Charles Borromeo was born to be a footnote. He had all the signs of being a very important person of his time and place who would do the expected and conventional things well, be praised at his death, and then quickly forgotten. God however gave him a way to greatness.
Charles was born in 1538, the third son of the count of Arona on the southern bank of Lake Maggiore. He was destined for the church and by the age of 12 received a substantial income from church properties. As a young man, he excelled in both civil and canon law and received a doctorate at 21. Several weeks later, his uncle Cardinal Giovanni Medici, was elected Pope Pius IV and was summoned to Rome. He was made a cardinal almost immediately. This was not uncommon. Renaissance Italy was a treacherous place and only family, and not always them, could be trusted. The Pope would find his most talented nephew and bring him immediately into the papal government. As “Cardinal-Nephew” Charles was given many important duties including governing the Papal States. He also organized the third and last session of the Council of Trent which sought to reform the church. These were all signs of a safe future in every sense of the word.
He was considered somewhat odd. He had considerable wealth but lived austerely. If that were all he would at best merited a paragraph in Church history as an honorable man who sought to do good in a corrupt system. However, he was still an aristocrat in a palace removed from common life. He would need to take greater risks if he were to be more than a decent honest man. His older brother’s death was his first opportunity. Although a cardinal, Charles was not a priest and was urged to give up his church titles and return home, have children, and maintain the family line. He decided against this and was ordained a Priest and Bishop in 1563. The next year he was made the Archbishop of Milan, the richest prize in Italy after the Papacy itself.
It was never thought that he would actually leave Rome and go take up his duties in Milan. Rather it was expected that would continue to be an important player in Church politics although marked by real humility and piety. Although it took him a year, he was able to persuade his uncle to let him go to Milan. He was the first archbishop of Milan to physically live there in 80 years. The people were so happy that they rang church bells for 3 days, not I hope continually.
Milan had 800,000 people and 3,000 clergy. Both were ignorant of church teaching and hostile to virtue. He set about reforming everything and everyone. He was rewarded with the clearest sign of a true reformer: one of his priests tried to assassinate him. His reforms would be almost tedious to list and include the development of modern religious education for children and seminaries for Priests.
For this, he would have merited a few more paragraphs in church history books as a good man and a more than competent administrator. His turn towards real sanctity occurred with a major famine followed by a plague in 1576. The city closed, the rich left, and those who remained, even if they did not get sick, nonetheless went hungry. Charles stayed with the people and fed them spiritually and physically. He knew that the churches were dangerous and allowed Mass on the streets. He also fed between 60,000 to 70,000 people a day. This bankrupted him and forced him into debt. It also so embarrassed the civil leaders that they returned to the city.
St. Charles was challenged repeatedly by events around him and each time chose to follow God. As Pope Francis reminds us so often reform comes not from the centers of power and prestige but from the periphery. It must be forced out of us. It was poverty that brought out the true richness of his character.
I think we of St. Charles Parish have seen this over the last few years. Our response to Covid was immediately to connect with our parishioners. We proved that virtual does not mean unreal. But then by a series of coincidences parishioners brought the food pantry from Catholic Charities to the rear of our church. As has been noted on its anniversary, we have fed more people than can fit in the largest football stadium in the United States.
When asylum seekers were sent to Brooklyn from the border, parishioners were ready to help in many ways. As you can see, one side of our church is a warehouse for clothing for them. I think however St. Charles, the lawyer, would have been most pleased when we hosted the legal information day on asylum law. I remember that day looking at the stained-glass window above the altar portraying St. Charles caring for the hungry in the plague and thinking that we too were being called from the periphery to reform ourselves Our Patron shows us the balance which characterizes the Christian life. He sustained people spiritually with the Eucharist and physically with daily bread. I am happy that we will be beautifying the church with new paint and restored murals but just as beautiful are the boxes of clothes and bags of food in our pews
St. Charles lived at a time when the society and church were going to change either intentionally, by chance, or by force. St. Charles had a profound effect on this change. Because of his involvement with the poor and needy, he became a great man rather than just a good one and an important chapter in Church History. We are also in a time of great difficulty and our lives will change with or without our conscious involvement. St. Charles Borromeo parish is called to follow our patron, seek out those on the margins and be not merely good but truly great.