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Memorial of St. Charles Borromeo

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By Melanie Williams (Nov 4, 2016)
Born in 1538 to one of the most wealthy and notable families in all of Lombardy, Italy, Saint Charles Borromeo reformed the Church in his time, beginning with himself.

At the age of 12, Charles dedicated his life to the service of the Church. The surplus wealth that was given to him by his family he gave to the poor. His father died when he was 16 years old, and the responsibility for his household fell to him. The family began to have a reputation of being short of funds, and, because of a speech impediment, he appeared to others to be slow. Despite these difficulties, Charles studied civil and canon law at the University of Pavia and graduated with honors.

When Charles was 22, his uncle was elected Pope Pius IV. The Holy Father requested that Charles come to Rome where he made him a cardinal to assist and advise him. Being a cardinal at the time was a legal position, not necessarily including priestly ordination. At a young age, Charles began governing groups in the Church and establishing schools and academies.

In 1560, when Charles was appointed administrator of the Archdiocese of Milan, the largest diocese in the Catholic Church at the time, and running rampant with corruption, he discerned that the Lord was calling him to the priesthood. Charles was ordained a priest in September 1563, a bishop three months later, and archbishop of Milan in May 1564.

Charles then made it his life's mission to reform the Church of his time. The Protestant Reformation was spreading throughout northern Europe, and it was threatening to run south. Charles knew that the clergy of his time needed to shape up — renouncing their excess wealth and being taught in solid seminaries — to hold the Church together in the midst of the growing spread of Protestantism. He implemented everything that the Church had discussed at the Council of Trent, which he participated in.

Charles founded multiple seminaries and colleges for clergy, he ended the selling of indulgences, and he ordered wealthy monasteries to reform themselves. The introduction of these reforms did not come without opposition. A gunman once tried to assassinate Charles with a pistol, but the shot missed him.

In 1576 famine and the plague struck Milan. Most of the wealthy and powerful fled the city, but Archbishop Borromeo remained. He used what money he had to feed the poor and took out loans to continue feeding the poor when he ran out of money. Some sources say he fed as many as 70,000 a day. Eventually he convinced the governor to return to the city and take care of the people.

In 1583, Charles traveled around Europe to preach against the Protestant Reformation. He gave many sermons and teachings to clergymen which has made him the patron saint of seminarians, spiritual directors, bishops, and religious leaders.

In 1584 his life's work began to take its toll. In ill health, he returned to Milan, where he died at the age of 46. Pope Paul V canonized him 26 years later.

The following is from a exhortation St. Charles Borromeo gave to clergy. It is read today in the Office of Readings by all clergy and religious:

"My brothers, you must realize that for us churchmen nothing is more necessary than meditation. We must meditate before, during, and after everything we do. The prophet says: 'I will pray, and then I will understand.' When you administer the sacraments, meditate on what you are doing. When you celebrate Mass, reflect on the sacrifice you are offering. When you pray the office, think about the words you are saying and the Lord to whom you are speaking. When you take care of your people, meditate on the Lord's blood that has washed them clean. In this way, all that you do becomes a work of love."

These words can apply to us as well. We must pray in all that we do, so that all we do becomes a work of love. By works of love we can transform the world.

Saint Charles knew that. Before he told anyone else to give up their wealth, he did it first. Before he instructed anyone on morals, he led an integral and virtuous life. If we want to see change in the world, we must begin with ourselves.

Let us pray to St. Charles Borromeo this day — that we may be beacons of light in the darkness. Let us reform our lives to be like Christ, who lives not for Himself, but completely for others. Let every work you do be an act of love.

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