Today is the feast of St Charles Borromeo, a saint whom I greatly like, as for four years I said mass and heard confessions in the Roman basilica dedicated to him – San Carlo al Corso, which contains the relic of his heart. There are other churches dedicated to St Charles in the city, in particular the exquisite San Carlino all Quattro Fontane which is the masterpiece of Borromini. San Carlo al Corso is huge, and far less architecturally distinguished. It was there however that Pope Pius XI, Achille Ratti, said his first Mass, no doubt because he had been born in St Charles’s diocese. He was later to become Archbishop of Milan himself, before being elected Pope. Pope Paul VI followed a similar trajectory.
St Charles is the greatest figure of the Counter-Reformation, or at least the greatest episcopal figure. He put the decrees of the Council of Trent into practice, by making them happen in his diocese, against huge opposition, and also by living out the vocation of a bishop as envisaged by the decrees of the Council. As soon as he was able, he lived in his diocese, and he visited parishes, and actually did pastoral work. He clamped down on clerical profligacy, and also dealt with heresy and witchcraft in his diocese, which was in a poor state when he took it over – but not when he left it.
My favourite story about St Charles goes like this (I am unable to find a source for it, and it may be apocryphal). He turned up in a small village to do a pastoral visitation, and found the church locked, and in bad repair. Once it was opened up, he was horrified to see evidence of neglect everywhere. Even the tabernacle seemed to have been abandoned. The local priest was living with his housekeeper and the population had stopped coming to church. So the saint went into the empty church and knelt in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Very slowly, one by one, the villagers joined him, and knelt in silent prayer. After a considerable time, the church filled until all the villagers were there. Then the saint arranged for priests to hear confessions and celebrated Mass for the entire population. And thus, without a word spoken, St Charles restored the faith in one corner of the Lord’s vineyard.
As I say, I am not sure of the truth of this story, but as a parable it is certainly true. I wonder what happened to the reprobate priest? The story certainly makes you think, and has a contemporary application.
St Charles was a very austere man, and devoted to the poor. Like many such, including St Francis, he died young, at the age of 49, probably of exhaustion. Incidentally, the tradition of Saint Charles lives on, and the Archdiocese of Milan flourishes to this day: vast, urban, industrial and Catholic. It has had some great archbishops like Montini and Ratti. Here is a link to some pictures of the diocese celebrating the clothing of its priestly candidates, all of whom are rocking cassocks and some incredibly cool eyewear; there are also several pictures of some happy and formidable nuns: enjoy!
Incidentally, St Charles received many English exiles into his diocese, and St Edmund Campion spent a week with him on his way to martyrdom on England. May St Charles continue to show an interest in England from his glorious place in heaven!