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Fr Billy Swan

Now that the Synod on Synodality is reaching its conclusion in Rome, it is likely that we will be hearing a lot more about how to be a synodal Church and what that means. As been stated many times, this development towards a more synodal Church has both possibilities and risks. One risk is misunderstanding that being a synodal Church is something new or something invented by Pope Francis. Rather it goes right back to the early Church with the Council of Jerusalem when the question arose about whether new Christians should first become Jews. There are other examples from history when great saints and leaders built a synodal Church at a time of great challenge and revival. On 4th November, the Church celebrates the feast day of one such leader who helped build a missionary Church and who can inspire us do the same today.

Charles Borromeo was born in Arona, Italy, in 1538. He was given a good education and by the time he was 21, he had degrees in both civil and canon law. Despite the possibility of a well-paid career as a lawyer, Charles sensed a call to the priesthood and was ordained in 1563, aged 25. Two years later, he was chosen to be Archbishop of Milan which was the largest archdiocese in Italy with about 3,000 priests and 800,000 people. He was a nephew of the Pope at the time - Pope Pius IV, who invited him to take part in the final stages of the Council of Trent. This detail is important for it introduced Charles to the work of a synod and when the Church gathers to discern matters of doctrine and pastoral care. For the next 21 years, Charles worked tirelessly to implement the reforms of the Council across his archdiocese, meeting with people and priests and providing the spiritual leadership required for his reforms to be successful. There are a number of hallmarks of the ministry of St Charles that are important to note.

Closeness to God’s People

In his address to the community of the Pontifical Lombard Seminary in Rome, Pope Francis spoke of St Charles: “He wanted pastors who would be servants of God and fathers to their people, especially the poor” (25th January 2016). As a servant of God and father to his people, Charles was an outstanding example of a bishop whose care for the people was tested by fire. In the 1570’s, Milan was struck by a plague that was made worse by a shortage of food that left many people malnourished and more at risk of disease. Faithful to his episcopal motto ‘Humilitatis’ or ‘Humility’, he visited and comforted the sick during the plague years of 1576 and 1577, sparing no expense of his own to care for the afflicted. During that time, a procession was held through the city of Milan to implore God’s healing. It was led by Charles who walked barefoot with a rope around his neck carrying the cathedral’s most precious relic – a nail from the true cross. Charles clearly helped his people to see how their suffering was a participation in the passion of Christ but in a way that offered them hope. His example of pastoral care, compassion and spiritual leadership made the people of Milan look upon him as one of their own and yet as their true shepherd and priest.

Teacher of the Gospel

Following the Council of Trent, Charles dedicated himself to the reform of the Church, not just structurally but spiritually. He supervised the writing of a new catechism in a language and style that made the possibility of faith more accessible and attractive. He formed a Confraternity of Christian Doctrine for catechists and might be regarded as the founder of the Sunday School model for helping people engage more meaningfully with the Gospel and to grow in faith.

With all his reforms, Charles’ great instrument was the synod. He made a pastoral visitation of the whole Archdiocese three separate times – a feat that was extraordinary given the limited means of transportation and the size of the archdiocese of Milan. He founded seminaries, built churches, schools, colleges and hospitals. He achieved all of this, not by working alone, but with other people whose respect he earned over many years. In all, he held about eleven diocesan synods as well as a number of provincial councils. These were not democratic assemblies but occasions when Charles could present to the whole diocese the findings of his journeys and visitations. They were also opportunities for him to teach the faith at which he excelled. The Reformation was a moment of profound crisis for the whole Church but for Charles, it was an opportunity to clarify what the Church believed and her reasons for doing so. He was one of the main figures of the Counter-Reformation and like others such as St Francis de Sales and St Robert Bellarmine, his approach was not defensive or polemical but evangelical and convincing. In times that were darkened by confusion and division, Charles began with reform of his own life as he embraced a life of prayer, penance and dedication to his people.

The Great Reformer

Charles courageously renewed ecclesial structures to make them fit for purpose and fit for mission. He encouraged priests, deacons and religious to believe in the strength of prayer, penance and encouraging a love of holiness. He famously said that “souls are won only on one’s knees”. His warning to priests against activism at the expense of prayer and self-care has huge relevance for priests today: “Are you in charge of a parish? If so, do not neglect the parish of your own soul, do not give yourself to others so completely that you have nothing left for yourself. You have to be mindful of your people without being forgetful of yourself” (From a Sermon by Charles Borromeo, Office of Readings, 4th November). Other great reformers were inspired by St Charles as we can be today. Pope St John XXIII deliberately chose St Charles’ feast day, 4th November, as the day of his coronation as pope in 1958. His successor, Pope St Paul VI sent to all the bishops of the world a dozen of Borremeo’s orations as sources of inspiration. These orations and homilies are not blueprints for structural reform but exhortations to holiness which is the primary catalyst for reform.

To summarize what we can learn from the witness of St Charles. First, the synodal pathway is a route to closer communion among all God’s people. Through many gatherings of the Church, Charles drew close to his flock and because he did, his teaching of the Gospel was heard and effective. Second, being synodal is at the service of our primary mission which is bring all people into communion with Christ and his Church. St Charles was a man of God and shared his intimate knowledge of God with his people to whom he drew close. During the councils, synods and gatherings convoked by Charles, the process and the message converged on the person of the Redeemer. Third, like many of the saints in every age, Charles is remembered as a great reformer. From the life of St Charles, we see that structural reform is not enough. What matters most is a spiritual reform. For in the words of Charles: ‘Nothing pleases God more than to be his son’s helpers and to undertake the charge of saving souls’.

On the feast of St Charles Borromeo, may God fan into a flame the gift of the Spirit so that, like Charles, we may be closer to God and one another, having a burning desire to preach the love of Christ and teach the Gospel. And may each of us become reformers of the Church from within, beginning with ourselves.


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