November - Charles Borromeo

4th November (1584)

It is nice to know that nepotism and privilege need not lead to a life of idleness.

Charles Borromeo came from an aristocratic Italian family, and had an uncle who happened to be a Pope (Pius IV). In 1560 at the age of 22 he was made a cardinal, although not even ordained a priest. At the same time he became administrator for the diocese of Milan, which had been without a resident bishop for eighty years and was in a deplorable state. However, he was very industrious and had a sincere concern for the good of the church, with a good grasp of its needs. His workload increased when he became deeply involved in the Council of Trent, where he was responsible for all the correspondence of the final session.

When his elder brother died in 1562, he opted for the church instead of returning to the life of a nobleman as his family wished. In the last year of the Council, 1563, he was made priest and bishop and became Archbishop of Milan a year later.

Adopting a modest lifestyle, he set about implementing reforms of he Council of Trent in his own area, encountering opposition from some people whose way of living was inconsistent with the reform principles. To combat large-scale ignorance he instituted ‘Sunday Schools’ and opened seminaries for the education of clergy, introducing a pattern of study, prayer and devotion which influenced seminaries all over Europe. He insisted on dignity in public worship and set an example to his clergy of caring for the sick and needy. He held provincial and diocesan synods. He founded homes for the destitute, orphanages, hospitals, even banks to lend to the poor at no interest. His aim was to make Christ a reality in people’s lives and in wider society. He was particularly strenuous in his efforts during the plague of 1576, spending most of his own resources in the relief of suffering. Influential throughout the church in his own lifetime, he remains the model of a good pastoral bishop.

In spite of a speech impediment which he only overcame in later life, he was a convincing but not brilliant speaker, who always prepared his sermons in depth. His rigorous, uncompromising approach together with a certain imperiousness of manner led to considerable opposition, which included attempts to have him removed from office – and even attempts on his life.

Perhaps the best story about Charles Borromeo is of an occasion when, while playing billiards, he was asked what he would do if he knew he had only fifteen minutes left to live. His unhesitating reply was "continue to play billiards!". Living with the realities of the present moment was a mark of his life as it was of his faith. If we have faith enough to meet God in the present moment, it matters not what that moment is. If we can give ourselves fully we will be fully blessed.

Jim McLean
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 31st October 1999