Charles Borromeo (1538-84) was one of the great saints of the Catholic Reformation, who realised in action the episcopal ideals set by the Council of Trent (1545-63).
Yet in youth he profited from the simony and nepotism which the Council attacked. From the age of 12 he received the revenues of a rich Benedictine abbey.
Furthermore, after his Medici uncle became Pope Pius IV in 1559, Charles received a host of offices, culminating in his appointment at 22 as administrator of the vast archbishopric of Milan.
In Rome the child of fortune lived on a magnificent scale. In his mind, though, he dreamed of escaping such luxury.
Under Pius IV’s direction he organised the reopening of the Council of Trent in 1562. His spirit animated the final stages of the Council; in particular he played an important part in drawing up the Catechism, and defining the Church’s attitude to music.
At Mass, “the whole plan of singing should be constituted not to give empty pleasure to the ear, but in such a way that the words be clearly understood by all”. Charles was a patron of Palestrina.
The death in 1562 of his brother Federico proved the decisive moment in Charles’s life. Though now head of his family, he turned over such secular cares to an uncle, and next year was ordained.
Soon afterwards he was consecrated Archbishop of Milan and became the first resident holder of that position for 80 years.
From the start his considerable income was devoted entirely to charity, while he himself lived in the utmost austerity. “The best way not to find a bed cold is to go colder to bed than the bed is,” he opined.
Charles placed especial emphasis on the creation of diocesan seminaries. He also founded the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, which taught children in Sunday schools. His missionary activities extended into the remotest Alpine valleys.
Among the beneficiaries of his charity was the English College at Douai. Charles practised a strong devotion to St John Fisher; and in 1580 saw Edmund Campion, who was passing through Milan en route to England, where he would be martyred.
Another English admirer, nearly three centuries later, would be Henry (later Cardinal) Manning, who took the archbishop’s Oblates of St Ambrose as the model for the Oblates of St Charles in Bayswater.
Some religious orders, though, resented Charles’s reforming zeal. Indeed the Humiliati were so outraged that in 1569 one of them attempted to assassinate the archbishop while at prayer. The bullet, however, failed to penetrate his clothes and fell harmlessly to the ground.
The Milanese, by contrast, came to revere Charles Borromeo, especially after the relief which he organised during the famine and plague which the city suffered in 1576.