Charles Borromeo was born into a rich powerful northern Italian family in 1538. His uncle became Pope Pius IV. Nepotism was customary at the papal court in those days, so having the pope as your uncle was a sure way to get ahead. Only 23, a shy studious young man with a speech impediment, Charles was called to Rome and made a deacon, then cardinal, becoming the pope’s trusted advisor and Secretary of State.
Charles’ brother died unexpectedly In the winter of 1562. Grieving, Charles made a retreat, following the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. His father and mother died previously and as their remaining heir Charles was urged by his family, including the pope, to marry and have children, but instead he chose to become a priest. The Council of Trent was concluding its work for church reform; Charles was often the pope’s representative at the council, looking after papal interests. Now, embracing the council’s call for reform, he left Rome and became bishop of Milan.
As bishop of that key city, Charles Borromeo became one of the most important figures in the renewal of the Catholic church shaken by the Protestant Reformation. In an era of absentee bishops, he stayed in his diocese, bringing about reform. He helped draft the Catechism of the Council of Trent. He founded a Confraternity of Christian Doctrine for catechizing his people. He started a printing press to make the Word of God known to his people. He created seminaries for training priests. A bad speech impediment never stopped him from constantly preaching God’s word.
He wasn’t afraid to deal with the inertia in his church or to confront the challenge to his authority from secular rulers or diocesan groups. In 1569 a friar from one religious community irked by his call for reform fired a shot that grazed his vestments while he was celebrating Mass. He was a man of meetings, a hard worker, constantly calling people together in diocesan synods and groups.
Probably what endeared him most to his people was that in a plague that gripped Milan in 1571 Borromeo stayed in the city while most authorities fled, mobilizing priests and brothers to minister to the sick, set up hospitals and comfort the dying.
He was only 46 when he died, worn out by his efforts to bring the gospel to his people, but he left an example of leadership for other bishops and dioceses for renewing the church. Some historians say he lacked an appreciation of the role of the laity in the ministry of the church, but most would see saints like Charles Borromeo, Philip Neri and Francis de Sales as more important for the Catholic renewal after the Reformation than the popes and general councils of the time.
We hope and pray for church leaders and saints like them today.
Father Theodore Foley, a holy superior general of my community, the Passionists, was reading the life of Charles Borromeo, when he died in 1974. I think he was inspired by him.