeed, houses for the sick were formed as well as temporary shelters, and lay people were organized for the clergy and a score of altars set up in the streets so that the sick could assist at public worship from their windows. He personally ministered to the dying, waited on the sick and helped those in need. The plague lasted from 1576 through 1578.
Charles endured of all things, a speech impediment, a difficult handicap for his preaching. A friend of Charles, Achille Gagliardi, said, “I have often wondered how it was that, without any natural eloquence or anything attractive in his manner, he was able to work such changes in the hearts of his hearers. He spoke but little, gravely, and in a voice barely audible – but his words always had effect.”
St. Charles proclaimed that children should be properly instructed in Christian doctrine and therefore, established the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. These schools at that time numbered 740, with approximately 3,000 catechists and 40,000 pupils. And so, Charles originated “Sunday-schools.”
No love was lost in the religious order called, “Humiliati”, being reduced to few members, but still maintaining many monasteries and great possessions. They allegedly submitted to the reform, but this was done only in form, not in substance. They tried to have the pope annul the new regulations, but those attempts were refused and they failed. So, they hatched a plot to assassinate Charles. One of the priests agreed to do so for the sum of forty gold pieces (much like Judas Iscariot if you ask me). On October 26, 1569, this priest, Jerome Donati Farina, put himself at the door of the chapel in the archbishop’s house while Charles was at evening prayers with his household. While an anthem was being sung, Charles being on his knees before the altar, this cowardly assassin discharged a gun at him, wherein Farina escaped during the confusion, but the bullet struck Charles’ clothes in the back raising a bruise. Thus, they failed to murder him.
Nevertheless, Charles directed his energies to maintain a capable and virtuous clergy. On one occasion when an exemplary priest was sick and on death’s door, Archbishop Borromeo said, “Ah, you do not realize the worth of the life of one good priest.” Charles was indefatigable in parochial visitations
Charles worked so hard and in 1584, his health became poor. On October 24th, while on a retreat, he became very ill. On October 29th, he started off for Milan, his diocese, wherein he arrived there on All Souls Day, November 2nd, having celebrated Mass for the last time on the previous day at his birth place, Arona. He went to bed, asking for the final sacrament of the sick, with his last words being, “Behold, I come.” He died on the 4th of November, only 46 years of age.
Charles was formally canonized by Pope Paul V in 1610.
Charles lived the instruction of Our Lord Jesus Christ: “…I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” (Mt 25:35-36) St. Charles saw Jesus in his neighbor and he was always able to recognize “Jesus in Disguise.” Let us follow his example.
One Hundred Saints, Bulfinch Press.
Saint of the Day, edited by Leonard Foley, O.F.M., revised by Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.