In Times Like These, Reform is Still Possible. A Meditation on the Life of St. Charles Borromeo

There is perhaps a tendency for some of us today to feel discouraged over the state of the world, and the Church. It may surprise us, that there have been times in the Church and in Western culture when things were possibly worse. The exact mix of troubles may have been different, but troubles, deep troubles they still were.

I have spent some of today, Sunday, November 4, meditating on the life of my patron saint, St. Charles Borromeo. Today is his feast day, and thus mine as well. And the times in which he lived were not so different from today. And the leadership he exemplified is also what is needed today. I pray that in some small way, I may be like him.

He was born in 1538. These were turbulent times for the Church which was in the midst of perhaps her greatest crisis. Martin Luther had begun his revolt some 15 years earlier when, in 1522, he published his “95 Theses.” In the aftermath of the Protestant revolt, some 12 million Europeans, a large number for those days, left the Church. More would follow in successive waves.

The medieval Church was breaking up and suffering schism. Indeed, the whole medieval synthesis of Christendom was in turmoil, hopelessly intertwined with politics and intrigue, both within the Church and outside.

Indeed, the clergy especially, were in great crisis and 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 a kind of “stock portfolio” rather than out of any spiritual love or interest. It was common that these benefices were given to the sons of these families, who all although ordained a priests, seldom served as such, and farmed out the pastoral duties of their many parishes and even dioceses, to often poorly trained, priests. Knowledge of Latin, Scripture, indeed of the Lord himself, was notably absent in many of them of these clergy for hire. Preaching was poor, the moral life of the clergy was degraded and the faithful had little leadership.

It is no wonder that Luther and other so-called reformers were so easily able, in this climate, to attract large numbers of the laity, who were not only poorly served, but also poorly catechized.

Trent – Recognizing how critical the problem of the revolts among Luther and others was, and recognizing her own need for internal reform, the Church had summoned the Council of Trent, which met sporadically between 1545 and 1563.

Into this period of crisis for both Europe and the Church, St. Charles Borromeo was born and raised. He was born of a noble family in Milan, the third of six children. His parents were notably pious and well-known for their care for the poor. Their sober and religious demeanor goes a long way to explain the piety and appetite for reform that St. Charles would later develop.

Reform Starts at home – All that said, the Borromeo family, being wealthy and prominent were well woven in to the difficulties and problems of the late medieval Church, themselves owning large numbers of ecclesiastical benefices. At a very young age Charles Borromeo was given, outright by his uncle, Givlio Borromeo, a large and wealthy Benedictine Abbey. At the tender age of 12 years of age, Charles Borromeo found himself to be the “abbot” of a large monastery. Of course, he was not even an ordained priest, and this fact, coupled with his age, shows the serious abuses that were common in time.

Despite this, St. Charles showed already some inclination for reform by indicating that his income from the Abbey should be only enough to support his education, and that the large and ample remainder should be given to the poor. Further, despite his young age, he promoted reform at the monastery by insisting on a return to a purer monastic environment.

At age 16 he was sent to Pavia to study Canon Law. And though he found his studies difficult, he was noted again for his piety, his refusal to give way to the frivolities of university life, his devotion to the rosary, and to private prayer. Of some significance, is the fact that he dismissed two of his tutors, both of them priests, since he considered them to secular, lax in saying their office, and he objected to the fact that they did not wear clerical attire, but dressed as laymen.

Papal Secretary of State at age 22! Just after completing his studies, Pope Pius IV was elected. The new Pope was Charles uncle, and bestowing benefits upon his family, summoned Charles to Rome to be his Secretary of State. It is perhaps ironic then, that Charles Borromeo was made a Secretary of State, and named a cardinal, all technically under the auspices of the abuse of nepotism, but he would emerge to be one of the leading figures of Church reform.

At age 22 and not even a priest (only a sub-deacon), Charles Borromeo became the Secretary of State at the Vatican, personal assistant to the Pope and was named a cardinal deacon

Perhaps his chief work was, under the direction of Pope Pius IV, to reconvene the Council of Trent which had been suspended due to war. After many months of difficult negotiations and the overcoming of political intrigue, the Council reconvened in 1561. Charles Borromeo serve not only to coordinate 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 among certain Council delegates. Things finally wrapped up in December of 1563, just prior to the death of Pope Pius IV.

The importance of the Council of Trent cannot be stressed enough. Its decrees rejuvenated the huge and complex medieval Church, and would serve as a guiding light for the next four centuries. But then, as now, the decrees of a Council are not always welcome, understood or well applied. Thus the work of Borromeo was just beginning.

Setting to work in applying the decrees of the Council, St. Charles lost no time in applying the decrees of the Council, wherever his authority extended. The decrees of the Council having been promulgated, he communicated them to the world’s dioceses.

The next step was for Cardinal Borromeo 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 faithfully translated into the vernacular in order that it be taught by all pastors to the faithful. He also set to work founding seminaries and colleges for the study of the clergy, who were woefully trained at the time.

He was also involved in implementing liturgical norms, and even took a hand at the reform of church music, encouraging the development of sacred polyphony which was emerging at that time. It needed a guiding hand to ensure that did not become too florid and that the sacred text did not become buried in musical flourish and performance. In this matter, he worked closely with Palestrina.

Time to get personal – Having used his Roman position of influence to help implement the Council, he now petitioned Pope Pius V that he might implement the Council in his own life. For, truth be told, that although Pius IV had named him Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, he had been an absentee bishop, remaining in Rome as papal Secretary of State.

This was a common abuse at the time, as already noted. In fact it was rare in the larger cosmopolitan dioceses that the actual Bishop would be present at all. These larger dioceses were usually benefices for rich families whose sons merely collected the monies did not actually serve in any pastoral capacity, as the actual Bishop. Dioceses were thus administered by underlings.

It does not take much to understand that abuses flourished under this system. With no actual resident Bishop, no true shepherd in place, errors went unaddressed, and corruption abounded.

After some months of negotiations and resistance from the new Pope Pius V, St. Charles was finally permitted to go and 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, set up seminaries for the training of clergy, insisted on clerical reform, and that priests be present in, and ministering 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 up in the remote Alpine regions.

As is not hard to imagine, not everyone appreciated the reforms he sought to institute. Some of his 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. Yet despite some resistance, St. Charles began many successful reforms in the Church at Milan, reforms centered on the liturgy, the life, training and discipline of the clergy, and the training of the faithful in the ways of faith.

As can be seen, St. Charles lived in difficult times for the Church. Millions had left, and corruption abounded. Many would have despaired in the face of so many deep problems. Indeed, many would wonder if and how the Church could ever recover such losses in numbers and recover her capacity to preach the gospel, and reach the faithful.

And yet, as the example of St. Charles shows, reformers can and do make a lasting difference. Changes for the better may come slowly, but they do come.

Pray for zealous pastors, and reformers like St. Charles Borromeo. For today, it goes without saying, that the Church is in a great crisis. Many millions have left, confusion among the faithful and the clergy abound, many of the faithful are poorly catechized, and there are often grave moral, spiritual and leadership issues among the clergy. It may at times seem bad, very bad.

Yet, things are already better now, inside the Church, than they were in the late 70s and 80s. The reform minded Pope John Paul II, and his successor Pope Benedict XVI, along with many zealous clergy and faithful, have begun a reform that may take many years to fully see. But God has not forsaken his Church and he will both purify her and ensure her ultimate indefectability.

God still has his saints, his reformers, his St. Charles Borromeo’s. Many of them are already known to us, and many more are yet to come. But come they will, for God will reform, establish, and cause to flourish the Church which he loves.

St. Charles Borromeo died in the early hours of November 4th 1584. He had been on his way to visit a parish in the Alps and was stricken with a high fever. He was 46 years old. I have written more of him here: St Charles Borromeo

St. Charles Borromeo pray for us.

8 Replies to “In Times Like These, Reform is Still Possible. A Meditation on the Life of St. Charles Borromeo”

  1. I always enjoy reading your little insights, especially things like this. I too believe that things will get better for the Church in the future, in fact, in my own small corner they already are. I’m seeing a new fervor not just amongst my fellow FSSP Latin Mass circle but amongst priests and laity that only attend the New Rite as well. Many Catholics are hungry for the truths of the Faith that they are just now discovering. These are in many ways exciting times. I will pray that St. Charles may be a guide not just for you but for us all, for the whole Catholic Church.

  2. I know it’s not funny, but I started to laugh at the part where the monk shot St. Charles during Vespers. It’s kind of how I feel when someone professes to be a Catholic yet votes for a president who’d allow a newborn infant to die because it was originally meant to be aborted yet survived. It’s so obviously ridiculous and sad that I had to laugh this time.

    Thank you Msgr. Pope for all you do.

  3. “But come they will, for God will reform, establish, and cause to flourish the Church which he loves.”–Monsignor Charles Pope.

    I thought it was neat that you used the word “reform” with respect to the Catholic Church. Making it difficult to us the word “reform” with respect to the Church may have been the greatest damage that the Protestant Reformation did to the Church.

    St. Charles Borromeo pray for us.

  4. M+ St. Charles, when he took over the his Episcopal palace, sold his own bed. When a disease spread among the people of Milan he carried the Blessed Sacrament in procession throughout the city. Hence, the origin of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
    Loved to play chess….”Chess is for strategic minds.,” he said.

  5. Bravo, Msgr. Pope! As the former pastor of St. Charles Borromeo in Toledo, I did some research on your patron saint. His first fight was against his own speech impediment, which led teachers and fellow students to label him as a stupid person. In essence, he did his own speech therapy! He was not one of the original thinkers who proposed the great insights of the Council of Trent, but he had the vision of where the Council needed to go, and he kept everyone on track, in spite of the divisions among the various national groups. He also evangelized by personally shepherding the Archdiocese of Milan, and not working through a substitute – very much bucking the trend in the ecclesiastical culture of the day. He was not beloved by his priests, at least not until they had a clear vision of where he was leading his archdiocese. When it comes to reform of the Church preceded by reform of oneself, and putting hope in God even when the obstacles seem insurmountable, he truly is a saint for today. And BTW – his favorite forms of recreation were horseback riding, hunting, and playing the cello.

  6. His life is truly amazing. Milan had no resident Bishop for more than 50 years prior to Charles taking up residence. I have no excuse for my lack of holiness. His life is the perfect example for all Christians. Put your faith into action.

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