November 4 is the day when the Church honors St Charles whose life and pastoral activity was an inspiration to many, including St Eugene.
Charles Borromeo was born in northern Italy in 1538 to a wealthy, noble family. Trained in civil and canon law, he was called to Rome as a young man by his uncle, Pope Pius IV, to be secretary of state at the Vatican. He was made a cardinal at the age of 23. However he didn’t grow proud but discovered God’s call to serve the Church that was shaken by the turbulent events of those times. He played an important role in convincing Pius to reconvene the Council of Trent, which sought to address corruption in a sixteenth-century church longsuffering by Protestantism. Under the auspices of that council, Borromeo supervised the writing of an accurate catechism, rewrote liturgical texts and music, and began enforcing clerical reform in Rome. Pope Pius IV named Borromeo archbishop of Milan but kept him in Rome performing a multitude of official functions. When he was overseeing reform in Rome, a nobleman remarked that the latter city was no longer a place to enjoy oneself or to make a fortune. “Carlo Borromeo has undertaken to remake the city from top to bottom,” he said, predicting dryly that the reformer's enthusiasm “would lead him to correct the rest of the world once he has finished with Rome.”
When Borromeo arrived in Milan as Bishop of the city, he faced a daunting task. Milan was the largest archdiocese in Italy at the time, with more than 3,000 clergy and 800 thousand people. Both its clergy and laity had drifted from church teaching. The city had seen no resident bishop for 80 years and there was saying circulating around that “if somebody wanted to go to hell he should become a priest”. Borromeo immediately began his work. Setting an example of personal frugality and order, Borromeo reduced his household staff, forbade his retainers to accept any presents, and sold some of his property to help feed the poor. The young aristocratic bishop shocked priests and people when he began visiting the parishes of his vast diocese. He would walk the hills and valleys for a few months at a time. The locals couldn’t believe that the prince bishop was coming to them not to be greeted but to preach and pray with them.
During a plague in 1576, he stayed in the city and cared for the sick, ordering that decorative church hangings be tailored into clothing for the destitute. During a famine he incurred great debts to feed more than 60,000 people. In more ordinary times, he liked to wander the city praying with the people.
An energetic reformer who took “always the most austere and strict interpretation” of the dictates of the Council of Trent, Charles Borromeo was instrumental in helping reinvigorate the church of his time. His work, it is said, “gave new confidence to a shaken church.” He died in 1584, at age forty-six, tired from his labors.
St Eugene de Mazenod loved the Saint Cardinal who devoted his life to heal the wounds of the Church. The zeal and vision of St Charles he wanted to make the inspiration for the Oblates who were facing a similar situation in France after the French Revolution. Although we aren’t called Oblates of St Charles any longer but the Holy Bishop of Milan is still our dear patron and inspiration. The fact that he would never leave his crucifix behind makes him even closer to the Oblates who following the request of St Eugene de Mazenod wear their crucifixes as the reminder of what it means that God loves us.