Imagine ministering to over 1,000 parishes, founding an educational system for priestly formation, spearheading one of the most influential Church councils, using your own money to feed 3,000 people daily during an epidemic, and effectively transforming bishops and Church leaders to shepherd their flock through personal reform.
Now imagine accomplishing all that without emails, phone calls, cars, or the internet. St. Charles Borromeo did all these things – and more.
Going Against the Grain
As the second son of a noble family, Charles was destined for the Church. Before even becoming a priest, he inherited a monastery and was named a Cardinal. (Conveniently, his uncle was the Pope.) But unlike other well-born clergy at the time, Charles never viewed his role in the Church as a means to attain possessions or power. He viewed it as a vocation and used his influence and position to reform the Church from within.
When his older brother died, young Charles was urged by his family to drop his ecclesiastical duties in Rome, where he had considerable power as a Papal Legate and Administrator, to assume his role as patriarch. Instead, moved by his brother’s death, Borromeo answered God’s call to become a priest.
Reform from the Inside Out
After he was appointed the Bishop of Milan, Borromeo begged the Pope for permission to leave Rome and administer to his diocese in person. At the time, bishops were not required to live in their dioceses, and many bishops enjoyed the financial benefits of having multiple dioceses. Borromeo believed that a shepherd should be close to his flock.
When his request was granted, it was no easy task to restore order to the Diocese of Milan. At the time, it was the largest diocese in Italy, with more than 3,000 clergy and 800,000 people. But it had lacked a resident bishop for 80 years, and both the clergy and their flock had drifted far from church teaching.
Borromeo immediately called a synod of bishops to pronounce a series of reforms that included frugality in church operations and the proper formation of priests. His reforms were so unpopular with the wealthy and corrupt clergy that one particularly unscrupulous religious order, the Humiliati, attempted to assassinate him. After he was shot in the back during morning prayers, St. Charles refused to let his fellow priests attend to him until they finished praying. Fortunately, the shot did no critical damage.
Borromeo was also committed to forming the faithful. He established the Confraternities of Christian Doctrine (CCD) to provide religious instruction to children, and the organization grew to include 740 schools, 3,000 catechists, and 40,000 students in Sunday schools.
If we can learn one thing from St. Charles, it is that reform must start from within. Borromeo believed that the proper formation of priests would heal the corruption in the Church. He founded the seminary system as we know it today to provide future priests with a deep, orthodox understanding of their vocation as shepherds. It is little surprise, then, that he is the patron of seminarians.
Borromeo urged his priests to live an authentic life, saying “Be sure that you first preach by the way you live. If you do not, people will notice that you say one thing, but live otherwise, and your words will bring only cynical laughter and a derisive shake of the head.”
His words ring true today more than ever. His life reminds us that if we desire to see virtuous priests leading our parishes who are faithful to their priestly vows, they must be formed in the image of Christ by priests modeling that virtue in their own lives. Though some may be irritated, and we may face harsh words, we must take courage in knowing that the path we hope to pioneer is worth the pain and energy.
As you pray for St. Joseph’s college seminarians, don’t forget to invoke the powerful intercession of St. Charles Borromeo to guide our future priests to be holy channels for healing and growth in our parishes.