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Fr Billy Swan

On the southern shore of Lake Maggiore in the north of Italy, there is a giant 35-meter statue, constructed in the 17th century, of St Charles Borromeo, the saintly bishop of the Archdiocese of Milan. The statue is so big that tourists and pilgrims can enter inside it and climb a staircase to the top of the statue. From that vantage point, one can see through the eyes of St Charles the surrounding area.

This is a fitting metaphor for how we can view the world through the eyes of charity and humility as Charles did in his time when he served God’s people as Archbishop of Milan from 1565 until his death in 1584 at the young age of 46. Here I argue why St Charles is a fitting model for priests and bishops today and a shining example of closeness to God’s people, pastoral zeal, a burning desire to evangelise and a love for souls.

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. He achieved these qualifications despite a slight speech impediment. 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. 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. Let’s take a closer look at this spiritual leadership and what bishops and priests can learn from it today.

Closeness to God’s People

Since his election in March 2013, Pope Francis has urged priests and bishops to be close to the people they are called to serve. He wants bishops and priests to accompany the people and to walk the path of holiness with them, witnessing to the Gospel and teaching it in humility and truth, supporting them as fathers and pastors. 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 whose love 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 to the 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. 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.

In all of his reforms, Borromeo’s 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. 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. He held about eleven diocesan synods as well as a number of provincial councils. These were not democratic assembles 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 represented an opportunity to clarify what it is the Church believes and the 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 courageous. 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.

Yet, he was no pushover and was a tough when he needed to be. He was not afraid to defend the Church against the encroachments of the powerful. He 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 and penance, transforming their lives into a path of holiness. He famously said that ‘souls are won only on one’s knees’.

And while he insisted the saving love of Christ was for all, Charles never lost sight of how the sublime gift of Christ in the Eucharist calls us to repentance. He taught: “The people should not only be urged to receive Holy Communion frequently but also how dangerous and fatal it would be to approach the Sacred Table of divine food unworthily”. In all this, Charles guarded against what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would later call ‘cheap grace’ or taking God’s love for granted.

The Great Reformer

Charles appreciated the challenges of leading a Church in changing times. In the complexities of society and culture, he always kept before his minds eye the presence and action of Christ in his Church that renewed the Church from within. One man who appreciated this and was inspired by it was Pope St John XXIII. Papa Roncalli deliberately chose St Charles’ feast day, 4th November, as the day of his coronation as pope in 1958. On that day, the future saint spoke these words;

“The Lord’s Church has had its moments of stagnation and revival. In one such period of revival, Providence reserved for St Charles Borromeo the lofty task of restoring ecclesiastical order. The part he played in implementing the reforms of the Council of Trent and the example he gave in Milan, earned him the glorious title of Teacher of bishops, and as such he was an adviser to popes and a wonder model of episcopal holiness”.

After Pope John’s death, his successor, Pope 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. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI: ‘Indeed this is the Church’s primary and most urgent need in every epoch: that each and every one of her members should be converted to God’.

These words of Pope Benedict were offered by him on 1st November 2010 on the occasion of the fourth centenary of the canonization of St Charles Borromeo. In a moving tribute to Charles and his spiritual leadership, Benedict unlocked the secret of the saint’s witness and appeal:

“It is impossible to understand the charity of St Charles Borromeo without knowing his relationship of passionate love with the Lord Jesus. He contemplated this love in the holy mysteries of the Eucharist and of the Cross, venerated in very close union with the mystery of the Church. The Eucharist and the Crucified One immersed St Charles in Christ’s love and this transfigured and kindled fervour in his entire life, filled his nights spent in prayer, motivated his every action, inspired the solemn Liturgies he celebrated with the people and touched his heart so deeply that he was often moved to tears.

His contemplative gaze at the holy Mystery of the Altar and at the Crucified one stirred within him feelings of compassion for the miseries of humankind and kindled in his heart the apostolic yearning to proclaim the Gospel to all. On the other hand we know well that there is no mission in the Church which does not stem from “abiding” in the love of the Lord Jesus, made present within us in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Let us learn from this great Mystery! Let us make the Eucharist the true centre of our communities and allow ourselves to be educated and moulded by this abyss of love! Every apostolic and charitable deed will draw strength and fruitfulness from this source!” (1st November 2010).

Finally, to all priests and bishops, Charles gave this warning about activism – being too busy with external matters at the expense of one’s own soul: “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).


So what then can bishops and priests learn from the example of St Charles Borromeo? Here is a summary based on what we have seen of his life:

· Stay close to God’s people, especially to their suffering. Intercede for them before God as a real spiritual father who suffers with them and for them. If people know and see that this is what their bishop or priests do, then we earn their respect and trust.

· Keep our eyes and hearts fixed on Christ and his Gospel. Throughout all his administrative responsibilities and efforts of reform, Charles had one objective in view – that as many as possible would hear and understand the Gospel and respond with faith in Christ. He was a man of God and shared his intimate knowledge of God with his people to whom he drew close. During his councils, synods and gatherings of God’s people, the emphasis was not on the process but on the message and the person of our loving Saviour. This lesson is relevant to our times. While the synodal path is an important way of being Church or rather a recovery of a former way of being Church, the task of proclaiming Christ, in season and out, preaching and teaching the Catholic faith must remain front and centre. And like Charles, the Church must not lack courage to speak up even when she knows that her message will be opposed or rejected.

· Like many of the saints in every age, Charles is remembered as a great reformer. Most people today would argue that the Church needs to change and reform but the question is, how? How can the Church revive and reform? From the life of St Charles, we see that structural reform is not enough. What matters most is a spiritual reform. For bishops and priests, this message is particularly urgent – to be leaders of a spiritual reform of the Church that begins with each of us embracing the life of Christ to which we were configured on the day of our ordination and to lead our people to a deeper relationship of friendship with the God who loves us. 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 this feast of St Charles Borromeo, may God fan into a flame the gift of the Spirit given to bishops and priests on the day of their ordination so that, like Charles, they may be close to God’s people, 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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