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St. Charles Borromeo Print E-mail

November 10, 2010 lThe Long Island Catholic Vol. 49, No. 29 | BISHOP WILLIAM MURPHY


On November 1 of this year, the Ambrosian Archdiocese of Milan celebrated the 400th anniversary of the canonization of St. Charles Borromeo. This extraordinary figure was canonized in 1610, only 26 years after his death in 1584 at the age of 46. Born into a Milanese noble family, he was early on headed toward a life in the Church as a priest. He studied canon and civil law at Pavia not far from Milan where today stands one of the most ancient and beautiful Carthusian monasteries in all of Italy.

When his uncle, Cardinal Giovan Angelo Medici, was elected Pope in 1559 as Pope Pius IV, young Charles was brought to Rome, created a cardinal, and named the Major Penitentiary of the Holy Roman Church. Shortly after that, he was named by Pius IV to be the Archbishop of Milan which was badly in need of a new bishop. There the future saint addressed the problems of the lax morals of both priests and laity. He introduced reforms and began a seminary in light of the teachings of the great Council of Trent at whose sessions the young bishop played an active and prominent role. He was a tireless preacher and a pastor who travelled throughout his diocese. Seeing the need of better education in faith and morals, especially for the young, he formed the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine which remains to this day both in Milan and throughout much of the Church the banner under which catechesis and faith formation is offered to children and adults in the Church.

While his reforming spirit provoked hostility from clergy and laity, his influence went far beyond Milan, especially in Italy and neighboring Switzerland. When he was canonized in 1610 by Pope Paul V, the news was greeted with great enthusiasm by all ranks of Catholics who found in him a pastor and a teacher whose life was truly worthy of imitation by priest and bishop and whose words touched hearts and reformed lives.

All that helps to explain why, on November 1 of this year, Pope Benedict sent a letter to the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, to join his voice to all those in Milan and beyond who were observing this anniversary as a way to honor the memory of the saint and recall his person and his teaching for the good of the Church today.

Pope Benedict framed his reflection on Borromeo’s commitment to be the light of charity by dedicating himself to the most radical life of renewal as a means of reform for himself and for all. In difficult times he gave himself completely to the service of God and the Church. While he was especially concerned to bring the clergy back to a deeper spiritual life by a reform of morals and a commitment to deeper prayer, his own life became a model of Christ’s and an example for both priest and laity. “He knew that a serious and credible reform must begin with the pastors … and so he turned to the traditional and ever living sources: the centrality of the Eucharist wherein he discovered and presented anew the adorable presence of the Lord and His sacrifice of love for our salvation, the spirituality of the cross as the true force for renewal, capable of inspiring people to the practice of the theological virtues, frequent recourse to the sacraments, meditation on the Word of God interpreted according to the tradition of the Church, love and devotion for the Holy Father which leads to ready and filial obedience as the guarantee of true and full ecclesial communion.”

Shortly after I read this moving letter I found in a national Catholic weekly a report on the letter which pleased and surprised me. The writer stressed the need for conversion which is so much a part of St. Charles’ message and always integral to any real reform and renewal. He concluded his summary of Pope Benedict’s letter with these words: “the Pope urged all priests and deacons to turn their lives into ‘a courageous journey toward sainthood and to not fear the exhilaration of Christ’s trusting love.’”
What followed this article is what dismayed me: the comments of Catholics in response to the article and to the Pope’s letter. One after another person attacked the person of the Pope as well as the bishops. One said, “I am beginning to have serious doubts about this man’s (Benedict) ability to sit in the chair of Peter.” From there it went downhill with all kinds of angry, ill-informed and uncivil, un-Christian and vulgar language even to the point of one person claiming that the Borromeo family “bought St. Charles’ canonization for the sake of family prestige.”

This kind of comment is unworthy of any follower of Jesus Christ. It leads only to more and more destructive talk and behavior. It tears down the very sinews of the sacramental and hierarchical Church that is the mystery of salvation and the visible sacrament of unity. It should not exist within the Church and it should give anyone who uses such language cause to stop, reflect and examine his or her own conscience. The spirit and the substance of Pope Benedict’s letter have been betrayed and the betrayal does not stop with the reaction to his letter. It is, in a theological sense, truly scandalous.

By contrast Pope Benedict dedicated the last part of his letter on the holy archbishop of Milan to an appeal to young people to learn from St. Charles, whose true life begins with his courageous “YES” to seeking holiness through personal conversion and penance. “From his youth Saint Charles knew that holiness was possible and that conversion of life is able to overcome every bad attitude or habit. In this way he made his very youth a gift of love to Christ and to the Church, becoming a giant of holiness for all time.”

May the youth of our diocese learn from the example of St. Charles and may they be the sign of holiness in the future that puts to rest those who would subvert the shining example and teaching of St. Charles, Pope Benedict, and all the priests and bishops of the Church in communion with him.

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