Get To Know St. Charles Borromeo The “Practical Genius”

by November, Saints, Testimonies

Who is St. Charles Borromeo?

Carlo Borromeo was born in Arona, Italy near Milan in 1538. He became a cardinal archbishop and was active in the Catholic Counter-Reformation (after the Protestant Reformation) in Italy. St. Charles Borromeo died at the age of 46 in 1584 and was canonized a short time later in 1610. His feast day is November 4.

Charles earned a doctoral degree in civil and canon law just before being appointed the cardinal archbishop of Milan. He was also the head of the Consulta of the Pope which is like being Secretary of State. He was largely involved in the administration of the third gathering of the Council of Trent from 1562-63.

The Council of Trent and True Reform

While there were many things that were wrong with Martin Luther’s comments about the Catholic Church, he did have many valid points about corruption. St. Charles Borromeo was instrumental in helping to reform the Church, in the right way. St. Charles Borromeo was one of the key figures in ensuring that the Council was enacted, and he also put together the Roman Catechism (also called the Catechism of the Council of Trent).

There is a saying that: ecclesia semper reformanda est (“the Church is always reforming itself”). To form again is to be born anew. The mercies of God are new every morning. The Church remains the same, but God’s purifying love needs to purify the Body of Christ, the Church. Sometimes, this purification is more needed than other times in history. Certainly, the Church that the Protestant reformers were reacting against needed tuning up.

In God’s Providence, the situation of widespread corruption and disagreement about doctrine led to the treasure trove of Catholic beauty in the Council of Trent. The explanation of doctrine is elegant and clear. The call for true reform and repentance is vibrant. And the punishments and corrections, which are necessary in the life of the Church, are borne from mercy but have enough teeth to be effective.

In Time of Plague

One of the portions of St. Charles Borromeo which is eclipsed by the great Council is the plague of 1576. St. Charles was cardinal archbishop at the time, and he used a great amount of the Church’s wealth to feed the hungry and care for the sick of his city.

Having recently dealt with a pandemic, we can understand hesitancy, concern, and indecision in the face of illness. However, the example of St. Charles Borromeo is one to remember and mark.

Keep the Grace Flowing

In two months, 6,000 people had died in Milan of the plague. Many of the civic authorities and aristocracy abandoned the city. The Archbishop of Milan did not leave town. Like in our own recent memory, he closed all the churches in Milan and had altars built outside. This allowed the faithful to hear Mass from their homes (16th Century livestreaming). You can still see where these altars were located by looking for small monuments called “plague crosses” which were erected where the altars had been. He also began the Forty Hours devotion by exposing the Blessed Sacrament in the doors of the churches for forty hours at a time, inviting the faithful to pass by in prayer.

The archbishop mobilized armies of volunteers to serve the poor and sick. He donated a lot of his own expensive clothes and tapestries to help. In fact, St. Charles did so much during this plague that the history books have recorded the event as the “Plague of St. Charles.”

St. Charles allowed for the Sacraments to remain accessible to the people. He issued guidelines that accorded with the scientific knowledge of the time and prudence. St. Pope Paul VI referred to St. Charles as a “practical genius.” It is said that St. Charles himself went to a leper house each day to baptize newborns and give the last rites.

The good archbishop inspired his fellow priests in their duties. He urged them not to abandon the people but to do baptisms, anointings, and Mass. He said to them, “Do not be so forgetful of your priesthood as to prefer a late death to a holy one.”

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