St. Charles Borromeo: A Sketch of the Reforming Cardinal

St. Charles Borromeo: A Sketch of the Reforming Cardinal by Louise M. Stacpoole-Kenny, 1911

In those days when passions ran riot, and the knowledge of the truth was almost completely perverted and obscured, there was a continual struggle with errors, and human society, going from bad to worse, seemed to be rushing towards the abyss. In the midst of these errors rose up proud and rebellious men, “enemies of the Cross of Christ . . . men of earthly sentiments whose god is their belly” (Phil. iii. 18, 19). These, bent not on correcting morals, but on denying dogmas, multiplied the disorder, loosening for themselves and for others the bridle of licentiousness, and condemning the authoritative guidance of the Church to pander to the passions of the most corrupt princes and peoples, with a virtual tyranny overturned its doctrine, constitution, discipline.

Saints of the Faith: Saint Charles Borromeo
St. Charles Borromeo

Then, imitating those sinners to whom was addressed the menace, “Woe to you who call evil good, and good evil!” (Isa. v. 20), that tumult of rebellion and that perversion of faith and morals they called reformation and themselves reformers. But in truth they were corrupters; for, undermining with dissensions and wars the forces of Europe, they paved the way for the rebellions and the apostasy of modern times, in which were united and renewed in one onslaught those three kinds of conflict, hitherto separated, from which the Church has always issued victorious–the bloody conflicts of the first ages, then the internal pest of heresies, and finally, under the name of evangelical liberty, a vicious corruption and a perversion of discipline unknown, perhaps, in mediaeval times.

To this crowd of seducers God opposed real reformers and holy men to arrest the impetuous current and extinguish the conflagration, and to repair the harm already done. Their assiduous and manifold works for the reformation of discipline was all the more comforting to the Church by reason of the great tribulation that afflicted it, and afforded a proof of the words, ” God is faithful, who . . . also with temptation will make issue” (i Cor. x. 13). It was in these circumstances that by a Providential disposition the singular zeal and sanctity of Charles Borromeo came to bring fresh consolation to the Church.

For God so ordained that his ministry was to have a force and efficacy all its own, not only in checking the audacity of the factious, but in teaching and kindling the children of the Church. He curbed the mad ardours of the former, and refuted their futile charges with the most powerful eloquence by the example of his life and labours; he raised the hopes of the latter and revived their zeal. And it was truly wonderful how from his youth he united in himself all those qualities of the real reformer, which in others we see scattered and isolated: virtue, sense, doctrine, authority, power, quickness; and how he combined them all to serve for the defence of Catholic truth against the onrush of heresies, as is the proper mission of the Church, reviving the faith that had grown dormant and almost extinct in many, strengthening it by provident laws and institutions, restoring the discipline that had been dethroned, and strenuously leading back the morals of the clergy and people to the tenor of Christian life.

Thus, while he accomplishes all the offices of the reformer, he also duly discharges all the functions of the “good and faithful servant,” and later those of the great priest who “pleased God in his days, and was found just,” and therefore worthy to be taken as an example by all classes of persons, clergy and laity, rich and poor; like those whose excellence is summarized in the encomium of Bishop and prelate, by which obeying the words of the Apostolic Peter he made himself a “pattern of the flock from the heart” (i Pet. v. 3).

No less admirable is the fact that Charles, before reaching the age of twenty-three, although raised to the highest honours and entrusted with important and most difficult affairs of the Church, made daily progress in the more perfect exercise of virtue, through that contemplation of Divine things which in sacred retirement had already renewed him, and he shone forth ” a spectacle to the world, to the angels, and to men.

Then indeed, to use again the words of our predecessor Paul V., the Lord began to show forth in Charles His wonders: wisdom, justice, burning zeal in promoting the glory of God and the Catholic name, and, above all things, solicitude for that work of restoration of the faith and of the Universal Church which was treated in the august gathering of Trent.”–pages xvi. – xviii.

(From the Encyclical Letter of Pope St. Pius X.)

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