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Charles Borromeo: Hero of Reform

by Fr. Charles Dollen


Charles Borromeo, by accepting the realities of his time, could urge the Fathers to come to grasp with the vital matters of their age and seek solutions which would revivify the Catholic spirit. From a Church which was alert to the dangers of its times, and reformed in practice and discipline, he could hope for, and work for, positive progress.

Larger Work

The Homiletic and Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, April, 1962

With interest mounting in the coming ecumenical council, it can be profitable to study the history of former councils and to learn from them how to increase the effectiveness of our present effort. In critical times the Church has always drawn up its strength and plunged fearlessly ahead.

Until the Council of Trent, internal doctrinal matters engaged the interest of the council members, generating, at times, almost as much heat as light. We find it difficult to understand the emotions that were aroused by the homoöusion of Nicea, the Theotokos of Ephesus, or the filioque controversy that troubled several generations. The matters that engaged these earlier councils were, for the most part, symptoms of great crises that threatened the Church from within.


The Council of Trent, however, faced the decided and definite fact of a hopelessly divided Christendom, beside which the inroads of Islam or the tragedy of schism seemed almost minor. At first, the theologians and thinkers who remained loyal to the Church could not believe the sincerity of the proponents of the new doctrines. They were dismissed with a term still used in Catholic theology: innovatores.

The cry for reform within the Church had been swelling throughout the Middle Ages, from the German mystics to the humanists, from Chaucer, Dante, Erasmus and St. Thomas More. It was one thing to demand that the human element in the Church be reformed, but it was quite another to imagine that divinely guaranteed doctrines could be reformed!

Reform will always be needed within the Church as long as there exist human beings to make up Catholicism. This is a mark of the vitality of the Mystical Body of Christ. But, in the early sixteenth century, it was difficult to face the fact that some people seriously intended to carry this reforming spirit into the realm of dogma.

The Council of Trent, just four hundred years ago, was the turning-point of the counter-Reformation. The Fathers of the Council had finally awakened to the terrible realization that the so-called Reformers would stop at nothing short of a new Christianity, something never before encountered in the history of the Church.

It wasn't until forty years after the Lutheran uprising that bishops and rulers grasped the seriousness of what had happened. It was not until the pontificate of Plus IV that any concerted action could be taken. The final great sessions of the Council of Trent, ending in 1563, charted a true reformation and set the stage for the dynamic purification of Catholic life. The hero of this reform was St. Charles Borromeo.

As we look forward to another general council, we must realize that the need exists for other true reformers to appear in the spirit of St. Charles and carry out the decrees of the Second Vatican Council.

This ecumenical council comes at as critical a turning point in history as did the Council of Trent. In the sixteenth century Europe was torn between two irreconcilable forces; in the twentieth century the whole world is torn between the forces of Communism and the forces of freedom, with all the moral consequences involved in such a struggle. All the spiritual forces of the Church must be marshalled to meet and defeat the enemy and to lead mankind to a new world where justice and charity will reign. This was the challenge that St. Charles Borromeo met. He thrilled to it and was inspired by it. In this spirit, it is the challenge which will face us when the Second Vatican Council is finished.


On the surface, Charles Borromeo was no hero to reform. He was a late Renaissance man, a creature of his time, with all the contradictions of early piety and adolescent worldliness. Fortunately, one of his closest friends, Charles Bascape, has left us a lengthy book detailing the interior life of St. Charles and relating the work of true reform which has given him so important a place in history.

Charles Bascape, Barnabite Father, was a zealous aide to St. Charles Borromeo in the delicate tasks of the counter-Reformation in northern Italy. He was entrusted with many diplomatic duties, not the least of which was being smuggled out of Milan as a servant, so that he could take a confidential letter from the Archbishop to the Emperor in Madrid.

When Cardinal Charles Borromeo died in 1584, Father Bascape began gathering material for a biography. In 1592 he published the work and dedicated it to Duke William of Bavaria, who was zealously attempting to promote the counter-Reformation in his lands. Meanwhile, devotion to the Cardinal was growing among the people of Milan, and the fame of his success in applying the Tridentine decrees was spreading throughout Europe.

In 1595, Frederick Cardinal Borromeo was named to the See of Milan, and he determined to press for the canonization of his Uncle Charles. He ordered the Acts of the Church of Milan collected for the years in which St. Charles had ruled, and in 1603 they were published in Brescia. The title page is typical of the sixteenth century in its flowery formality, telling the reader that the acts of Charles Borromeo, Cardinal Priest of St. Praxedes, have been "diligently collected" and that the "life of Blessed Charles, composed by Bishop Bascape" has been added.1


The biography of St. Charles consists of 230 pages of elegant classical Latin prose in close double columns. There is no paragraphing, and only a two space indentation at chapter headings. Archbishop Orsenigo, in his Life of St. Charles Borromeo (Herder, 1943), calls Bascape's book "one of the accurate biographies." It has the authenticity of an eye-witness account and combines the warmth of friendship with the objectivity of scholarship.

Bishop Bascape wastes little time on background material, and in the first three chapters of Book One he proceeds from Charles' parents to his birth, his benefices, and his creation as Cardinal and Archbishop of Milan by his maternal uncle, Pope Pius IV.

St. Charles was only twenty-one years old when his uncle, Angelo Cardinal Medici, was elected to the papacy. The popular image of the Medici family is one of Renaissance splendor, power, and worldliness. All of this is true, but Bascape adds another dimension to the picture when he describes Margaret Medici Borromeo, sister to Pope Pius IV and mother of a saint.

As the mother of eight children (Charles was the fourth), she dedicated herself to the training of her family. She was a woman of deep liturgical piety, joining her husband, Count Gilbert II, in daily attendance at the canonical hours. Bascape gives us the picture of a real Catholic mother, and he implies that this would be expected from any member of the Medici clan.

Count Gilbert II Borromeo was a strong ruler of his lands, but not anxious for publicity or popularity. According to Bishop Bascape, he was interested in practical works of Christian charity, and, unusual for his time, a weekly communicant. These things may explain in part the later dedication that Charles Borromeo had for the needs of the Church, his love of the poor, his laws on Christian education, and (seemingly well before his time) his insistence on frequent Holy Communion.

St. Charles received his doctorate in both laws at Pavia in December, 1559, only a few weeks before the election of Pius IV. The new Pope summoned him to Rome and within six weeks had named him first a Prothonotary, and then created him a Cardinal. His older brother, Frederick, had already been named Captain of the Holy Roman Church, actually, General of the Papal Army.

So far, all of this corresponds to patterns that are familiar enough for Renaissance times. Even a saint must be forgiven if he is twenty-one, fresh from the University, nephew to the Pope, well-connected, if the material splendor and the multitude of honors turns his head. During the first few months in Rome, St. Charles seemed determined to live up to the title "Cardinal Nephew." His parties were the most brilliant of the season, his companions the most colorful. The conversation of the salon, music, chess, the games—these seemed to fill his days.

Then his uncle began to give him serious tasks, and Charles rose to them manfully. He was named to the post which we now call Cardinal Secretary of State (one of the first ever to hold such a position). Charles gathered about him a serious group of young men to form an Academy, a discussion group, to study the needs of the Church in its time of crisis. Friendships were formed which would later spread the reforms of Trent across Europe for the rest of the century. The future Pope Gregory XIII was a member of the circle. Finally, St. Charles determined to take major orders.


The death of his brother Frederick seems to have been the turning-point in Charles's personal life. He prepared himself seriously for the priesthood and the episcopacy, and, after making the Spiritual Exercises, he was ordained, and celebrated his first Mass on the Feast of the Assumption, 1563.

The Pope had determined to reopen and finish the work of the Council of Trent. He made the young cardinal his right-hand man in this work, and Bishop Bascape repeatedly emphasizes the diligence with which St. Charles took up the task. He put forth a tremendous amount of labor in almost daily correspondence between Rome and Trent. He studied every issue exhaustively and consulted every learned and saintly authority he could contact. He made great use of the intellectuals gathered about him in his Academy. To William Sirletto, the Cardinal Librarian, St. Charles turned for advice in the most difficult negotiations.2

Yet, Charles seemed to realize that he must work out his salvation in the execution of the Tridentine decrees, partly by word, but mostly by example. Having labored so earnestly for the completion of the Council of Trent, when it was finished in late 1563 Charles understood that the decrees must be vigorously put to use. Like another Hildebrand, he plunged into the work of reform.

The earlier sessions of the Council of Trent had taken up dogmatic matters and only touched on reforms of discipline and morals. The earnest, youthful group around Borromeo had pushed for full, practical reform in discipline and practice in the closing sessions of the Council. These the Council adopted and promulgated. From the understanding of these reforms which St. Charles took back with him to Milan, we can see why there was no hesitation in tackling even the most difficult questions. He was determined to make Milan the living proof for every bishop in Europe that the reform could succeed.

For St. Charles could hardly wait to go to Milan and take up residence. The residence of bishops in their sees had been a crying need for many generations. The Fathers at Trent, as well as St. Charles and his friends, realized that this was an essential step if the Church was to become again a vital force among the people.

With difficulty, St. Charles prevailed on the Pope to allow him to return to Milan and call a provincial council to promulgate the Tridentine reforms. Shortly after the end of this council, Charles was summoned back to Rome, and, when Pius IV died during this visit, Charles stayed only long enough to participate in the election of Pope St. Pius V. Then again he hastened back to Milan to begin the first round of pastoral visitations which was to set the pattern for the last nineteen years of his life.


Before starting on his first diocesan visitation, St. Charles promulgated the Tridentine decrees to the religious of the archdiocese, particularly stressing the laws of the cloister. Upon his return to the see city, the troubles with the Humiliati congregation began, which was to culminate with an attempt on his life some years later.

After making this first visitation, he called another provincial synod to meet with his suffragans, and a diocesan synod to meet with his own clergy. To both he gave the benefit of his observations for the strengthening of parochial life. Borromeo was not concerned merely with discipline; he wanted the suffragan bishops and the parish priests to be saintly shepherds. Even as he tried to give them the example in his own life, he expected them to give good example to their people. He felt strongly that the spiritual health of the individual parish was the key to the spiritual well-being of the whole province.

Throughout the busy years as Archbishop of Milan, Charles Borromeo was constantly called upon by popes and civil rulers to conduct delicate diplomatic maneuvers. Obviously he had a natural ability to perform the tasks which his uncle had set upon his shoulders at a very young age. He was connected by birth, family ties, and friendship with most of the powerful families of Italy. He used these connections often for the good of the Church. This was particularly true of his work to help in the Catholic cantons of Switzerland.

Turning his mind specifically to his flock, Charles took a strict, uncompromising and public stand on the popular vices of the day. As usual, his positive approach to curing bad situations was to single out causes and try to apply the remedies there. More often than not, there were Tridentine decrees that he could apply in these cases, and, since he had worked on these in detail, he knew even the spirit behind the decrees.


He was very interested in all levels of education, from the simple catechism to the convent school, to higher education. His rules and regulations, as shown in the Acts of the Church of Milan, were very detailed. Particularly in the schools he urged frequent Holy Communion and the daily recitation of the rosary.

Gregory XIII was elected in 1572, and immediately he sought out the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan to make him a part of the curial family. He had been associated with Borromeo in the Academy gatherings of ten years previous. Bishop Bascape quotes in full the beautiful letter that St. Charles wrote to him, asking to be excused from the office of Grand Penitentiary and begging leave to return to Milan. Gregory acceded to his wishes.

The last twelve years of St. Charles' life are an incredible round of provincial and diocesan councils, pastoral visitations, and preaching. No detail of diocesan concern for souls escaped the interest of this Saint. He drew up practical rules for the training of diocesan priests in the seminaries called for by the Council of Trent. He had a special love for, and interest in, the religious in his diocese, especially the Franciscans, since he was their Cardinal Protector. The Conventual Franciscans gave him a great deal of help in his work.

He promulgated diocesan rules for preaching in the parishes, the observance of Lent, the promotion of catechetical teaching, the transferring of relics, the care of the sick and the dying. His pastoral solicitude during the plagues is well known.

The Roman Catechism, upon which St. Charles had worked, was promulgated for the archdiocese, and even the seminarians were expected to know it thoroughly for effective teaching.

The practical mind of the Saint is evidenced in his concern that decrees, once enacted, should be enforced. His work of following up the reforms is undoubtedly what made his work so successful, humanly speaking. He established a separate congregation, the Oblates of St. Ambrose, to take care of the follow-up work.

To increase the effectiveness of reform and to preserve the effects, St. Charles drew up detailed administrative rules. Deans and vicars; tribunals; schedules for visitations; examinations; faculties and census rules—all were carefully spelled out. No one could be in doubt as to the Archbishop's mind!


With all this emphasis on active works, it is important to understand something of the interior spiritual life of St. Charles. His piety was first and foremost a liturgical piety, coming from the Mass, the sacraments, and the canonical hours. This heritage, which he had from his youth, he worked to share with his people. He was strongly attracted to the Passion of Christ, devotion to the Blessed Mother, and a deep veneration for the relics of the saints.

In the midst of incredible activity, he kept a contemplative spirit fully developed. He did everything possible to promote the Cistercian and Carthusian monasteries in his archdiocese, and he frequently made retreats with them. The strict penances he imposed upon himself were never forced on others, with one exception. He was uncompromising in his insistence on the observance of Lent, even appealing to the civil authority to help him enforce this. He encouraged pilgrimages, particularly to the Holy Shroud of Turin and to every Marian shrine within a reasonable distance.

His interests took him into contact with the notable Catholic reformers of his day, and sometimes into conflict with some of them, in the manner of effecting reform. The names that run through his biography are a litany of the great Catholics of his century. Reginald Cardinal Pole, St. Philip Neri, St. Andrew Avellino, Cardinal Baronius, Bartholomew of the Martyrs, Ormaneto, Sirletto, and Marco Vido are but a few of the important figures connected with him.

A picture of St. John Fisher, martyred Bishop of Rochester, England, was kept by St. Charles in his private chapel, along with his favorite picture of St. Ambrose.

Bascape takes the entire seventh book and spends forty-three rather short chapters to detail different facets of the works and personality of St. Charles. These range from his many educational foundations to his efforts to assure adequate financial support for his clergy, from his devotion to the Holy See to his treatment of his enemies.

We can be grateful to Charles Bascape, Barnabite, for giving so intimate a picture of St. Charles Borromeo. Everything is related to the interior life of St. Charles by this man who enjoyed his confidence and who was constantly in his employ over many of the most eventful years. And it is particularly about those years that Bascape writes. What he does not know by personal experience he does not write down, except to give commonly accepted highlights.

It is not surprising that Cardinal Frederick Borromeo would have chosen this biography to use in promoting his uncle's canonization. Cardinal Frederick was a remarkable man in his own right, and, as second in succession to St. Charles in the See of Milan, he carried on the Saint's work diligently. Probably the only reason that history has not paid so much attention to him is that the scene of major events was shifting to the New World and to northern Europe. Frederick Cardinal Borromeo founded the Ambrosian Library which has become a treasure house of source documents and research scholarship.


In 1562 and 1563 the final and most effective work of the Council of Trent was done. Now, looking forward to the 400th anniversary of these sessions, we are also looking forward to the opening of another Council. The spirit of St. Charles Borromeo can be profitable to us, even though we live in a world he couldn't even imagine.

By the 1560's any hope of corporate reunion between Protestant and Catholic bodies was past, and the Conciliar Fathers settled down to the vital matters which concerned the preservation and promotion of Catholic living in a divided world. Now, much as we hope to see the end of division in Christendom, prudent Catholic leaders warn us not to expect too much—maybe only the beginning of the end of division.

Charles Borromeo, by accepting the realities of his time, could urge the Fathers to come to grasp with the vital matters of their age and seek solutions which would revivify the Catholic spirit. From a Church which was alert to the dangers of its times, and reformed in practice and discipline, he could hope for, and work for, positive progress.

Aware as he was of the dangers to his flock, the approach of St. Charles was always positive. He spent very little time being "against" Protestantism. He was "for" his Catholic Faith in every way. His zeal was never negative. He wanted to bring the Church into every aspect of life as it was lived in his era. Most of the reforms he introduced into Milan must have been as startling to his people as, say, married deacons might be to us.

In common with most of the truly Catholic ages before him (and since), Charles started with the divinely revealed truths and a vital, liturgical piety. With that for a basis, he did not hesitate to form the externals of the Milanese Church into an effective instrument that could, and did, bring Christ into the lives of the people.

Pope John XXIII, a great authority on St. Charles, has sounded the call for another Council to face the challenge of bringing Christ into our world. St. Charles has shown us that lasting results are obtainable, but that the methods must be brought into conformity with contemporary problems.

The Saint would have enjoyed this challenge immensely, and he would have been proud to see his beloved Church, not in need of reform, thank God, but dynamically searching for new ways of increasing its effectiveness. The approach he used four hundred years ago still has validity: positive action; practical action; a willingness to go right into the heart of vital matters.

Since we are sure of the guiding power of the Holy Spirit, we can go fearlessly forward no matter how startling the "cures" might be for a world staggering under the weight of Communism, Materialism, Welfareism, and a divided Christendom.

1. Father Bascape had been elected superior general of the Clerks Regular of St. Paul (Barnabites) and later became the Bishop of Novara, where he instituted the reforms begun by St. Charles.

2. Pope Pius XI attributed a major share in the policy making at Trent to William Cardinal Sirletto who taught and guided the youthful Cardinal Borromeo (Essays in History, Kenedy, 1934). These essays were written by Pope Pius XI when he was director of the Ambrosian Library, at Milan.

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