By Fr Shane Sullivan
The 15th Century was a time of seemingly insurmountable difficulty for the Catholic Church. Peoples and nations long Catholic rejected the Faith for Lutheranism or Calvinism. Christian Europe faced its greatest external threat in centuries with the Ottoman Empire marching to the very gates of Vienna. Far more alarming, however, must have been the spiritual torpor of the Church from the papacy to the priests. Heaven’s answer to the Church’s crisis of the 15th Century was to raise up champions, men of sanctity and vision whom God would use in the great project of renewal known as the Counter-Reformation, men like Charles Borromeo.
Charles Borromeo was born in 1538 into a world of wealth and influence. His family had close ties with the monarchies of Europe and the great Italian dynasties. His uncle was Cardinal Giovanni Angelo de Medici, who was elected Pope in 1559. Colossal responsibility was thrust upon his young shoulders after his uncle was crowned Pope. Charles was named Cardinal and upon the resignation of the Archbishop of Milan was named Administrator of the See of Ambrose. He was named by his uncle, the Pope as Protector of the Kingdom of Portugal, lower Germany the Swiss Cantons and a number of religious orders, including the Franciscans. All at the age of 22.
He capably administered his responsibilities, all while maintaining a conviction that far greater things were at stake. He was particularly keen that the Council of Trent be reconvened, which had broken up unfinished in 1552. His diplomacy and influence is largely credited with the Council re-forming in 1562.
The Council of Trent
The time of the Council proved to be extremely significant in Charles’ own life. His elder brother, Federigo died in 1562, leaving Charles as head of the family. His relatives all turned to Charles and pressed him to set aside his ecclesiastical duties, marry and produce an heir. But something had changed within Charles. The death of his brother turned the attention of all around him to the welfare of the family while Charles’ attention turned towards heaven. He resisted the pressure and firmly committed himself to the Kingdom of God, undergoing ordination to the priesthood in September 1563 and consecration as a bishop in December of the same year.
After his spiritual awakening Charles applied himself to the cause of the Church with new fervour and dedication. He set himself to work at the reforms envisioned in the Council of Trent wherever he exercised any influence. His work bore tremendous fruit, arguably because he knew where to begin. The work at hand was a question of sanctity and he knew that all would be for nothing if he himself was not reformed first, and then his clergy.
The beginning of reform- himself
After the Council he returned to his diocese where he summoned the other regional bishops to whom he articulated his conviction that “we [the bishops] ought to walk in front, and our spiritual subjects will follow us more easily.” And so, with great determination he set himself to embrace the sentiments and attributes of Jesus Christ in his state of life. He gave away huge amounts of his family’s fortune, he practiced mortifications, he visited the sick and dying, he studied assiduously, and he dutifully applied himself to the care of his people and other responsibilities.
Champion of Clerical Reform
He enthusiastically applied the reforms of Trent to his diocese, beginning with the clergy and religious. This occasionally brought him into conflict with elements within both that resisted reform, sometimes violently. But he doggedly persevered, ensuring the return to strict observance of monastic rules, the faithful observance of clerical celibacy and poverty and the proper education of the clergy. By employing the fervent and most impressive Jesuits to run his seminary, relying upon priests with those same qualities as his deputies to carry out his plan and by living his own priesthood with the same spirit, Charles put new heart in his clergy and gave his people priests worthy of the name.
For the renewal of the Church and priesthood so needed in our time we turn to St. Charles Borromeo for inspiration and intercession- pray for us!