Feast Day: November 04
Charles Barromeo was one of the most important figures of the Catholic Reformation. He was born to a noble family, Count Gilbert Borromeo and Margaret de Medici, the sister of Pope Pius IV. The castle of his family was called Arona and was located on Lake Maggiore, in Italy. At the age of twelve, Charles was sent to the Benedictines at Arona for his education, having received the clerical tonsure. He studied in Milan and Paris, receiving his doctorate in civil and canon law in 1559.
Under the patronage of his uncle, Pope Pius IV, Charles rose rapidly, becoming administrator and then bishop of Milan, then cardinal. Charles urged the Pope to reconvene the Council of Trent, which had been suspended in 1552. Charles played a leading role in the council, directing the writing of decrees and taking part in its deliberations.
Charles was determined to re-establish the Catholic faith as a dignified central force in contemporary society. In the face of the Protestant challenge, Charles energetically dedicated himself to implementing the reforms promulgated at the Council of Trent, reorganizing the structure of his diocese, founding seminaries and schools, and imposing strict discipline on his priests. His actions were not unopposed, and he survived an assassination attempt by a lay confraternity. He founded a society of diocesan priests in 1578, the Oblates of St. Ambrose (now the Society of St. Ambrose and St. Charles, or the Ambrosians), to enforce his reforms. Once in an address to this group of priests, Charles revealed his heartfelt concern for souls that motivated his lifelong service:
“Oh! If we could only understand what it means to deliver a soul from hell, I’m sure that many of you would risk any danger in the hope of saving even one person. How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace. No wonder that the holy virgin, Catherine of Sienna, kissed the ground where preachers had walked because they were fellow-workers with Christ. Nothing pleases God more than to be his Son’s helpers and to undertake the charge of saving souls. Nothing brings more joy to the church than those who restore souls to spiritual life, thus despoiling hell, defeating the devil, casting out sin, opening heaven, making the angels glad, glorifying the most holy Trinity and preparing for themselves a never-fading crown.”
Despite his aristocratic background and wealth, Charles gave most of his money away. He lived frugally and worked actively for his congregation during the plague of 1576. He fed thousands of men, women, and children every day during the outbreak and mobilized resources to aid Milan during the plague. The clergy and religious joined him as he went through the streets; caring for the stricken (the local government officials had fled the city). For almost a year, Charles cared for plague victims, going into debt to buy the necessities for the suffering. A vision informed him of the plague’s end.
Charles Borromeo literally wore himself out working for the Catholic Church reform. He died of a recurring fever at the age of forty-six. Support for his canonization was immediate, and by 1613 his feast had been added to the General Roman Calendar. His tomb is in Milan Cathedral. Saint Charles Borromeo is the patron saint for care of the soul; Catholic reformers; great pastors, meekness, and mercy.
Bunson, Matthew, Margaret Bunson, and Stephen Bunson. “Encyclopedia of Saints-Revised.” Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2003.
Ghezzi, Bert. “Voices of the Saints.” Chicago: Loyola Press, 2000.
Heritage, Andrew, ed. “The Book of Saints: A Day-By Illustrated Encyclopedia.” San Francisco: Weldonowen, 2012.