St. Charles Borromeo — the Bishop Who Could Never Be Intimidated

“Don’t prefer a long life over a holy one,” said the extraordinarily holy bishop, who died at age 46.

Johann Michael Rottmayr, “Saint Charles Borromeo,” 1714
Johann Michael Rottmayr, “Saint Charles Borromeo,” 1714 (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

I knew next to nothing about St. Charles Borromeo up until a few years ago. I knew that he’d founded a seminary or two, and I presumed he’d been a holy bishop — maybe an archbishop — a long time ago, but that was the extent of my information. Then, in 2018, my husband and I named our first son Charles, and I began seeking out everything I could find on St. Charles Borromeo, determined to learn all I could about the saint under whose patronage I was placing my son.

St. Charles Borromeo, relegated in my mind to the parish signs of a few churches and seminaries I’d driven by, leaps off the pages of history as a figure of heroic virtue. A member of the powerful Medici family, and nephew to Pope Pius IV, it would have been a very simple thing for the future saint, named the Archbishop of Milan while a young man, to live a life of ease and luxury. He could have chosen, as too many bishops did at that time, to neglect his flock while enjoying the prestige of his office and the income of his diocese.

Borromeo eschewed this narrative from the outset. He fully grasped that his role as bishop was to serve as a successor to the Apostles, and thus to be a shepherd to Christ’s flock on earth. He understood that he was responsible for the moral and spiritual formation of the souls entrusted to him, and he acted accordingly.

Rather than leverage his familial connections for gain, he used his influence to rally the flailing Council of Trent, in which he played a pivotal role. It is him we should thank for ensuring our bishops may only have one diocese under their authority, and for requiring that bishops live in their assigned diocese. Charles also established the system of seminaries for clergy members, realizing that education and catechesis would be critical in combating the heresies propagated by the Protestant Reformation, and in stamping out malfeasance among the Catholic priests and bishops.

St. Charles Borromeo’s efforts at reform were successful not only because of his tireless efforts and academic brilliance in jurisprudence and canon law, but because he understood that all reform began in the heart. To that end, while he sought to stem the rampant corruption in Milan and throughout the Church in Europe, he adopted a life of strict fasting, penance and prayer, sleeping only a few hours a night and spending hours in Eucharistic Adoration. In his homilies and correspondence, Borromeo encouraged his priests to follow suit, and to lead their congregations by examples of personal piety and prayer.

When the plague beset Milan and civil authorities fled the city for the safety of the country, Archbishop Borromeo remained, tending to the sick and the dying, feeding them from his private fortune. Forced by the government to shutter the doors of his church, he held Masses in the public squares so people would not be deprived of seeing Christ in the Eucharist from their windows. He wrote clear instructions to the priests in his archdiocese, enjoining them to stay and not cease ministering to the souls in the city who desperately needed access to the sacraments as they faced their deaths. One story passed down through the centuries tells of how Borromeo, seeing a man near death atop a pile of corpses waiting for the death cart, climbed up the stack of bodies in order to give the dying man the Last Rites and usher him through to eternity.

Despite his ceaseless service to the poor, Borromeo’s objective was not to fix a world he knew was fallen and broken. Rather, he kept his eyes on eternity and in so doing became an instrument of God’s redeeming work on earth. When a priest complained about the penances and fasting Borromeo quipped: “Don’t prefer a long life over a holy one.”

Though many opposed his reforms, Borromeo remained entirely unconcerned with their approval, looking only to Christ. While leading evening prayer one night, a would-be assassin, one of a larger group of people upset at Borromeo’s efforts, shot him in the back. Wounded, although not fatally, Borromeo looked up from his prayers and said to his brothers: “I have been shot. Keep praying.” Nothing, not even a bullet, could shift his gaze from the eternal.

St. Charles Borromeo was given 46 years on this earth — 46 years to pour himself out for the kingdom and to allow God to work through his life. He did not waste a moment. He was an archbishop, but his life serves as an example to all Catholics. All of us are called to be saints and all of us are called to use our lives to bring others to Christ.

Speaking on his patron’s feast day in 1978, St. John Paul II (born Karol, the Polish form of “Charles”) said “[Saint Charles Borromeo] was a servant of souls, who never let himself be intimidated; a servant of the suffering, of the sick, of those condemned to death.” 

A “servant of souls.” May we all have such a thing said of us. 

St. Charles Borromeo, pray for us!