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St. Charles Borromeo: The “provocative” reformer translated into English after 400 years


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Diane Montagna - published on 06/19/17

“Don’t prefer a long life over a holy one.”

VATICAN CITY — What saint became an abbot at 19, was a cardinal before he was a priest, founded the seminary system as we know it today, required bishops to reside in their diocese, and heroically climbed a pile of corpses to give a man the last rites before he died? The answer: St. Charles Borromeo.

A giant of the Catholic Reformation, St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), Archbishop of Milan, became the model for a faithful and zealous bishop after the great Ecumenical Council of Trent.

Blessed Paul VI sent a selection of his writings to the fathers of Vatican II to remind them of his heroic example and its relevance for these times.

Sadly, very little of the writings of St. Charles Borromeo has been translated into English. But now, after 400 years, an important selection of his works has been translated for the modern reader.

Aleteia sat down with Msgr. John Cihak, editor of the new volume Charles Borromeo:Selected Orations, Homilies and Writings. Msgr. Cihak is a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, and works as an Official of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops and Papal Master of Ceremonies.

Msgr. Cihak highlights how the young Charles Borromeo became a driving force of reform within the Catholic Church. At the heart of his idea of reform was the conviction that “if we’re going to follow Jesus, it’s going to mean the reform of my life.”

A “provocative” and at times “uncomfortable” saint, Borromeo’s “practical genius” enabled him to translate the principles of reform into people’s personal lives. With razor-sharp clarity, Msgr. Cihak says, St. Charles instructed bishops, priests and lay men and women on what needs, and needs not, to be done in order to foster holiness.

Msgr. Cihak, many readers will not be familiar with St. Charles Borromeo. Can you tell us a little about him?

St. Charles Borromeo is a figure that people may have heard of but do not know. People are surprised to know that both Pope St. John XXIII and Pope Paul VI were very interested in Borromeo. Pope John XXIII wrote his doctoral thesis on Borromeo and Paul VI, when he took over as pope, sent to all the bishops of the world 12 of Borromeo’s Orations, in Latin, as a way of inspiring and guiding the bishops in their deliberations in Vatican II.

What is so amazing is how he attained such holiness in a relatively brief span of time during such a difficult and complex historical period. I’m 46 years old. That’s the age when he died, after already having been a bishop for over 20 years.

Tell us more about his personal life

As the second son, he was destined for the Church. He was from the nobility. He was given an abbey at the age of 19, and made the titular abbot. And he takes all of his income from that abbey and gives it to the poor, and then tells the monks that they need to start living according to the Rule — “vacation’s over.” And it wasn’t as though St. Charles thought “I am a reformer.” This is why I think he’s timeless; he simply acknowledged that “I need to follow Jesus Christ. I need to be holy. And so do you. And if I’m responsible for you, I’m going to make sure we’re doing this together.” His reform was more the consequence of what today we would call “intentional discipleship.” If we’re going to follow Jesus, it’s going to mean the reform of my life, because we are sinners.

At the age of 22 and before he was even ordained a priest, he was named cardinal by his uncle, who was Pius IV.

Did he go to seminary?

He founded the seminary system. He did a double doctorate in jurisprudence and canon law, and then when his uncle was elected pope he became the pope’s “right hand man.” Then Charles’ older brother suddenly died. That was a turning point in his life. He was pressured, even by his uncle Pope Pius IV, to leave the ecclesiastical path and get married to carry on the family line. Borromeo then made the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius … and he came out of the retreat determined to become a priest.

We often think of Church reform as something exterior. Generally, when the faithful hear about the reform of the Church, they don’t think of it as something that touches their own lives.

Exactly. It’s very safe to say: “the Church should be reformed.” But we forget that we are the sinful members of the Church needing reform. I am a member of the Church. I am a sinner. I need to be reformed. And this was Borromeo’s genius: he translated the ideals of Trent into one’s concrete personal life. That’s when it hits home. That’s also why Milan became a powerhouse of ecclesial life in the wake of his being bishop there, because he could get reform into people’s hearts. When we talk about the reform of the Church today, Borromeo insists: it begins right here. It’s my heart, and my walk with Christ, and that’s what I need to be focused on. Because if enough of us do it, since we’re members of the Church, then the Church will be reformed.

When did St. Charles Borromeo become involved in the Council of Trent?

Trent was a watershed moment for the Church. For centuries there was a need for reform. The Protestant approach had already sundered Christian unity. There was a ferment for reform among Catholics, but it had difficulty getting traction. Trent finally gave Catholic reform the traction it needed.

But there was resistance. Wars, plague and internal resistance made the Council drag on for 20 years. So when we arrive at the final sessions, Borromeo takes the wheel on behalf of the pope to finish it. What we find at the final sessions of Trent are his strong efforts to get disciplinary decrees passed, signed and codified, so that its ideals could be implemented. One of the biggest disciplinary actions was the requirement that bishops reside in their diocese.

What do you mean?

We have a hard time conceiving it, but that’s because Borromeo was so effective. From Apostolic times, the bishop enters into a spousal relationship with his particular Church. In other words, he is wedded to his diocese.

But this relationship [had become corrupted in part by greed] because the practice had sprung up of a bishop being named to more than one diocese (and so enjoying its income) and not being required to reside there. So Borromeo had not only the right theological idea of a bishop being in a spousal relationship with the Church, but now he said: we need a disciplinary decree to make that a reality. Therefore, if you’re a bishop of a diocese, you’re going to have to live there. And you can only have one. No more spiritual polygamy.

What led you to consider Borromeo as a model for the contemporary Church?

The book came out of my own personal interest. I remember as a young priest, praying the divine office on his feast, which contains an excerpt from one of his addresses to priests. I found it timeless and totally relevant today. I’ve talked to many priests over the years and they’ve said: wouldn’t it be great if we had more of Borromeo.

So, when I was working on my doctorate in Rome in 2005, I and a friend who was working in the Congregation for Clergy at the time found a massive amount of Borromeo’s material in the Vatican Library. There are five volumes just of his preaching; two volumes of the Acts of the Church in Milan are dedicated to his work.

We chose various selections for the book that I thought were relevant for the modern reader. It comes from various points of his ministry and spans his entire episcopal ministry. We divided the texts around Borromeo’s pillars of reform: his preaching to the bishops. Then his homilies on the Eucharist, since the Eucharist is at the absolute center of any authentic reform. Then we have his words to priests, then to lay people. We wanted it to have a wide appeal.

What is the place of friendship in St. Charles Borromeo’s idea of reform?

That’s big. He was a man of relationship and developed a strong network of friends and allies in reform. And that’s how we live the Christian life. We’re not Lone Rangers in evangelization or in reform.

First, there were his parents, who gave him his basic formation and example in the Christian life. He was friends with St. Philip Neri, and he knew the newly founded Jesuits. He was well connected and was a man of relationship which made him a very effective leader. He knew the kind of people he needed and would recruit them, which at times made for a tense relationship with Philip Neri because he would sometimes poach prospective candidates.

I think of my own experience as a parish priest: you have to have support. Humanly we’d get crushed if we didn’t have human relationships. And hopefully that comes across in the way Borromeo preaches: there’s a realism to it. It’s not abstract.

What is the heart of Borromeo’s idea of reform?

Jesus Christ is the heart of reform for St. Charles. He wasn’t too worried about opposition and had a kind of cheerfulness about him. We can look around today, and see that the Church is better off today than she was then. But we can sometimes get discouraged at what we see. Borromeo looked around at the great need and didn’t get discouraged. I think it goes back to his own inner life with Christ. He had a fire in his belly, the fire of Divine Love. Jesus Christ was the center of his life. It didn’t matter if he was being doused or in the storms … I think that’s a good thing for us today to go back to, when we think of the problems and all the things that need to be reformed.

I think about this myself and tell others: maybe we should reflect on the fact that the Lord chose us to be alive right now. Pay attention to that. He didn’t create you to live in this historical moment to be discouraged. He has something for you to do, and he wants you to do it, not someone else. Because that other person is not here. You and I are here.

On the subject of interior fire, what were some of the reforms that he practiced in his personal life, and how did that transfer into his reforms in Milan?

From what I’ve read, there are certain aspects of his personal life that we would find very off-putting. For example, his extreme asceticism can seem very foreign to us because we’ve largely fallen away from penitential practices. He slept about four hours a night, ate very simply, fasted often, and used the discipline and hair-shirt most of his adult life. In the book I include a quote of his to a priest who was a little too interested in preserving his life: “Don’t prefer a long life over a holy one.” Borromeo’s life actually bore that out.

Two other bishops who were models for him — he had their portraits in his room — were St. Ambrose and St. John Fisher. They were two other ascetical bishops and great shepherds.

And Adoration?

Yes, the Forty Hours devotion was already in Milan and he promoted it. I think his interior fire is what makes St. Charles so accessible. Even if we find his asceticism somewhat extreme, the rest of his life was the ordinary means of sanctification, which are available to all of us: Mass, Confession, prayer, virtue, asceticism, the liturgy, and the popular piety that helps support the liturgy. If we live these with integrity and love, we will become holy. We will become intimately familiar with Jesus Christ.


Read more:
40 Hours Devotion: Spending personal time with the Lord

How did that translate into the reforms he carried out in Milan?

Borromeo was about others first, and he put his ministry ahead of himself. As an example, he was always visiting the parishes and the people, and he wouldn’t go in a carriage but on foot. Another feature of his holiness, not to be overlooked today, was his personal poverty and material simplicity of life.

As I include in the Introduction, one of his principles for reform was: Just be who you said you were going to be. If you’re going to be a bishop, then you need to live this way. If you’re going to be a priest, then you need to live this way. If you’re going to be a married person, then you need to live this way.

Can you tell us more about Borromeo’s secrets for attaining holiness by living in the world?

A lot of it is common sense. He tells husbands: don’t spend too much money on horses and dogs (i.e. don’t spend so much time and money on sports). Wives, don’t insist on always having a nice dress that takes money from being spent on the poor. He even has a couple of zingers. For employers: pay your employees justly and insist on good behavior. If employees are blaspheming, or are not living a good life or not trying, they need to be dismissed. And he did the same thing in his household.

One particular zinger, which could rub people the wrong way, he made in a homily when commenting on simplicity of life. He challenges the women in the congregation who are so concerned with their outward appearance: why are you busy painting what’s going to be dust? Why are you spending so much time on that, and not the interior virtues that you need to attain eternal life?

One way to interpret his zingers is to keep in mind that he knew the lived reality and wanted to make reform concrete because otherwise it simply would not happen. In other words, to heal an infected wound, the doctor often has to cut into it. If you hit the ‘ouch’ it means you’ve hit the level where you need change.

Did he say anything to children, or about raising children?

Yes, he spoke about bringing them to the sacraments, about how they should behave, about cultivating in them prayer and Christian doctrine. He was a huge proponent of catechesis.

How did a consideration of the liturgy form part of his idea of reform?

He oversaw Trent’s reform of the Roman Rite which became known as the “Tridentine Rite.” It took the shape that it did and was assiduously followed in part because of him.

What role did silence play in reform for Borromeo?

He believes that for interiority to be cultivated you need silence. Especially before saying Mass, you need silent recollection to call to mind what you’re doing and to be aware of the gravity of what you’re doing.

His reforms also nearly cost him his life. How exactly did this happen?

There were members of a religious community who tried to assassinate Borromeo. This community, called the Humiliati, was founded in the 1200s with a good beginning. By St. Charles’ time this community had grown immensely wealthy and was no longer much interested in living a religious life. Borromeo was pushing his reforms and four of the friars hatched a plot to kill him. They succeeded in shooting him in the back during vespers, but miraculously the ball didn’t break the skin. But it did leave a welt on his back for the rest of his life.

He apparently said: “I’ve been shot, keep praying.”

How does the story of the plague recounted in the book illustrate Borromeo’s idea of reform of the clergy?

When the plague hit Milan, the government and nobility fled, but a lot of people couldn’t flee, especially the poor. Borromeo said he would stay. He wrote a letter, which is translated in the book, urging priests not to leave.

The plague killed over 20,000 people. And the scene that almost brings me to tears every time I think about it is that of him climbing up a stack of corpses because there was someone at the top who was still alive and needed the last rites. Imagine, Borromeo, the nephew of the pope, from the Medicis, climbing up these dead bodies. Here is the shepherd; here is the priest.

He organized hospitals, work crews, and orphanages for the children who lost their parents. He sold off most of the stuff in the archbishop’s house to pay for the care of the poor. In order to maintain the quarantine, he would organize Masses to be said in squares or at crossroads, so that people could come to their windows to worship. One hundred priests died in the plague. This shows how the reform was already being realized: that 100 priests sacrificed their lives for the good of their people.

It’s one of the extraordinary moments in a saint’s life, and it exemplifies who a bishop should be, who a priest should be, when they give up their lives for the people.

What I love about St. Charles Borromeo is that he’s the real deal. It wasn’t flashy or grandstanding. He was just himself.

SPECIAL NOTE: Tune in to the SiriusXM Catholic Channel with Cardinal Dolan at 2:40pm EDT on Tuesday, June 20, to hear Msgr. John Cihak talk about his new book, Charles Borromeo: Selected Orations, Homilies and Writings.

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