Nov. 4, 2020

November 4, 2020: ST. CHARLES OF BORROMEO


Rank: Double.


Successor of Ambrose, thou didst inherit his zeal for the house of God; thy action also was powerful in the Church; and though separated in time by a thousand years, your names are now united in one common glory. May your prayers also mingle before the throne of God for us in these times of decadence; and may your power in heaven obtain for us pastors worthy to continue, or if need be to renew, your work on earth.


Prayer (Collect).

Preserve thy Church, O Lord, under the continual protection of holy Charles, thy Confessor and Bishop; that as he was eminent for the discharge of his pastoral duty, so his prayers may make us zealous in the love of thy holy name. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.


Humilitas. This word already stood, crowned with gold, upon his family escutcheon, when Charles was born at the castle of Arona. It had been said of the Borromeos that they knew nothing of humility, except to bear it on their coat of arms: but the time had now come, when the mysterious device was to be justified by the most illustrious scion of that noble family; and when, at the zenith of his greatness, a Borromeo would learn to void his heart of self, in order that God might fill it. Far, however, from abjuring the high-mindedness of his race, the humble Saint was the most intrepid of them all, while his enterprises were to eclipse the noble exploits of a long line of ancestors. One more proof that humility never debases.

Charles was scarcely twenty-two years of age, when Pius IV, his maternal uncle, called him to the difficult post of Secretary of State, shortly afterwards created him Cardinal and Archbishop of Milan, and seemed to take pleasure in heaping honours and responsibilities on his young shoulders. The late Pontiff, Paul IV, had been ill requited for placing a similar confidence in his nephews the Caraffas, who ended their days upon the scaffold. His successor, on the contrary, as the event testified, was actuated by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, not by the dictates of flesh and blood.

Sixty years of that fatal century had already elapsed, while the evils consequent on Luther's revolt were ever increasing, and the Church was daily threatened with some new danger. The Protestants had just imposed upon the Catholics of Germany the treaty of Passau, which completed the triumph of the fanatics, and secured to them equality and liberty. The abdication of Charles V in despair, left the empire to his brother Ferdinand; while Spain, with its immense dominions in both hemispheres, fell to his son Philip II. Ferdinand I inaugurated the custom of dispensing with Rome, by crowning himself with the diadem which St. Leo III had placed upon the brow of Charlemagne; and Philip, enclosing Italy by taking Naples in the South and Milan in the North, seemed to many to be threatening the independence of Rome herself. England, reconciled for a brief period under Mary Tudor, was replunged by Elizabeth into the schism which continues to the present day. Boy kings succeeded one another on the throne of St. Louis, and the regency of Catharine de Medici involved France in the wars of religion.

Such was the political situation which the minister of Pius IV had to cope with, and to utilize to the best of his power for the interests of the Holy See and of the Church. Charles did not hesitate. With faith to supply for his want of experience, he understood that to the torrent of errors, which threatened to deluge the world, Rome must first of all oppose, as an embankment, that undivided truth of which she is the guardian.

He saw how, in contest with a heresy, which claimed the name of Reformation while it let loose every passion, the Church might take occasion from the struggle to strengthen her discipline, elevate the morals of her children, and manifest to the eyes of all her indefectible sanctity. This thought had already, under Paul III and Julius III, led to the convocation of the Council of Trent, and inspired its dogmatic definitions and reformatory decrees. But the Council, twice interrupted, had not completed its work, which was still under dispute. It had now been suspended for eight years, and the difficulties in the way of its resumption continued to increase, on account of the quarrelsome pretensions of princes. The Cardinal-nephew bent all his efforts to surmount the obstacles. He devoted day and night to the work, imbuing with his views the Sovereign Pontiff himself, inspiring with his zeal the nuncios at the various courts, vying in skill and firmness with diplomatic ministers in order to overcome the prejudices or the ill-will of monarchs. And when, after two years of these difficult negotiations, the Fathers of Trent gathered together once more, Charles was the providence and the tutelary-angel of this august assembly. To him it owed its material organization, its political security, the complete independence of its deliberations and their thenceforward uninterrupted continuity. Himself detained at Rome, he was the intermediary between the Pope and the Council. The presiding legates soon gave him their full confidence, as is proved from the pontifical archives; to him, as to the ablest counsellor and most reliable support, they daily had recourse in their solicitudes and anxieties.

For her (wisdom's) sake, says the Wise Man, I shall have glory among the multitude, and honour with the ancients, though I be young; .... and the faces of princes shall wonder at me. They shall wait for me when I hold my peace, and they shall look upon me when I speak, and if I talk much they shall lay their hands on their mouths (Wis, viii. 10-12). Such was truly the case with St. Charles, at this critical moment of the world's history. No wonder that divine Wisdom, to whom he listened with such docility, and who inspired him so copiously, rendered his name immortal in the memory of a grateful posterity.

In his Defence of the too famous Declaration, Bossuet, speaking of the Council of Trent which owed its completion to St. Charles, says that it brought the Church back to the purity of her origin, as far as the iniquity of the times would permit. And when the œcumenical sessions at the Vatican were opened, the Bishop of Poitiers, the future Cardinal Pie, spoke of “that Council of Trent, which deserved, more truly even than that of Nicӕa, to be called the great Council; that Council, concerning which we may confidently assert, that since the creation of the world no assembly of men has succeeded in introducing among mankind such great perfection; that Council whereof it has been said that, as a tree of life, it has for ever restored to the Church the vigour of her youth...”

“The Council of Trent is perpetuated in the Church by means of the Roman Congregations charged with its continual application, and with ensuring obedience to the pontifical constitutions which have followed and completed it.” Charles suggested the measures adopted for this end by Pius IV, and approved and developed by succeeding Pontiffs. He caused the Liturgical Books to be revised, and the Roman Catechism to be compiled. But first, and in all things, he was himself the living model of the renewed discipline, and thus acquired the right to exercise his zeal for or against others. Rome, initiated by him in the salutary reform, of which it was fitting she should set the first example, was in a few months completely transformed. The three churches [then] dedicated to St. Charles within her walls, and the numerous altars which bear his name in other sanctuaries of the holy City, are the testimony of her enduring gratitude.

His administration, however, and his sojourn in Rome lasted only during the six years of Pius IV's pontificate. On the death of that Pope, in spite of the entreaties of Pius V, whose election was due chiefly to his exertions, Charles set out for Milan, which called for the presence of its Archbishop. For nigh a century, the great Lombard city had scarcely known its pastors save by name; and this abandonment had delivered it, like so many others at that period, to the wolf that catcheth and scattereth the sheep. Our Saint understood far otherwise the responsibility of the cure of souls. He gave himself entirely to this duty, without care for himself, without a thought for the judgments of men, without fear of the powerful. His maxim was: to treat of the interests of Jesus Christ in the spirit of Jesus Christ; his programme, the ordinances of Trent. Charles's episcopate was the carrying out of the great Council; its living form; the model of its practical application in the whole Church; and the proof of its efficiency, demonstrating that it sufficed for every reform, and could, of itself alone, sanctify both pastor and flock.

We would gladly have given more than a passing notice of these Acts of the church of Milan, which have been lovingly collected by faithful hands, and which show our Saint in so grand a light. Herein, after the six provincial councils and eleven diocesan synods over which he presided, follows the inexhaustible series of general or special mandates dictated by his zeal; pastoral letters, the most remarkable of which is the sublime Memorial written after the plague in Milan; instructions upon the holy Liturgy, upon the tenure of churches, upon preaching, upon the administration of the Sacraments, and notably the celebrated instruction to Confessors; ordinances concerning the archiepiscopal court, the chancellorship, canonical visitations; regulations for the archbishop's domestic family, and his vicars and officials of all ranks, for the parish priests and their meetings in conference (a custom introduced by him), for the Oblates he had founded, the seminaries, schools, and confraternities; edicts and decrees; and lastly various tables, and complete forms of administrative acts, so drawn up that nothing remains but to insert names and dates. It is a true pastoral encyclopedia, which, in its magnificent amplitude, would appear to be the work of a long life; yet St. Charles died at the early age of forty-six; and moreover all this was written in the midst of trials and combats sufficient to have been his sole pre-ocoupation.


But it is time to listen to the Church's account of him.

Charles was born at Milan, of the noble family of Borromeo. His future pre-eminent sanctity was foreshown by a heavenly light shining at night over the room where he was born. He was enrolled in his boyhood in the ranks of the clergy, and soon provided with an Abbey; but he warned his father not to turn its revenues to private use; and as soon as its administration was entrusted to him, he spent all the surplus income on the poor. As a youth he pursued his liberal studies at Pavia. He had the greatest love for holy chastity; and several times put to flight, with the greatest firmness, some shameless women sent to tempt him. In the twenty-third year of his age, his uncle Pius IV created him Cardinal; and he adorned that dignity by his great piety and remarkable virtues. Being soon afterwards made Archbishop of Milan, he laboured strenuously to carry out, in his whole diocese, the decrees of the Council of Trent, which had just been concluded mainly through his exertions. To reform the evil customs of his people he held many synods, and moreover was ever himself a perfect model of virtue. He also laboured much to expel the heretics from Switzerland and the country of the Grisons, and converted many of them to the true faith.

The charity of this holy man was strikingly exhibited, when he sold the principality of Oria, and in one day distributed the price, amounting to about forty thousand gold pieces, among the poor. With no less generosity he, on another occasion, distributed twenty thousand gold pieces left him as a legacy. He resigned the many ecclesiastical benefices which his uncle had bestowed upon him, except a few which he retained for his own necessities and for relieving the poor. When the plague was raging in Milan, he gave up the furniture of his house, even his bed, for the support of the poor, and thenceforward always slept on a bare board. He visited the plague-stricken with unwearied zeal, assisted them with fatherly affection, and, administering to them with his own hands the Sacraments of the Church, singularly consoled them. Meanwhile he approached to God in humble prayer as a mediator for his people; he ordered public supplications to be made, and himself walked in the processions, with a rope round his neck, his feet bare and bleeding from the stones, and carrying a cross; and thus offering himself as a victim for the sins of the people, he endeavoured to turn away the anger of God. He strenuously defended the liberty of the Church, and was most zealous in restoring discipline. For this reason some seditious persons fired upon him while he was engaged in prayer, but by the divine power he was preserved unharmed.

His abstinence was wonderful: he very often fasted on bread and water, and sometimes took only a little pulse. He subdued his body by night-watchings, a rough hairshirt and frequent disciplines. He was a great lover of humility and meekness. Even when occupied by weighty business, he never omitted his prayer or preaching. He built many churches, monasteries and colleges. He wrote many works of great value especially for the instruction of bishops; and it was through his care that the catechism for parish-priests was drawn up. At length he retired to a solitary place on Mount Varallo, where the mysteries of our Lord's Passion are sculptured in a life-like manner, and there after spending some days in severe bodily mortifications sweetened by meditation on Christ's sufferings, he was seized by a fever. He returned to Milan; but the illness growing much worse, he was covered with sackcloth and ashes, and with his eyes fixed on the crucifix he passed to heaven, in the forty-seventh year of his age, on the third of the Nones of November, in the year of our Lord 1584. He was illustrated by miracles, and was enrolled among the Saints by Pope Paul V.


Another account of St. Charles of Borromeo.

A.D. 1584

The great and holy Charles Borromeo is justly accounted one of the most celebrated Saints that lived in the sixteenth century, and who, by their virtues and the miracles they performed, made the Catholic Church glorious in the very face of her enemies. Charles was born of very illustrious parents, in 1538, at the castle of Arona, fourteen miles from Milan. A bright light which shone above the castle at the time of Charles' birth, and which, sending its rays afar off, continued for over two hours, was doubtless a sign of the great virtue and holiness with which this new-born child would ornament and illuminate the Church of Christ. Charles, even in childhood, evinced great inclination for the religious state, as he imitated at home everything he saw the priests do at Church. In later years, when he began his studies, he served as a model of virtue to every one. His purity he kept inviolate amidst the greatest dangers; no one ever heard him speak an unchaste word, and if others said anything that in the least offended his ear, he immediately withdrew, and carefully avoided all frivolous, idle or disobedient youths. As soon as he had arrived at the proper age, pope Pius IV called him to Rome, and bestowed upon him the Cardinal's hat, with the Archbishopric of Milan. When afterwards his brother died without issue, the friends of the family urged Charles to abandon the clerical state in order to perpetuate his lineage; but he remained constant in his resolution to serve the Lord in celibacy. He had assisted at the Council of Trent; and was the first who endeavored to reform his See in perfect accordance with its decrees. He made the beginning at his own court, which he composed of priests to whom he prescribed certain regulations, by the observance of which, they might become perfect laborers for the vineyard of the Lord. His resolve, on becoming a prelate of the Church, had been: “I will either be no Cardinal and Archbishop, or I will endeavor to gain such virtues as are in accordance with my dignity.” And it may be truly said that the Saint possessed, in an eminent degree, all those virtues which a prelate of such high standing ought to possess. He held many councils, and made the most wholesome regulations to exterminate abuses and to restore Christian morals. Of his revenues as bishop nothing went to his relatives, but all to promote the honor of God and to assist the poor. The number of churches he built and restored, as well in his own diocese as elsewhere, is almost incredible. All these he most liberally endowed. Above the door of each church, he placed an image of the Blessed Virgin, not only to admonish all to honor her, but also to teach them to seek through her, admittance to Christ, our Mediator and Redeemer. He erected many religious houses for both sexes, that God Almighty might be praised by their inmates, and His blessing drawn down by their prayers. He also built many hospitals for the sick, and several for houseless strangers, for orphans, and for women who desired to lead a better life. He also instituted schools for children, and seminaries for students of theology, so that his parishes might be filled with pious, learned and zealous priests. Besides this, he instituted a society of priests, whom he named Oblates, to be employed in preaching and other spiritual functions. To secure to his Episcopal city the benefits of a truly Christian education of the highest order, he introduced the priests of the Society of Jesus at Milan, and gave them a college and a magnificent church. Those who knew all the rich foundations he made, deemed it impossible that one Cardinal could collect so much money as he spent, especially as he had resigned all other benefices which he had received from the Pope, desiring to live only upon the income of his Archbishopric. Still more wonderful and miraculous was the fact, that, besides supporting the above-mentioned foundations, he had yet so much left him to comfort the poor. His palace was always open to all the poor and to strangers, especially to religious; and all received not only food, but also alms, devout books, rosaries, etc. He had two servants whose only duty was to distribute alms. One of them had the care of the poor who came to the palace; the other carried the alms to the houses of the indigent. After the death of his brother, Saint Charles had been declared, by Philip II, of Spain, heir to the principality of Oria, the annual income of which was nearly 10,000 ducats. Of this he used not one farthing for himself or his relatives, but gave one part of it to the poor, the other to churches and hospitals. From the great care he took of the temporal welfare of the poor, we can easily conclude how great must have been his solicitude for the souls of those under him. He was a perfect model of a watchful shepherd. Inexpressibly great were the pains he took to drive away' from his flock the heretics who, at that period, wandered about like ravenous wolves; and to keep his own in the fold of Christ, the true Church. He preached in several churches, not only on Sundays and Feast-days, but also during the week. He admonished and instructed the people in their own houses, visited the sick and comforted the dying. He strove to uproot the bad customs which prevailed at the carnival. He visited his entire diocese, accompanied by several priests. There was not a town or village to which he did not go. Everywhere he renewed the churches, preached, gave instructions, administered the holy Sacraments, and exhorted all to lead a Christian life. None could understand how the holy Cardinal, whose health was delicate, could bear so much fatigue in travelling, without permitting heat or cold, snow or rain to prevent him. His apostolic zeal and untiring care for his beloved flock made all labor and hardship easy to him. The most splendid proof of this solicitude he gave in 1575, when the pestilence ravaged Milan for several months. To save his life from the terrible disease, he was begged to leave the city; but he could not be persuaded. “A good shepherd,” said he, “gives his life for his sheep.” Hence he remained, and he assigned priests for every street, that no one might die without the holy Sacraments. He himself went into the houses of those stricken down, especially into those of the poor, heard their confession, administered the holy Sacraments to them and attended to their bodily comfort. The number of poor, who came to him from other places for aid, was so great, that for want of money, he divided among them the provisions which had been stored away for his own use. He also sold his plate and the furniture of his house, and gave the money to the needy. The hangings of the walls, the curtains of the windows, and even his own clothes were not spared: everything was given away to assist the poor. His own bed was carried into the hospital, and he took his short rest on some hard boards. These were surely proofs of his great love for his neighbor. Further, the holy Cardinal ordered several penitential processions to avert the anger of God. He himself appeared in them, barefoot, with a rope around his neck and a heavy cross on his shoulders. He offered to the Almighty his own life, ready and willing to die for his sheep. After the pestilence had disappeared, he gave due thanks to the Almighty, and enjoined upon all to do the same. When some one justly praised his zeal, he said: “I have only fulfilled the duties of a true shepherd towards his sheep.” We should fill many pages were we to attempt to describe the devotion and virtues of this holy man. He possessed in an eminent degree the spirit of prayer, and employed several hours of the day and of the night in contemplation. At the time of the “Forty hours' devotion,” he more than once remained in church from early morning until evening. He fasted almost daily, and in the last years of his life, on water and bread. During the 40 days' fast, he even abstained from bread, and ate only a few figs. He always wore a rough hair-shirt, and scourged himself mercilessly. He never warmed himself at the fire during the winter, and allowed himself very little time to sleep, constantly mortifying his body. But above all, how admirable were his heroic patience and fortitude under vicissitudes, his winning gentleness, his deep humility, and his perfection in other virtues! He, however, closed early a life so fruitful in good and great deeds.

Although the Cardinal was still in his best years, he resigned himself to the will of the Almighty, when an inner voice told him that his death was near. He made a pilgrimage to Mount Varallo, where he spent 15 days in the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, under the direction of a priest of the Society of Jesus, whom he had chosen as his confessor. He cleansed his soul, which had never been stained by a mortal sin, by a general confession. Feeling that he was attacked by the disease which he knew would release him from earth, he returned to Milan where he arrived on the second day of November. On the third, he received the holy Sacraments with great devotion, and desiring to die like a penitent, he had himself laid upon haircloth strewed with ashes. Continually praying, he remained in this penitential position until the third hour after sundown, when, raising his eyes to the image of the Saviour, he gave his soul to his Maker, in the 47th year of his life. It would require a whole volume to relate all the miracles which the Almighty wrought to honor this untiring servant, as well during his life as after his death. The splendid example of his virtues is sufficient to merit our highest esteem. I will only add that the holy Cardinal, after his death, appeared to one of his friends, radiant with heavenly glory, and said: “l am happy.”

Taken from: The Liturgical Year - Time after Pentecost, Vol. VI, Edition 1903;
The Lives of the Saints, Rev. F.X. Weninger D.D., S.J. Vol. II, Permissu Superiorum, 1876; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume II, 1806.


November 4, 2020: Ss. Vitalis and Agricola, Martyrs.


St. Charles of Borromeo, pray for us.