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The History of Saint Charles Borromeo


Archbishop of Milan and Cardinal (1538 - 1584)

Of all the great holy churchmen who worked for a true and much needed reformation in the Church in the 16th century to correct real abuses and evil living, none was greater than Cardinal Charles Borromeo. He is considered to be one of the four outstanding public men of the so-called Counter Reformation along with Pius VI, St. Philip Nero, and St. Ignatius Loyola.

An aristocrat by birth, of the Medici family, nephew of Pope Pius IV, Charles was born in the castle of Arona on Lake Maggiore on October 5, 1538. At the age of twelve, he received the clerical tonsure and was entered at the Benedictine Abbey at Arona. At the University of Pavia, because of an impediment in his speech, he was esteemed slow, but he made good progress. The prudence and strictness of his conduct made him a model for the youth at the university. At the age of twenty-two, after both of his parents had died, he earned a doctorate. Early in 1560, the new Pope Pius VI created him Cardinal Deacon and named him administrator of the see of Milan. Charles, however, remained in Rome where he performed many duties and received many honors.

Charles was a patron of learning and promoted it among the clergy. He instituted a literary academy in the Vatican. Charles was instrumental in bringing about reassembly of the Council of Trent which had been suspended in 1522, and the council was reopened in 1526. Charles is generally credited with keeping the council together during its most critical and trying period. He was the mastermind and the ruling spirit of the third and last period of the Council of Trent. Charles accomplished this although he was still in minor orders.

Charles was ordained in 1563 and shortly thereafter was consecrated bishop. Although he was finally able to go to Milan and perform his duties, he was soon recalled to Rome when Pope Pius IV died. He returned to Milan in 1566 where he sold his family treasures and turned all of the receipts to charitable uses. He instituted many reforms, since the church in Milan had fallen into gross abuses and practices. His reforms have served ever since as models. He established the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD). He was the originator of “Sunday Schools” and what became known as “the Confessional,” a private booth constructed to protect the anonymity of persons confessing their sins, who previously were sometimes the victims of extortion by unscrupulous clergy. In 1578, he instituted the society of secular priests called the Oblates of St. Ambrose. An attempted assassination of St. Charles took place in October 1569 as a result of the many reforms which he instituted.

St. Charles Borromeo was zealous in parochial visitations with particular devotion to the sick and infirmed and opened three seminaries.

In 1584, His health began to deteriorate, and on October 29, 1584, with the words Ecce Venio (Behold, I come) Charles died at the age of 46.