In my attendance at missions, meetings, and functions, it has become clear to me that many people are hungering for clergy—especially bishops—who will uphold the faith more boldly and defend the flock against heresy and error. Too many clergy, they say, either remain silent or are vague in addressing sin; instead, when they see the wolf approaching, they neither warn the flock nor chase him away. Some seem to welcome the wolf and introduce him to the sheep! I hear many heartbreaking stories, which both pain and anger me. As I go before the Lord, I add the concerns of God’s people to my own. I also take great comfort in turning to my patron saint, St. Charles Borromeo. His life provides both perspective and a model of what to do and how to be in times like these.
St. Charles Borromeo was born in 1538, a time when the Church was in the midst of perhaps her greatest crisis. Martin Luther had begun his revolt in 1522 with the publication of his 95 Theses. In the aftermath of the Protestant revolt, some 12 million Europeans (a huge number for those days) left the Church; more would follow in successive waves.
The once-strong medieval Church was breaking up. Indeed, the whole medieval synthesis of Christendom was in turmoil, hopelessly intertwined with politics and intrigue both within the Church and outside.
This of course sounds quite familiar to us. The Church today is deeply divided, seemingly on the verge of another great schism. The recent reemergence of a clergy sexual abuse scandal and the justifiable anger over that has now been followed by the tumultuous Amazonian Synod, which was filled with confusing and shocking images and has suggested radical changes that, if executed, may even split the Church. In December, a German Synod will begin that also promises to place a severe strain on unity—and most of this terrible disunity comes from the clergy, not God’s faithful.
The problems in St. Charles Borromeo’s day were similar. The clergy were in tremendous need of reform. It was an era of absentee bishops and clergy. Wealthy European families collected parishes, monasteries, and other benefices more as elements in their portfolio than out of any spiritual love or interest. It was common that benefices were given to the sons in these families. Although ordained as priests, they seldom served as such, instead farming out the pastoral duties of their many parishes (and even dioceses) to other priests (often poorly trained ones). Knowledge of Latin, Scripture, and indeed the Lord Himself, was noticeably absent in many of these “clergy for hire.” Preaching was poor, the moral life of the clergy was degraded, and the faithful had little leadership. In this climate it is no wonder that Luther and other so-called reformers were so easily able to attract large numbers of the laity, who were not only poorly served but poorly catechized.
Recognizing the criticality of the revolts (by Luther and others) and her own need for internal reform, the Church summoned the Council of Trent, which met sporadically between 1545 and 1563. St. Charles Borromeo play a crucial role during the Council and in its aftermath.
Perhaps his chief work (as the Papal Secretary of State under the direction of Pope Pius IV) was to reconvene the Council of Trent, which had been suspended due to war. After many months of negotiation and political intrigue, the Council reconvened in 1561. Charles Borromeo not only coordinated the activities of the Council sessions but also engaged in many delicate negotiations as the Pope’s personal representative. He had to work carefully to overcome the differences between certain delegates. The Council of Trent finally concluded in December of 1563, just prior to the death of Pope Pius IV.
The importance of the Council of Trent cannot be overstated. Its decrees rejuvenated the huge and complex medieval Church and would serve as a guiding light for the next four centuries. Then, as now, the decrees of a council were not always welcomed, understood, or well applied. The work of Charles Borromeo was just beginning.
St. Charles lost no time in applying the decrees of the Council wherever his authority extended.
Cardinal Borromeo’s next step was to have a catechism written and published. He appointed three Dominican theologians to work under his supervision, and the Catechism of the Council of Trent was completed within a year. He then ordered it translated into the vernacular in order that it be taught to the faithful by all pastors. Charles also set to work founding seminaries and colleges for the clergy, who were woefully undertrained.
St. Charles was also involved in implementing liturgical norms, even taking a hand at reforming the music by encouraging the development of sacred polyphony. It needed a guiding hand to ensure that the music did not become too florid, eclipsing the sacred. In this matter he worked closely with Palestrina.
Having used his position of influence in Rome to help implement the Council, St. Charles Borromeo then petitioned Pope Pius V that he might implement it in his own life, for although the Pope had named him Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, he had been an absentee bishop, remaining in Rome as papal Secretary of State. Such absenteeism was common at the time; in fact, it was rare in the larger cosmopolitan dioceses that the bishop would be present at all. These larger dioceses were usually benefices for rich families whose sons merely collected the income and did not actually serve in any pastoral capacity. Dioceses were usually administered by underlings.
It does not take much to understand why abuses flourished under this system. With no resident bishop, no true shepherd in place, errors went unaddressed and corruption abounded.
After some months of negotiation with the new pope, Pius V (who was resistant to the idea), St. Charles was finally permitted to take up residence in his diocese of Milan. He went with great eagerness to implement the reforms of the Council of Trent. He called several local councils of the Church there and set up seminaries for the training of clergy. Charles insisted that priests be present in, and minister to, their own parishes. He also established the Confraternity for Christian Doctrine (CCD) for the training of children in the faith, enrolling some 40,000 children in the first few years. He set about visiting every parish in his archdiocese, even the small ones in the remote alpine regions.
Not everyone appreciated the reforms Charles sought to institute. Some of the greatest resistance came from his own clergy and monks, one of whom pulled out a gun and shot him at Vespers (luckily, the bullet only grazed him)! Despite the resistance, St. Charles began many successful reforms in the Church at Milan. These reforms centered on the liturgy; the life, training, and discipline of the clergy; and the training of the laity in the ways of faith.
As I observe our difficult state today, I turn to St. Charles Borromeo, who lived in similar times. His example inspires my own desire to teach the faith with zeal and to bring the faithful a word of instruction. I do not have the power of a bishop, but I try to the best of my ability to give clear instruction, drawing the faithful more fully to the Lord. I also try to reach as many others as I can through my writing.
Above all, I ask St. Charles’ intercession to inspire in me and all clergy a great and joyful zeal for the Lord and the faith. I pray he will also inspire bishops to imitate his example. St. Charles Borromeo offered his life sacrificially and endured many trials to preach the faith and to visit the faithful. He courageously ministered to the sick during a plague and worked tirelessly to promote liturgical excellence.
All of these vigorous efforts took a toll on his health and St. Charles Borromeo died at the age of 46, in the early hours of November 4, 1584. He had been on his way to visit a parish in the Alps and was stricken with a high fever.
I ask you, Lord Jesus, to inspire bishops and priests through the example of St. Charles Borromeo. Remove whatever fear or sloth keeps so many of us sinfully silent and strangely uninvolved while the culture and the Church collapse around us. May bishops attend carefully to the formation of priests and give them good example through clear teaching and heroic witness to the truth of the Faith. May priests and deacons, too, have a tender care for their people and a zeal to drive away, through preaching and teaching, the wolves of error, dissent, deceit, and half-truth. May we all celebrate the sacraments with devotion, respect for norms, and sacrificial love for our people.
St. Charles Borromeo, pray for us. We need a lot of help right now! As you well know, we clergy can be a stubborn lot; frightened, too, and anxious about things we should not be (e.g., position and rank). Intercede for us. Ask a miracle of God that, as individuals and as a group, we can become more courageous, more zealous for God’s Kingdom, and more willing to endure suffering and even martyrdom to announce God’s truth and bring the sacraments to His faithful. Yes, St. Charles, pray for us! We need your prayer and example more than ever. Amen.
I have written more about St. Charles Borromeo here.