St Charles Borromeo was born on the 2nd of October 1538 in the northern Italian region of Arona and was the fourth of eight children. His father Giberto Borromeo was a wealthy, pious man who maintained a strong political standing with the kings of Spain and France. He was given the title of Count of Arona in 1536 by Emperor Charles V and appointed senator and later on governor in 1550. His mother Margherita, daughter of Bernadino Medici, devoted her life to her family but died very young.
Borromeo’s ecclesiastical career began at a rather young age. At seven years of age he received the tonsure and cassock. At the age of ten he was sent to Milan to pursue classical studies and at fourteen his father sent him to the University of Pavia to study Law. The years he spent studying were difficult. He was in debt and penniless since his father refused to send him any money and he was refused permission to return home due to family problems. He was even excommunicated by his Bishop for studying Law without a permit as a young cleric. It was during these times that his only consolation came from his uncle Angelo Medici who encouraged him and sought to assist him financially.
At the age of twenty his father died and at twentyone he continued his studies obtaining a University degree in Civil and Canon Law. In 1559 his uncle Angelo Medici was elected pope and took the name of Pius IV and on the 31st January 1560 Charles was made a Cardinal and served as Secretary of State between 1560 and 1567. He was ordained a priest in 1563 and asked by his uncle, the Pope to preside at the Council of Trent and to oversee the work on the catechism, missal and breviary.
It was during this time that he came across the spiritual writings of St Ignatius Loyola and began to reform his life. This reform required giving up his estate and the benefices that he received from Pope Pius IV. In doing this he could not afford to pay for his servants nor allow himself to be dressed in fine silk, as was the custom.
After the death of Pius IV, St Charles obtained a transfer from Pius V to the Diocese of Milan. As Bishop of Milan between the years 1565 – 1586 he sought to carry out the reforms of Trent in answer to problems regarding the state of the clergy and the organization of the diocese.
The Council of Trent saw that the reason for laxity amongst the clergy was due to poor training of young men desiring to become priests. Priests neglected their parishes, the celebrating of Mass and devotion to prayer, all of which were essential for spiritual development. At that time, all theological studies were obtained from the local university.
St Charles took it upon himself to begin founding seminaries. He introduced both minor seminaries and theological seminaries, in both urban and rural areas. Every seminary was provided with instructors, a rule of prayer life and an academic program. His aim was to prepare men to lead a healthy spiritual life, so that they might lead their flock to God through good example.
Aside from founding seminaries St Charles was able to win the hearts of his protestant neighbours through his works of charity. He was also responsible for reviving and encouraging Eucharistic processions and adoration in order to reinforce faith in the Real Presence.
During the famine of 1569 St Charles assisted his Diocese by selling his furniture and spending all his money to purchase bread for the needy. During the Black death of 1576, Charles, along with priests and religious men, went out to the plague stricken people to administer the sacraments and to provide for them the spiritual consolation they needed especially those who had become prisoners in their own homes.
On the 3rd of November 1584, weakened by a fever, Charles Borromeo died. In 1602 he was beatified and in 1610 canonised by Paul V.
Bokenkotter, T., ‘A Concise History of the Catholic Church’, Revised & Expanded Edition, New York: Doubleday, 2004.
Rossi, F.A., ‘St Charles Borromeo, The Man who Consecrated the Duomo of Milan’, Nuove Edizioni Duomo: Italy, 1999.
Orsenigo, C., ‘Life of St Charles Borromeo’, Translated by Rudolph Kraus, USA: B. Herder Book Co., 1945