What Some Synod Fathers Could Learn from St. Charles Borromeo
by Donald S. Prudlo
"The whole and complete doctrine of the Church is mercy for a fallen humanity. Truth is mercy; error is slavery. Carlo demonstrates for us that the Church needs reform in every age, but it must be a reform that results in a reconformation to the face of her Founder."
The Archdiocese of Milan is one of the most ancient and honored in the Latin Christian world. Named the Ambrosian See, it was the seat of St. Ambrose, and possessor of an ancient and venerable western liturgical rite of its own. Milan, the mighty city on the Lombard plain, has ever been at the crossroads of history. It had the honor of witnessing the legalization of Christianity in 313 AD, the victory over the Arian heretics of the west, the assertion of the superiority of the spiritual power of Ambrose over Emperor Theodosius, and the baptism of Augustine himself.
Milan was the cradle of saints, and their constant meeting place. It saw Charlemagne’s overthrow of the Lombard barbarians, and its own citizens, tired of the corruption of their priests, expelled their own vicious clergy en masse in the 1070s, becoming the testing ground for reformed Gregorian Catholicism. Milan stood for the freedom of the Italian city-states against the absolutizing tendencies of the German emperors, suffering terribly in its struggle, but finally emerging victorious. It was natural then that she would take an honored place in the history of the reform of the Church after the Council of Trent, under the leadership of one of her most famous sons, Carlo Borromeo.
A scion of Italian nobility, Carlo was born into the highest echelons of Renaissance life. The nephew of Pius IV, he was destined for great things in the Church. His successful career demonstrates the positive possibilities of Renaissance political life. Given every chance at success by his lineage and connections, he seized each opportunity and turned it to the service of God, the Church, and his people. While many with similar chances squandered their advantages, Carlo showed that such assets should not be guiltily eschewed or be a cause of embarrassment, so long as they are put to the service of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
Carlo was prepared for his later career by his aristocratic responsibilities, becoming a skilled administrator and diplomat at a very young age. At the same time he tirelessly pursued his studies, becoming a Doctor utriusque Iuris (a Doctor of both Civil and Canon Law) at 21 years old. With the accession of his uncle to the throne of Peter, he was called to Rome, and immediately was created a cardinal-deacon. Such a position was advantageous because he became one of the closest associates of the pope, with all the dignity of a cardinal, but without the responsibility for care of souls. He reformed the city of Rome and the Papal States thoroughly, and was given increasing responsibilities. The papal curia was purified by his example of holiness and sobriety. He cultivated the friendship of other saints, such as Philip Neri, and together they provided the pattern for a renewed curia. He gathered a circle of learned friends around him, and sponsored literary, academic, and musical activity, being in particular a patron of Palestrina.
For his handling of the delicate negotiations needed for keeping the Council of Trent from falling apart, Carlo was awarded with the see of Milan. He began to shift his focus as well, for he had experienced a deep spiritual conversion as the result of the untimely death of his elder brother, and dedicated the rest of his life entirely to the good of his people and his Church. Being one of the most famous and largest sees in Christendom, Milan was a microcosm that displayed both the grandeur and the corruption of Renaissance Catholicism.
Carlo set about immediately implementing the reforming decrees of Trent. Had other bishops swiftly implemented the decrees, as Carlo had, the damage from the Reformation may have been mightily checked. In any case, Carlo found a diocese filled to the brim with time-servers, beneficed layabouts, and outright corrupt and vile clergy. He set out for a purification. He set the tone with his mighty motto Humilitas, and he began to demonstrate one of the most powerful roles in all of Church history: that of a holy bishop. Carlo knew that the mission of the Church to convert the nations and to win back the Protestants must begin at home. The Church must be reformed from within, before she could bear effective testimony without.
He was convinced that the heart of the problem was the abuses caused, intentionally or not, by ignorant clergy. Corruption was comparatively easy to root up, but the wholesale reeducation of the clergy was a project for generations. To this end he set up the massive seminary of San Pietro Martire on the site of that saint’s murder in Seveso. It was to be the prototype of the professionalization of the clergy that would set a pattern for the rest of the Catholic world, one of the most significant developments in the last 500 years of Catholicism. He knew that care of priests was essential before the laity could be properly educated and cultivated.
For Carlo, doctrine was at the heart of his pastoral ministry. Trent had codified dogma, and made it the basis of its reforming decrees. Carlo carried this message that the truth itself was the best foundation of pastoral ministry. He reformed recalcitrant monks and nuns, calling them back to fidelity to their oaths and vows, rather than tolerating their laxity. Indeed one decadent member of the order of the Humiliati even tried to assassinate him at prayer, firing a point blank shot that miraculously left him nearly unharmed. He himself was one of the saints in charge of the Roman Catechism, and the founder of the concept of Sunday school for lay children, educating them in the rudiments of the Catholic faith. He brought to the streets of Milan Truth incarnated as a person, both in the Blessed Sacrament, and in his life of imitating Christ. There was no divorce between his pastoral and doctrinal responsibilities, such a novel idea would have been treated by him as the worst form of heresy. For Carlo, Christ the Merciful was Incarnate Truth itself.