St. Charles Borromeo, stained glass. Church of St-Germain-l’Auxerrois founded in the seventh century, was rebuilt many times over several centuries. Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock

St. Charles Borromeo: A Saint for Today

The great reformer knew the importance of holy priests in building up a holy people

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St. Charles Borromeo (1538–84) is a saint for our time. The heroic virtue that characterized his life helped the Church persevere amid a time of great upheaval. He rose to prominence when clergy were compromised due to poor formation and loose morals. Although immersed in that clerical culture from a young age, St. Charles managed to remain above it all. But more than that, in God’s providence, his life and work became a remedy for what ailed the Church.

The seeds of St. Charles’ profound holiness are found even in his earliest years. Though he managed to remain uncorrupted by the corrupt ecclesial culture of his day, St. Charles was not outside of it. A beneficiary of papal nepotism, even before he received major orders, he was advanced to some of the most notable positions in the Roman Curia — the result of his uncle’s election as Pope Pius IV.

In addition to his appointment as a cardinal, St. Charles was given a variety of other assignments, including administration of the Archdiocese of Milan — though he had not yet held episcopal office. He could only fulfill the latter role from afar, and he greatly resented leaving his sheep without a full-time shepherd.

Nonetheless, having St. Charles so close to the center of ecclesial governance was no doubt a grace of God’s providence. Because of his position, the saint was able to facilitate and prioritize many necessary ecclesial reforms.

Reformer Saint

St. Charles did not set out initially to bring major changes to the papal court, although he often found it empty and shallow. He did, however, manage to remain unaffiliated with the excess around him. Keenly aware of his inexperience, St. Charles even considered taking refuge in a monastery to escape his uncomfortable assignments. His trust in providence and desire to be a good shepherd for his flock in Milan, however, was of great concern to him. He knew the challenges facing a diocese that had been without a resident shepherd for nearly 80 years. Trusting in God’s will, Charles focused more intently on finding a way to escape Rome and get to Milan.

First, though, St. Charles was called upon to help organize the reopened Council of Trent and oversee its final reforms and conclusion. The task energized him, and he was very influential in the process. Among his achievements at the council was the formulation of the council’s catechism, as well as various liturgical changes. But his most important role was as a principal architect of many of the reform council’s decrees that shaped doctrine and discipline.

In 1563, St. Charles resigned his position as head of his family, meaning he was no longer responsible for producing offspring. Only then was he ordained to the priesthood and episcopacy. With his work at the council behind him, Charles again turned his attention to his flock in Milan.

Pius IV permitted St. Charles to spend a short time in Milan, where he held a provincial council and focused attention on seminary reforms and proper celebration of the liturgy. Upon his return to Rome, Charles was rushed to his uncle’s deathbed. Soon, he successfully earned approval from the next pope, Pope St. Pius V, to arrange a permanent move to Milan.

Finally taking residence there in 1566, Charles learned more details about the great task that lay ahead of him: to help the lapsed local Catholics become more serious about their faith. Mass attendance was low, clergy were unmotivated and uneducated, and corruption and immorality were widespread.

Through hard work grounded in prayer and perseverance, St. Charles reformed his archdiocese and served as a model for other bishops and popes. He led a simple life and generously shared the sizable income he earned. Ever attentive to the need for a reformed clergy, Charles built seminaries for their formation. He also worked to ensure that the laity, especially children, were well instructed in the Faith and established the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Some of his reforms were met with strong opposition, and there was even an attempt on his life.

St. Charles did not fear risking his life for his flock when faced with disasters such as famine or plague. He personally oversaw recovery efforts and ministered to the dying, buried the dead and absorbed large debts to alleviate the suffering.

On the way home from a retreat in 1584, Charles fell ill and died on Nov. 3, at only 46 years old.

The life and times of St. Charles are set apart from our own in many ways. But at the same time, the challenges and difficulties he helped the Church confront are still very much present today. One of the primary themes of the reforms that he implemented was a reform of clergy formation and a call to conversion in the lives of clerics. A great deal of his advice and counsel remain timely and relevant, especially in light of the Church’s recent scandals.

Good Preaching Is Vital

In his work to reform the clergy, St. Charles paid considerable attention to priestly authenticity. He was especially concerned with how priests built up a priestly people through their preaching. Given the central role and importance of preaching in the life of the Church, Charles knew good preaching was the key to the faithful’s growth in holiness. He recognized that for preachers to do that, better formation was needed, as well as a reinvigoration of their vocation. In a 1573 address to preachers in the Milan province, Charles outlined a set of priorities that still offer a sound guide for effective preaching. His admonitions for preachers — just a sample of the saintly bishop’s keen interest in forming better priests — remain important and applicable almost five centuries later.

Pope St. John XXIII
and St. Charles Borromeo
Pope St. John XXIII has a great devotion
to St. Charles Borromeo. In fact, he spent the
majority of his life researching the saint’s life
in Milan. John XXIII’s ordination as a bishop
was in the Roman Church where Borromeo’s
heart had been venerated for centuries. The
two reformers also were linked when John XXIII
was coronated on Borromeo’s feast day.

He reiterated not only the importance of sound doctrine as necessary for a good preacher, but also a thorough knowledge of the Church’s rites and sacraments. For the faithful to be engaged in their knowledge of the Faith, preachers need to explain it in convincing ways. Relatedly, Charles highlighted the importance of a preacher’s strong prayer life: “The preacher who is inflamed and glowing with the ardor of divine love, thanks especially to prayer and meditation, will more effectively enkindle in his listeners zeal for charity, the seedbed of all virtues.”

Preachers must be well-prepared, he stressed. In his mind, this begins with the preacher’s recognition that his task is primarily the Holy Spirit working through him, and he needs to be in the state of grace. Confession of grave sin is necessary before preaching, he said. Only then can preachers be open and receptive to the Lord’s word through prayer and study. This makes the message less about the preacher and more about the Lord. He also recommended keeping present a sacred image, such as a crucifix, before the preacher as he prepares the sermon. Preparing well for preaching will be productive, St. Charles said. And he warned against preaching someone else’s work, which he says is “of little value in moving souls.” He said, “The food of teaching will generate the strongest movements of soul toward holiness when it is presented to the people only after having been digested, so to speak, by the preacher’s own mind.”

Among St. Charles’ other admonitions to preachers is a warning to not “twist the sacred Scripture to his own meanings” as much as remain faithful to the interpretation through the ages, particularly of the Fathers. He advised that preachers be careful addressing “subtle questions before an untrained audience.”

Most importantly, he called preachers to greater holiness. In order to have a good effect on the souls of his flock, he said the preacher much excel in virtue and his “life must correspond with his teaching, in such a way that his teaching gives him light by which to live, and his life likewise strengthens his teaching, giving it ever greater vigor.” He knew that when imparting the Faith to the flock, preachers would be unable to transmit the Gospel authentically if they did not practice what they preached.

Holiness Is Key

Holiness is the key to the Christian life and to any of the Church’s endeavors, particularly in any kind of authentic renewal. After all, holiness is the truest Christian vocation. By his own way of life, St. Charles was a model of holiness and has inspired generations of Christians. By his own initiative, direction and advice, he rallied the Church to recognize the vital need for holier clergy and people. As with so many reformers, he knew that holiness was the foundation for any transformation.

As problems with poor priestly formation, rampant immorality and vast corruption among the clergy continued to take its toll on the life of the Church, Charles focused a good deal of effort toward renewal of a holier clergy. He understood a trickle-down effect: bad shepherds were leaving their flock unfed and unattended — and it showed.

This zeal for increased priestly holiness was related to ordinands in a 1578 sermon of St. Charles: “Priests and other ministers of the Lord will be struck down if they dare to approach the Lord impurely. … If someone has come here not sanctified, or without having rightly cleared out the secret places of grave sin in his conscience, I now ask him to withdraw, and beg him to choose instead to blush for a short time rather than be struck by the angry right hand of the Lord and consumed by eternal fires.”

Why is Charles so stern here? Because of his care for souls. “I am also thinking of the other faithful in Christ,” he said, “who earnestly ask to be enlightened by you … rightly and perfectly give light and salt to the faithful.” Above all else, he implores priests to guide the flock along the way of virtue, as men of virtue themselves.

Authenticity in ministry, and any related success, flows from priests’ sanctification. Elsewhere, St. Charles implored his priests to remember their identity. And his words remain important for all priests today: “Let us catch flame, I beg you. … Let us resolve most firmly to be Ministers of God, called not to peace and idleness, but to labor. Let us recognize our vocation. Let us consider what zeal for souls really is. … Let us aim at being truly beneficial to souls. … May they see our ministry pleasing to God.” 

Michael Heinlein is editor of OSV’s Simply Catholic and a graduate of The Catholic University of America. He writes from Indiana.


St. Charles the reformer


“Charles Borromeo: Selected Orations, Homilies and Writings” (Bloomsbury, $29.95) is the source for many references used in this piece. Topics include defining reform from its center, being transformed by Christ in the Eucharist, imitating the Good Shepherd and making the world holy.




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