Look to the Borromeo Paradigm for Bishop-Led Church Reform
Five centuries ago, St. Charles Borromeo had a challenging assignment — and so does the Church today.
The bishops of the United States are in Baltimore this week for their annual Fall meeting, but this year’s reunion is anything but routine. It has been focused fundamentally on prayer, penance and deliberation, on the response to the new wave of sexual abuse scandals; in particular, on how bishops need to be, not part of the problem, but a crucial part of the solution.
For those looking for models, there are many from which to choose: Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, Hilary, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Augustine, Leo, Gregory, Peter Damian, Bellarmine, Francis de Sales, Alphonsus and any of the intrepidly heroic prelates of the faith of the 20th century under persecution.
But I think the greatest reforming bishop and model of all is St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), who reformed the Archdiocese of Milan and the Church universal after the terrible sins, scandal and disarray that precipitated the Protestant Reformation.
Here’s what he faced. The sprawling Archdiocese of Milan hadn’t had a resident bishop for eight decades. Many priests lived with concubines stolen from the married men of their parish, thought they were exempt from confession, and didn’t even know the formula of absolution to confess others.
“If you want to go to hell,” one popular saying intoned, “become a priest.”
One convent of religious women was so debauched that the nuns were simply called prostitutes. Several orders of men were depraved to the point that one tried to assassinate St. Charles while he was praying. Corruption of morals among civil leaders and average Joes was ubiquitous.
Needless to say, Charles Borromeo had a challenging assignment — and so does the Church today.
Most of the U.S. bishops seem to be firmly resolved to create structures to hold bishops accountable not only for their personal behavior but for their leadership with regard to sexual misconduct, even though the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops asked the U.S. Bishops to hold off on concrete decisions until a February summit on clergy sexual abuse with Pope Francis in the Vatican for heads of national and regional bishops’ conferences.
Such efforts and structures are not only proper and long overdue, but are essential for the arduous reestablishment of the credibility of their office and of their personal trustworthiness as disciples of Jesus Christ and successors of the apostles.
Whereas bishops were once presumed by Catholics and non-Catholics alike to be men of God, chosen only after a thorough process because they were exemplary priests with superb leadership skills, now bishops are in a situation in which many prejudicially assume they’re corrupt and incompetent in one way or many until they prove the opposite.
This assumption is, of course, grossly unfair, because most of the U.S. bishops today are prayerful, good shepherds, paying dearly for the sins of omission and commission of some of their predecessors. But their individual and collective suffering is doubtless part of the ecclesial reparation that has to happen — and that bishops, above all, must lead.
Regardless of what they may have thought awaited them when they received episcopal ordination, bishops today, to be effective, have no choice but to be true and thorough reformers. They can’t merely be good priests with a sacramental upgrade. They can’t be just competent managers and institutional maintenance men. They can’t be amiable and personally pious clerics who are intimidated before the wolves. They can’t be great evangelists who have no time for, or interest in, good governance and problem solving.
The new conditions of the episcopacy today, after the scandals, require that bishops be saintly reformers.
Reformers are not passive men. They are not naïve, excuse-makers. They are bold and prudent problem attackers, strong fathers intent on defending their family against danger. They live with a patient urgency.
Like Jesus they have a zeal for their Father’s house with the courage to confront moneychangers or anyone else turning God’s Church into a place of manipulation and sin. They can’t wait for the fire Jesus came to light on the earth to burn away whatever is unfit for the Kingdom and renew the face of the Church and earth. In a certain sense, they must be the catalyst for that fire.
Model of Reform
One reformer who knew how to be that fire was Charles Borromeo — and surprisingly so.
As Msgr. John Cihak points out in the first sentence of a great and much-needed new book, Charles Borromeo: Selected Orations, Homilies and Writings, “Charles Borromeo should have been part of the problem.” He was appointed cardinal at the age of 22 by his uncle, Pope Pius IV. It was a sinecure obtained by nepotism, for sure, and with it came a slew of benefices, including most importantly his role as the de facto secretary of state — all while not even being ordained.
Instead, however, God used Charles to be the point man to finish the Council of Trent, implement its decrees, publish its catechism, reform the liturgy and liturgical music and so much more.
After his uncle died, moved by pastoral zeal, he was able to persuade St. Pius V to allow him to go to Milan to serve the archdiocese.
When Charles arrived, he wasted no time. He didn’t need to wait a year to go on a listening tour to form a plan. He knew what the Church’s perennial pastoral plan of holiness was and he got right down to work:
- He reformed the bishops of the Milan province with various provincial councils to implement the decrees of the Council of Trent, because he recognized that if one diocese were faithful and another unfaithful, the people would rightly be confused.
- He reformed the clergy, arranging for retreats and appealing to wayward clerics to repent and “be who you were promised to be.” If they refused his entreaties, he removed and replaced them, because their sinful and scandalous behavior was an obvious impediment to reform.
- He reformed lax religious orders, sometimes with the help of the Pope, sometimes with the help of civil governments.
- He reformed priestly formation. Previously it was done by means of apprenticeship. He formed seminaries to ensure that future priests would be properly and adequately formed by some of the best priests he could find.
- He reformed parishes, traveling throughout his extensive diocese to get to know his priests and people and correcting abuses wherever he found them.
- He reformed the laity, especially corrupt civil officials, whom he first met with privately, but if they refused to convert, he went public and denounced their behavior for the scandal it was.
- He taught catechism himself and formed the first Catholic “Sunday School” system, requiring priests to teach, so that all the faithful would learn the faith.
- He excelled in charity, liquidating his personal fortune and so many possessions of the Archdiocese to care for the poor, especially during the famine of 1571 and the plague of 1576, when he fed 70,000 a day.
But most of all he reformed himself. He fasted, used traditional instruments of mortification, and limited his sleep to four hours a night.
If he was going to lead a reform of the Church from within, he knew that he himself needed to be constantly conformed to Christ. He was therefore able to hold others accountable by his example and not just his words.
None of the reforms Charles Borromeo implemented is particularly surprising. One didn’t have to be a genius to identify what the problems were.
What distinguished him was that with total resolve he dedicated himself to addressing rather than ducking the problems. He did so at the same time that he stressed not merely what Christian faith and morals oppose, but also the good news they affirm, so that people would learn the great yes of faith.
And he did all of this before he died at the age of 46.
During the Second Vatican Council, Pope St. Paul VI decreed that Charles Borromeo’s 12 orations to brother bishops and various sermons to priests be published and given to all the bishops of the world. They contained, Paul thought, the principles and paradigms of ecclesial reform in every age. Msgr. Cihak’s book translates many of these same writings into English for the first time.
These works of Charles Borromeo deserve to be read by all bishops today, and by everyone who loves the Church and is praying, fasting and working to see her reformed anew.