Charles Borromeo: Catholic Reformer

The name of Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), a Catholic saint, is often associated with seminaries, and, indeed, the seminary in Philadelphia which was visited by Popes John Paul II and Francis is named after him. But Borromeo should be remembered not only for his work in fostering the establishment of seminaries, but also for the many other things he accomplished in his short life as a prominent member of the Catholic Counter Reformation, along with such saints as Francis de Sales and Philip Neri.

Borromeo was born to a pious and aristocratic family with close connections to the Catholic hierarchy. His uncle became Pope Pius IV in 1559. The new pope was a Medici, as was Charles’ mother, and he named his nephew a cardinal when Borromeo was only 22 years old. Borromeo had by then completed his studies in civil and canon law at the University of Pavia, attaining a doctorate in those fields, but had not then been ordained to the priesthood. His uncle gave him many administrative responsibilities, at which he excelled, and Borromeo spent six years in Rome where his closest friend was Philip Neri. Those two future saints followed an ascetic lifestyle, and Borromeo began a lifelong practice of almsgiving. While in Rome, he also established a Carthusian monastery and a college for poor students at the University of Pavia.

At the age of 25, Borromeo employed his administrative expertise to organize the last session of the Council of Trent. That highly influential council responded to the Protestant Reformation with many new initiatives, including, among others, teachings and definitions on the Eucharist, Holy Orders, and Matrimony, the foundation of seminaries to train priests, the requirement that priests wear cassocks and reside in their dioceses, formation of a universal catechism, and revision of the Roman Missal and Divine Office.

After his service in Rome concluded, Borromeo moved to Milan, where he spent the last 18 years of his life. He served as Milan’s Archbishop and Cardinal for 20 years, and he was the first such prelate to live in that city in 80 years. He preached reform and taught the Catholic Faith all over the diocese, walking, some times in bare feet, to towns that had not experienced an apostolic visitation for hundreds of years. His reforms were not always popular, and a member of a religious order affected by those reforms shot him. When his vestments deflected the bullet, the people of Milan saw it as a miracle and gave him even greater support.

Borromeo had a great devotion to three saints, two of whom were martyrs remembered for their opposition to the kings of their time. Borromeo kept pictures of  the martyred Thomas Becket and John Fisher in his residence, and also had a great devotion to Saint Ambrose. He also supported the reform orders, including the Franciscans and Carmelites, and served as visitor of those orders and of the Knights of Malta, a lay religious order devoted to defending the Catholic Faith and serving the sick and the poor.

He was in contact with other lights of the Catholic Counter Reformation, and the future English martyr and saint Edmund Campion visited Borromeo in Rome for eight days before he returned to England.

As he had done from his earliest days, Borromeo spent virtually all his considerable wealth in almsgiving and care for the poor. When a plague broke out in Milan, he remained in the city through the entire two-year outbreak of bubonic plague from 1576 to 1578.

Cardinal Borromeo had a great interest in Church architecture, and composed a treatise applying the teachings of the Council of Trent to the design of churches. Among other things, he favored removal of the screen (“rood”) which blocked the congregation from the altar, replacing it with an low altar rail. He also suggested a direct line of sight from the church entrance to the tabernacle, and a high dome meant to evoke the journey to heaven in the eyes of the faithful. Borromeo also favored a separate church space for what we now call confessionals, enclosing the penitent to respect his or her privacy.

Borromeo died from a fever in 1584 at the age of 46, weakened from his continuous practice of asceticism. Evelyn Waugh described Borromeo in his later years as “living in ascetic simplicity, among the lavish retinue, eating his thin soup, sleeping on his folding bedstead, wearing his patched hair shirt, moving with halting gait, chilly even in the height of summer, speaking in a voice so subdued that it was barely audible, [and] grave and recollected as a nun.”

Borromeo was canonized in 1610 by Pope Paul V. His feast is commemorated on November 4, and he has been named patron saint of seminarians.

It is said that God raises up saints in times of crisis. The Catholic Church, in particular, needs such new saints today, to reform the church and especially to protect victims of priest abuse, including the seminarians for whom Charles Borromeo serves as patron saint.

Further Reading:

See Chapter 6 of Jerome K. Williams, True Reformers: Saints of the Catholic Reformation (Augustine Institute, 2017), on which I have relied for this post.

The quote on Borromeo’s asceticism from Evelyn Waugh appears on page 94 in his Edmund Campion: A Life (Ignatius Press, 2005), on which I have also relied.

On Borromeo and church architecture, see Elizabeth Lev’s wonderful How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art (Sophia Institute Press, 2018), at 19-22, 44-47.

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