St. Charles Borromeo

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St. Charles Borromeo, Archbishop and Cardinal

The great and holy Charles Borromeo is justly accounted one of the most celebrated Saints that lived in the sixteenth century, and who, by their virtues and the miracles they performed, made the Catholic Church glorious in the very face of her enemies. Charles was born of very illustrious parents, in 1538, at the castle of Arona, fourteen miles from Milan. A bright light which shone above the castle at the time of Charles’ birth, and which, sending its rays afar off, continued for over two hours, was doubtless a sign of the great virtue and holiness with which this new-born child would ornament and illuminate the Church of Christ.

Charles, even in childhood, evinced great inclination for the religious state, as he imitated at home everything he saw the priests do at Church. In later years, when he began his studies, he served as a model of virtue to every one. His purity he kept inviolate amidst the greatest dangers; no one ever heard him speak an unchaste word, and if others said anything that in the least offended his ear, he immediately withdrew, and carefully avoided all frivolous, idle or disobedient youths.

As soon as he had arrived at the proper age, pope Pius IV. called him to Rome, and bestowed upon him the Cardinal’s hat, with the Archbishopric of Milan. When afterwards his brother died without issue, the friends of the family urged Charles to abandon the clerical state in order to perpetuate his lineage; but he remained constant in his resolution to serve the Lord in celibacy. He had assisted at the Council of Trent; and was the first who endeavored to reform his See in perfect accordance with its decrees. He made the beginning at his own court, which he composed of priests to whom he prescribed certain regulations, by the observance of which, they might become perfect laborers for the vineyard of the Lord.

His resolve, on becoming a prelate of the Church, had been: “I will either be no Cardinal and Archbishop, or I will endeavor to gain such virtues as are in accordance with my dignity.” And it may be truly said that the Saint possessed, in an eminent degree, all those virtues which a prelate of such high standing ought to possess. He held many councils, and made the most wholesome regulations to exterminate abuses and to restore Christian morals. Of his revenues as bishop nothing went to his relatives, but all to promote the honor of God and to assist the poor.

The number of churches he built and restored, as well in his own diocese as elsewhere, is almost incredible. All these he most liberally endowed. Above the door of each church, he placed an image of the Blessed Virgin, not only to admonish all to honor her, but also to teach them to seek through her, admittance to Christ, our Mediator and Redeemer. He erected many religious houses for both sexes, that God Almighty might be praised by their inmates, and His blessing drawn down by their prayers. He also built many hospitals for the sick, and several for houseless strangers, for orphans, and for women who desired to lead a better life. He also instituted schools for children, and seminaries for students of theology, so that his parishes might be filled with pious, learned and zealous priests.

Besides this, he instituted a society of priests, whom he named Oblates, to be employed in preaching and other spiritual functions. To secure to his Episcopal city the benefits of a truly Christian education of the highest order, he introduced the priests of the Society of Jesus at Milan, and gave them a college and a magnificent church. Those who knew all the rich foundations he made, deemed it impossible that one Cardinal could collect so much money as he spent, especially as he had resigned all other benefices which he had received from the Pope, desiring to live only upon the income of his Archbishopric. Still more wonderful and miraculous was the fact, that, besides supporting the above-mentioned foundations, he had yet so much left him to comfort the poor.

His palace was always open to all the poor and to strangers, especially to religious; and all received not only food, but also alms, devout books, rosaries, etc. He had two servants whose only duty was to distribute alms. One of them had the care of the poor who came to the palace; the other carried the alms to the houses of the indigent. After the death of his brother, Saint Charles had been declared, by Philip II., of Spain, heir to the principality of Oria, the annual income of which was nearly 10,000 ducats. Of this he used not one farthing for himself or his relatives, but gave one part of it to the poor, the other to churches and hospitals. From the great care he took of the temporal welfare of the poor, we can easily conclude how great must have been his solicitude for the souls of those under him.

He was a perfect model of a watchful shepherd. Inexpressibly great were the pains he took to drive away’ from his flock the heretics who, at that period, wandered about like ravenous wolves; and to keep his own in the fold of Christ, the true Church. He preached in several churches, not only on Sundays and Feast-days, but also during the week. He admonished and instructed the people in their own houses, visited the sick and comforted the dying. He strove to uproot the bad customs which prevailed at the carnival. He visited his entire diocese, accompanied by several priests. There was not a town or village to which he did not go. Everywhere he renewed the churches, preached, gave instructions, administered the holy Sacraments, and exhorted all to lead a Christian life.

None could understand how the holy Cardinal, whose health was delicate, could bear so much fatigue in traveling, without permitting heat or cold, snow or rain to prevent him. His apostolic zeal and untiring care for his beloved flock made all labor and hardship easy to him. The most splendid proof of this solicitude he gave in 1575, when the pestilence ravaged Milan for several months. To save his life from the terrible disease, he was begged to leave the city; but he could not be persuaded. ” A good shepherd,” said he, ” gives his life for his sheep.” Hence he remained, and he assigned priests for every street, that no one might die without the holy Sacraments. He himself went into the houses of those stricken down, especially into those of the poor, heard their confession, administered the holy Sacraments to them and attended to their bodily comfort.

The number of poor, who came to him from other places for aid, was so great, that for want of money, he divided among them the provisions which had been stored away for his own use. He also sold his plate and the furniture of his house, and gave the money to the needy. The hangings of the walls, the curtains of the windows, and even his own clothes were not spared : everything was given away to assist the poor. His own bed was carried into the hospital, and he took his short rest on some hard boards. These were surely proofs of his great love for his neighbor.

Further, the holy Cardinal ordered several penitential processions to avert the anger of God. He himself appeared in them, barefoot, with a rope around his neck and a heavy cross on his shoulders. He offered to the Almighty his own life, ready and willing to die for his sheep. After the pestilence had disappeared, he gave due thanks to the Almighty, and enjoined upon all to do the same. When some one justly praised his zeal, he said: ” I have only fulfilled the duties of a true shepherd towards his sheep.” We should fill many pages were we to attempt to describe the devotion and virtues of this holy man.

He possessed in an eminent degree the spirit of prayer, and employed several hours of the day and of the night in contemplation. At the time of the ” Forty hours’ devotion,” he more than once remained in church from early morning until evening. He fasted almost daily, and in the last years of his life, on water and bread. During the 40 days’ fast, he even abstained from bread, and ate only a few figs. He always wore a rough hair-shirt, and scourged himself mercilessly. He never warmed himself at the fire during the winter, and allowed himself very little time to sleep, constantly mortifying his body. But above all, how admirable were his heroic patience and fortitude under vicissitudes, his winning gentleness, his deep humility, and his perfection in other virtues! He, however, closed early a life so fruitful in good and great deeds.

Although the Cardinal was still in his best years, he resigned himself to the will of the Almighty, when an inner voice told him that his death was near. He made a pilgrimage to Mount Varallo, where he spent 15 days in the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, under the direction of a priest of the Society of Jesus, whom he had chosen as his confessor. He cleansed his soul, which had never been stained by a mortal sin, by a general confession. Feeling that he was attacked by the disease which he knew would release him from earth, he returned to Milan where he arrived on the second day of November. On the third, he received the holy Sacraments with great devotion, and desiring to die like a penitent, he had himself laid upon haircloth strewed with ashes. Continually praying, he remained in this penitential position until the third hour after sundown, when, raising his eyes to the image of the Savior, he gave his soul to his Maker, in the 47th year of his life.

It would require a whole volume to relate all the miracles which the Almighty wrought to honor this untiring servant, as well during his life as after his death. The splendid example of his virtues is sufficient to merit our highest esteem. I will only add that the holy Cardinal, after his death, appeared to one of his friends, radiant with heavenly glory, and said : “I am happy.”


I. “I am happy,” said St. Charles after his death. How can it be otherwise with one who kept his innocence unimpaired among so many dangers; who evinced such constant zeal in prayer, fasting and almsgiving; who labored so faithfully for the honor of God and the salvation of souls; who was so severe towards himself, and so kind to the poor, the sick, and the forsaken? It is the promise of God that the just shall be happy. ” Say to the just man that it is well” (Isai. hi.). Will it, however, be well with you after your death? This depends, by the grace of God, on yourself alone. Follow St. Charles in avoiding sin, in practicing good works, in mortifying your body, in kindness towards the poor, and, as much as is in your power, in zeal to work for the honor of God and the salvation of souls : and I assure you that you will be happy after your death. But should you persist in the contrary, if you voluntarily commit sin, if you are indolent in the practice of good works, if you live only for your own pleasure and comfort, and are not charitable to the poor; I can only, according to the Gospel, foretell that you will not be able to say with St. Charles : ” I am happy : ” but you will cry with the rich man : ” I am tormented in this flame ” (Luke, xvi.).

II. St. Charles employed all his income for the honor of God and the comfort of the poor. The building and renewing of many churches, the founding of many convents and hospitals, the rich alms given to the poor, are proofs of it. Even today this speaks much more in favor of the holy Cardinal, than if he had given his possessions to his relatives and friends, or had employed them to build magnificent palaces, or to maintain useless animals, to purchase luxurious garments, to indulge in splendid banquets and vain amusements, as too many of his rank have done both before and after him, whose very names are forgotten. But this is the least portion of his merit.

Think of the praise and honor which the holy Cardinal received from God; the joy and glory that became his in heaven. What would it benefit him at this moment, if he had dissipated his wealth, as many others have done? He would not have gained the love either of God or of men; nor would he have been received into the glories of heaven; but on the contrary, he might have earned eternal shame and damnation. And what benefit will those one day have, who use their temporal possessions quite differently from St. Charles? What comfort, what advantage will it bring to them? Certainly, neither advantage nor comfort,but great responsibility, heavy punishment, because they have not used what God had given them, for the end and aim for which they received it. The conclusion from this you may draw yourself. “Not only the spiritual possessions come from God, but also the temporal,” says St. Leo; “hence, God will justly require us to account for them; as He gives them to us not so much to possess, as to distribute them. We must consequently endeavor to make a right use or the gifts of the Almighty, so that the occasion of good works may not become the occasion for doing evil.”

Lives of the Saints: Compiled from Authentic Sources with a Practical Instruction on the Life of Each Saint, for Every Day in the Year by Rev. F. X. Weninger. Permissu Superiorum. New York: P. O’Shea, Publisher, 67 Barclay Street and 42 Park Place. 1876.


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