Saint Charles Borromeo, 1538-1584

Feast Day November 4

Saints Stories for All Ages

Charles Borromeo was born in northern Italy in 1538 to an established and wealthy family. Trained in civil and canon law in Pavia, he was called to Rome as a young man by his uncle, Pope Pius IV, to be secretary of state at the Vatican. “Always clear and precise in his views, firm in his demeanor, and constant in the execution of his projects,” as one biographer has remarked, he played an important role in convincing Pius to reconvene the Council of Trent, which sought to address corruption in a sixteenth-century church beleaguered by Protestantism. Under the auspices of that council, beginning in 1563 Borromeo supervised the writing of an accurate catechism, rewrote liturgical texts and music, and began enforcing clerical reform in Rome. Pope Pius IV named Borromeo archbishop of Milan but kept him in Rome performing a multitude of official functions.

When Borromeo arrived in Milan, he faced a daunting task. Milan was the largest archdiocese in Italy at the time, with more than 3,000 clergy and 800 thousand people. Both its clergy and laity had drifted from church teaching. The selling of indulgences and ecclesiastical positions was prevalent; monasteries were “full of disorder”; many religious were “lazy, ignorant, and debauched,” and some did not even understand how to properly administer the sacraments. The city had seen no resident bishop for 80 years. Borromeo immediately called a synod of his bishops to inform them of the new decrees. Setting an example of personal frugality and order, Borromeo reduced his household staff, forbade his retainers to accept any presents, and sold some of his property to help feed the poor. He began preaching in churches and monasteries, combining “exhortation with intimidation.” He also addressed the backsliding of laypeople, curtailing Sunday entertainments and requiring that all teachers profess the faith. Always interested in religious education, Borromeo established the Confraternities of Christian Doctrine to teach religion to children, and the organization grew to include 740 schools, three thousand catechists, and forty thousand students in Sunday schools.

Borromeo’s rigor predictably made him enemies. Before Borromeo went to Milan, while he was overseeing reform in Rome, a nobleman remarked that the latter city was no longer a place to enjoy oneself or to make a fortune. “Carlo Borromeo has undertaken to remake the city from top to bottom,” he said, predicting dryly that the reformer’s enthusiasm “would lead him to correct the rest of the world once he has finished with Rome.” Once Borromeo arrived in his own diocese, he was forced to excommunicate and imprison some Milanese nobles, including some civil authorities, for defying his new policies. Some Milanese complained to the pope about Borromeo’s allegedly excessive rigor, but the archbishop was vindicated. When he ordered the reform of a wealthy and corrupt religious order, the Humiliati, foes attempted to assassinate him.

Borromeo also displayed a gentler aspect, however, and many of his people loved him. During a plague in 1576, he stayed in the city and cared for the sick, ordering that decorative church hangings be tailored into clothing for the destitute. During a famine he incurred great debts to feed more than 60,000 people. In more ordinary times, he liked to wander the city praying with the people. He established hospitals, colleges, orphanages, and other charitable institutions.

An energetic reformer who took “always the most austere and stringent interpretation” of the dictates of the Council of Trent, Charles Borromeo was instrumental in helping reinvigorate the church during the Counter-Reformation. His work, it is said, “gave new confidence to a shaken church.” He died in 1584, at age forty-six, tired from his labors. He was canonized in 1610 and is the patron saint of catechists.

Blending Tough Love and Personal Integrity

“An austere, dedicated, humorless and uncompromising personality” is the way that a biographer—an admiring biographer—describes Charles Borromeo. Charged with implementing the reforms dictated by the Council of Trent, Borromeo had to be tough, and his toughness brought him into conflict with secular leaders, priests, and even the pope himself.

Those teachers and educational administrators who have had the experience of implementing unpopular reforms, however, are likely to be more empathetic. Sometimes, for the greater good of our parish or our school, we must oversee change. Our administrators or religious leaders may have seen that our organization needs to be reinvigorated and may have chosen us to translate the reforms to others. Students in catechism classes may not be receiving the information and inspiration that they need; colleagues may have become lazy and/or resentful about attending necessary training sessions, meeting with students, or preparing their classes. Curriculum requirements may be falling by the wayside.

If we supervise teachers, we will try, of course, to sway them first by cheerful encouragement that suggests optimism about their worth. But sometimes that is not enough. When our encouragement falls on deaf ears and change doesn’t happen, we may find ourselves issuing ultimatums: “If you don’t attend this training class, begin preparing lessons more thoroughly, use religious education time more to the purpose, etc., we’ll have to replace you.” When we must say such things, we will likely hear bitter criticism, may be called unreasonable, because drawing a line and demanding, say, that teachers attend a crucial training session can raise as many hackles as requiring monks to return to their cloisters. Being tough, even when necessary, can hurt the person who initiates reform.

In such situations, Borromeo can offer us crucial inspiration and some very specific advice about tough love. For the larger good of the church during a time when it was beleaguered, he knew that he had to sacrifice his own popularity. His example demonstrates that we must be brave in God’s service. Ultimately, the catechists, the students we serve will thank us.

Borromeo also teaches crucial fairness. Evenhanded in his demands, he expected the same compliance with Council of Trent reforms from everyone. Bishops and priests alike had to dismiss their female relatives from their households; all schoolteachers—no exceptions—were required to make public professions of faith; every workingman who was apprehended in the street by one of the Archbishop’s “fishers” on Sunday was escorted to catechism class. Borromeo reminds us that the rules must be the same for all, and that we will not succeed if we make exceptions and play favorites.

Borromeo’s life reminds us teacher/administrators that we cannot be hypocrites. If we expect to reinvigorate our organization, we must model that reform in our own lives. While others may be displeased with us at first, and while we may face hard words, we must take courage and know that the larger cause for which we work is worth the effort, and the pain.

from My Best Teachers Were Saints, by Susan H. Swetnam

Image credit: Portrait of Carlo Borromeo by Giovanni Ambrogio Figino, 16th century. Public Domain via Wikimedia.