St Charles Borromeo - whose feast we celebrated on 4 November - is, amongst other things, the patron saint of bishops, catechists, seminarians, and spiritual directors. He is perhaps best known to history as the ‘hyperactive’ Archbishop of Milan who invented the confessional. A towering figure in the dogmatic and pastoral reforms of the Church following the Council of Trent, he has a colossal copper statue to his name close to his hometown, on a hill overlooking Lake Maggiore, known as ‘the great Saint Charles’ – il sancarlone (which is said to have been one of the inspirations for the Statue of Liberty).
What is less well known is that he also largely owed his vocation to the Spiritual Exercises and became a powerful and influential friend to the Society of Jesus in its early years. Though they never met, he had a great devotion to St Ignatius and the first generation of Jesuits exerted a considerable amount of influence on the future saint.
Like Ignatius himself, Charles (or Carlo, as he would have been called) was born into the nobility, growing up in the family castle of Arona, about forty miles from Milan. He is described as having been a bookish and rather serious child, made shy by a bad stammer, who had a deep love of music [Margaret Yeo, A Prince of Pastors: St Charles Borromeo]. He grew up somewhat in the shadow of his popular and sporty older brother, Federico, in an unusually pious household (by the standards of the time). His mother – who died when Charles was nine – was known for her almsgiving and works of charity while his father spent long hours in prayer, often dressed in sackcloth, and received Communion twice a week.
Borromeo seems to have had a very early sense of religious vocation quite independent of his family’s clear ambitions for him in the Church. At the age of 12 he was tonsured and appointed abbot of the lucrative family-owned Abbey of Arona. However, it is said that he insisted the revenues ‘belonged to God’ not to the Borromeos and made sure that any deductions from the income were treated as ‘loans’ to be repaid to the poor. Charles was a gifted administrator, verging on the obsessive, and had a very strong sense of propriety which was increasingly at odds with the unreformed ‘spiritual worldliness’ he encountered in the Renaissance Church.
Borromeo worked hard to obtain a doctorate in civil and canon law from the University of Pavia, overcoming a breakdown following the death of his father in 1558, after which he assumed responsibility for managing the family estate and taking care of his stepmother and four younger sisters. A year later, he was catapulted into the limelight when his uncle Giovanni Angelo de Medici (a distant relative of the infamous Florentine Medici) was elected Pope Pius IV.
Overnight, enormous wealth and power were at the family’s fingertips. The young Charles was summoned directly to Rome and welcomed by 200 velvet-coated servants into sumptuous Vatican apartments. He was made a cardinal, papal Secretary of State and Administrator of the Archdiocese of Milan: all at only 22 years of age, with no theological training and whilst still in minor orders. It is impressive, and perhaps ironic, that such a beneficiary of nepotism with so much temptation to self-aggrandisement would go on to become one of the best-known Church reformers of the age.
Rather than distract his sense of purpose, however, Charles’ sudden rise to prominence seems only to have confirmed his sense that God was calling him to great service in the Church. As his uncle’s right-hand man, he took a leading role when the pope decided to re-convene the Council of Trent after a fifteen-year hiatus for its third and final session (January 1562 to December 1563). Borromeo effectively held the Council together in its last sessions – demonstrating remarkable skill in diplomacy despite his lack of experience – and he left a strong imprint on some of the key documents to emerge, particularly the 1566 Catechism. The style and tone of the reforming Church after Trent was very much after Charles’ own heart: doctrinally rigorous, liturgically standardised, and administratively centred in Rome.
Despite the career opportunities before him in Rome, Borromeo’s heart was very much in Milan where he longed to carry out his true vocation: that of priest and bishop in his own diocese, following the example of his 4th-centuryhero, St Ambrose. He was also being increasingly drawn to a life of austerity and withdrawal from the world. Discomfort with his privileged life as a prince of the Church grew after Borromeo met St Philip Neri – founder of the secular order of priests known as the Oratory and a close contact of Ignatius for many years. Neri – another leading figure of the Counter Reformation - was to remain a lifelong friend.
But Charles also became very familiar with the Jesuit community in Rome, which included Francis Borgia at this time. The Jesuit house provided him with a welcome retreat from the pressures and intrigue of the papal court and Trent, and he was apparently struck by the startling contrast between the Jesuits’ rough clothing and his own finery; their simple lifestyle and his own, as a ‘prince of the Church’. This made a deep impression on him.
Family crisis played another part in his ongoing conversion following the sudden death, without heirs, of his brother Federico from a fever in November 1562.Tradition, honour, and family pressure dictated that Charles now marry and assume his rightful place as head of the Borromeo dynasty. What was he to do?
Significantly, it was at this point that Charles decided to quietly make the Spiritual Exercises, under the guidance of Juan Bautista de Ribera – then the Jesuit procurator general in Rome - who ended up becoming his spiritual director. This experience brought about a renewed sense of vocation and a decision:
‘God by His grace has inspired me with the strongest resolution to realise always that my greatest good is whatever comes from His hand,’ he wrote at this time [cited in Yeo, p. 79]. Submission to God’s will, and his own deepest desire, mattered more than family name and prosperity.
One of the fruits of this new sense of commitment and of the Exercises was a reform of life and the embracing of a simple lifestyle: the drastic slimming down of his cardinal’s household, the insistence that all wore the plainest clerical dress – no swords allowed – and a new regime of fasting. Despite misgivings about these worryingly pious tendencies, the pope eventually gave way to his nephew’s wishes and Charles was at long last ordained priest on the Feast of the Assumption, 1563.
Once ordained, Charles tellingly chose to celebrate one of his first Masses in the chapel where Ignatius Loyola had celebrated it: San Pietro in Montorio on the Janiculum hill in Rome. This was the church that, by medieval tradition, was built on the site of St Peter’s crucifixion and where Ignatius - on the advice of his confessor, Teodosio da Lodi, an Amadist Franciscan friar there - had spent three days of prayer discerning whether to accept the generalate of the Society in 1541.
Borromeo was ordinated bishop later the same year and immediately obtained permission from the pope to visit his archdiocese of Milan (the first time a bishop had bothered to do so in 80 years!). Charles was at last ready to begin his life’s work of reform.
The instructions he left for the preparation of his quarters at the archbishop’s palace are revealing (and perhaps reminiscent of Pope Francis on his becoming Bishop of Rome):
‘I wish emphatically to avoid pomp and luxury. Those prelates who are my guests will be welcomed with love and charity but all is to be modest and without worldly grandeur...Guests are to be better lodged than myself. I wish to begin in Milan as I shall continue, by living as simply as possible.’
[Borromeo, Letter to Nicolò Ormaneto, cited in Yeo, Prince of Pastors, p.97]
Charles was also to insist from now on that all aspirants to his household and recipients of clerical appointments in his archdiocese of Milan first make the Spiritual Exercises [Yeo, pp. 111; 227].
Borromeo’s position made him an important friend to the Society in the years that followed. A year after his arrival, in 1564, he founded a seminary in Milan and handed over its direction to the Jesuits. He also handed over the house and parish church of San Fedele in Milan to the Society to be their college. A Jesuit community moved there after Easter 1567. This eventually was superseded by the far grander University of Brera, also given to the Jesuits to run in 1572 by Pope Gregory XIII.
Charles was also to have a Jesuit confessor/spiritual director for the rest of his life. As well as Ribera, we might mention Benedetto Palmio (1523-98) – a Jesuit of noble Italian lineage like Borromeo who had made his noviceship under the direction of Ignatius himself and who was invited by the archbishop to preach in Milan cathedral for 3 years – or Francesco Adorno (1532-86) – descended from Genoese nobility, rector of the new Jesuit college in Milan and a close confidant to Charles, collaborating in his diocesan reforms and serving as his ‘right arm’ during the first provincial synod in Milan [see Charles E. O’Neill SJ and Joaquín M. Domínguez SJ (eds), Diccionario histórico de la Compañia de Jesús (Rome and Madrid, 2001)].
Borromeo famously hosted Edmund Campion and his companions in Milan on their way to their English mission in 1580 and is known for having provided special pastoral attention to English Catholics who had fled persecution at home – allegedly he carried on his person a small portrait of John Fisher, who had been martyred before Thomas More by Henry VIII.
A lasting act and sign of his affection for the Society was Borromeo’s handing over of his family’s estate in Arona to establish the Milanese province’s noviciate. It was here that he chose to celebrate his last Mass in his final days, in the noviciate church, on 1November 1584. He was to die two days later in Milan.
This affection for the Jesuits lasted the whole of Borromeo’s life:
“Everyone knows how much I have always loved this congregation, and even now it can be said that my soul is in the hands of one of its fathers, because I make all my retreats and spiritual exercises under the direction of Fr. Adorno, who is, even today, preacher of the cathedral.”
[From a letter in 1579, translated by the author and cited in O’Neill and Domínguez (eds), Diccionario histórico de la Compañía de Jesús, pp. 496-97.]
Many significant achievements could be added to Borromeo’s name. As archbishop of Milan, he was almost alarmingly driven and efficient, overseeing a wave of reforms that attempted to remove the gross ecclesiastical abuses that were rife at this time, raising clerical standards of formation and behaviour and reviving faith amongst the laity.
He was one of the few officials who chose to remain in Milan when the plague struck in the summer of 1576, personally visiting the sick and dying in horrendous circumstances. He sought to lead his terrified priests by example, not just by fasting and preaching but by risking his own life in the service of his people: ‘We have only one life and we should spend it for Jesus Christ and souls, not as we wish, but at the time and in the way God wishes.’ [cited in Yeo, p.197]. This memory of good ‘San Carlo’s’ closeness to the people during a time of pandemic is remembered by the people of Milan to this day.
It is true that he had his critics. Borromeo imposed his own, admittedly authoritarian, vision of what the Council of Trent represented for the Church and did not retreat from confrontation – on one occasion he excommunicated the Spanish Governor of Milan over a dispute of jurisdiction. He was the model reforming bishop of the Counter Reformation, tireless in his visitations to much neglected parishes, some of which had never even had their church consecrated. He is celebrated for establishing one of the first diocesan seminaries, maintaining strict standards of preaching and confession amongst his priests, and for founding many schools for the poor. By the end of his life there were over 740 new schools in the city, serving around 40,000 pupils.
Yet there was a shadow side to this rather gaunt and self-punishing saint. Borromeo drew criticism even in his day for his rigorism when it came to doctrine and there is no doubt that he could be harsh and demanding of his clergy. No more than he was harsh and demanding of himself, of course: his much-neglected health, weakened by severe penances, cut his life tragically short. Ignoring the advice of his Jesuit confessor, Adorno, who accompanied Charles on retreat in October 1584, in his last months he continued to fast on bread and water, keep all-night vigils and to sleep on bare boards for two or three hours at most. He died, exhausted and overworked, of a fever at the premature age of 46. Contemporary Church historian, Cardinal Baronius, labelled him ‘a second Ambrose, whose early death, lamented by all good men, inflicted great loss on the Church’ [Baronius, Annales Ecclesiastici].
Despite Borromeo’s obvious enthusiasm for the Exercises and his closeness to the Jesuits in many respects, this perhaps raises a few questions about the extent of his formation in Ignatian spirituality and the degree of his familiarity with Ignatius’ Rules for the Discernment of Spirits. What might Ignatius have had to say to him, who knew such temptations and scruples from his time in Manresa and in them had discerned the action of the Bad Spirit? What is our own impression, in the final analysis, of this undoubtedly heroic, but somewhat ascetical and driven, saint?