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Borromeo Charles (1538–1584)

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Bartłomiej Wołyniec
Pontifical University of John Paul II, Kraków, Poland

Saint of the Catholic Church (beatified in 1602, canonised in 1610), cardinal (from 1560), administrator (from 1560) and then archbishop metropolitan of Milan (from 1564), one of the main reformers of the Church in the spirit of the Council of Trent.

He came from an Italian aristocratic family, Buon Romeo, which moved from the area around Rome to Tuscany and then to Lombardy, where it strengthened its position mainly through its contacts with the Visconti and Sforza families. A landmark event in the family’s history was the adoption of Vitalian Vitaliani (son of Giacomo and Margaret of Borromeo) by John Borromeo, who had no heir and was therefore the last representative of the family’s male line. In 1396, V. Vitaliani undertook to continue his uncle’s banking and mercantile activities, adopting his surname. Henceforth he was known as Vitalian Borromeo and gave rise to the Milanese line of the family.

Charles Borromeo was born on 2 October 1538 at the castle of Arona as the third son of Gilbert II and Margaret de Medici (actually: Medigino), sister of Giovanni Angelo, later Pope Pius IV. As the youngest son, he was destined to be a priest. In 1545, when he was seven years old, he received the tonsure and then, thanks to the resignation of his uncle Giulio Cesare, he became commendatory abbot at the monastery of Sts Gratinian and Felinus in Arona. In this way, K. Boromeo gained the financial means to acquire a thorough and solid education. In 1552—under the tutelage of Francesco Alciati—he began to study law at the University of Pavia, from which he graduated on 6 December 1559 and earned a doctorate in canon and civil law. As he had become an orphan the year before (his mother died in 1547 and his father in 1558), he became involved with his uncle—Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Medici (actually: Medigino)—who became his guardian and entrusted him with the Abbey of Santa Maria de Calvenzano on 10 May 1558. In 1560, C. Borromeo arrived in Rome, where he became personal secretary to his uncle, Pope Pius IV (elected to the See of Peter on 25 December 1559), who soon appointed him apostolic protonotary, then cardinal deacon (31 January / 14 February 1560)—first with the title of Church of Saints Vitus and Modesta and then of Saints Sylvester and Martin ai Monti (4 September 1560)—and administrator of the Archdiocese of Milan (7 February 1560). On 21 December 1560, he became the second Secretary of State of the Holy See in the history of the Catholic Church and was ordained a deacon on the same day. Against the suggestions of his family, who, following the sudden death of his elder brother Frederick (†1562), urged him to abandon the clerical state in order to marry and provide for his family’s inheritance, he was ordained a priest in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore on 17 July 1563 by Cardinal Frederick Cesi, after which he received the episcopal sacrament in the Sistine Chapel on 7 December of the same year. The principal consecrator of C. Borromeo was Cardinal Giovanni Antonio Serbelloni, Bishop of Novara, who was accompanied by Tolomeo Gallio, Archbishop of Manfredonia, and Felice Tiranni, Archbishop of Urbino. Just over a month earlier, C. Borromeo had been elevated by his uncle to the dignity of cardinal-presbyter (4 June 1563), while retaining his previous titular church. This changed on 17 November 1564, when the Pope appointed him Cardinal-Presbyter of the Church of St Praxedes, a title he used until his death. In the following years, C. Borromeo also accumulated other offices and benefices in his hands: archpriest of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (1564–1572) and grand penitentiary (1565–1572). During his stay in Rome, he held a number of posts in both the administration of the Papal States and papal diplomacy. He was governor of Civita Castellana and Ancona (1 June 1561), Spoleto (1 December 1562) and Terracina (3 June 1564). He twice held the office of papal legate in Romagna (26 April 1560 and 17 August 1565), and in subsequent years as protector of Portugal and the Netherlands. He organised the so-called Noctes Vaticanae (Notti Vaticane), which brought together future reformer bishops between 1562 and 1565. Initially, the subjects of their discussions were philosophy and ancient literature, which in time morphed into religious works discussing spirituality and patristics, as well as commentaries on Scripture. Charles Borromeo played a significant role in the organisation of the final stage of the Council of Trent, as well as in its closure. In 1564, he became Prefect of the Congregation of Cardinals for the Interpretation of the Council of Trent, created by the Pope at the time, a post from which he resigned in 1565. He remained, however, an active member of the congregation itself. On 12 May 1564, he became a full-fledged Archbishop Metropolitan of Milan (until then he had been administrator of the archdiocese), while still residing for a time in Rome alongside the Pope. For this reason, he sent to Milan as Vicar General Niccolo Ormanet, whose life had been formed by serving alongside Gian Matteo Giberti, Bishop of Verona, one of the first reformer bishops.

C. Borromeo began his management of the archdiocese and metropolis of Milan by implementing the resolutions of the Council of Trent. He carried out both visitations of the archdiocese and of the ecclesiastical province under his authority, making apostolic visitations to the suffragan dioceses of Cremona and Bergamo (1575), Vigevano (1578) and Brescia (1580), as well as to the Catholic cantons of Switzerland belonging to the archdiocese. In 1564, he convened the first of thirteen diocesan synods, which were held every four years until 1572 and annually from 1574, and five provincial synods, held after the diocesan synods (1565, 1569, 1573, 1576, 1579). He enriched the synodal resolutions with his detailed commentaries. He published a number of pastoral letters and instructions concerning, among other things, the building of churches, preaching and education. The Acta Ecclesiae Mediolanensis (Milan 1582), edited on the initiative of C. Borromeo, spread quite rapidly in other European countries and instilled in them the Tridentine reform of the Church, while the Instructiones fabricae ecclesiae et supellectilis ecclesiasticae (Milan 1577) significantly influenced the development of modern sacred art. Aiming to provide the faithful with proper pastoral care, C. Borromeo founded several seminaries and brought new religious orders to the archdiocese. He established schools of Christian learning, which by the year of his death were functioning in every parish of the archdiocese, and he supported the establishment of new and the growth of existing religious confraternities.

The basis of C. Borromeo’s spirituality was personal union with Christ, and he therefore recommended resisting evil through prayer, which he regarded as a source of spiritual renewal. He thus spent many hours on it. He was greatly influenced by the Jesuits and the Theatines, as well as by the Archbishop of Braga, Bartholomew Fernandes of the Martyrs, who arrived in Rome in September 1563. It was probably under his influence that C. Borromeo decided to accept the episcopal sacrament and then go to Milan, where he devoted himself to the work of the archdiocese entrusted to him. This is evidenced by the letter in which C. Borromeo wrote to the Archbishop: Your figure stands constantly before my eyes, for I have taken you as a model (Broutin 1956, p. 96). For C. Borromeo, personal religious practices often involved rigorous fasting and strict penitential practices, which were not without their effects on his health. However, he did not pay much attention to his body, focusing primarily on his soul and thoughts of salvation. For this reason, he often went on pilgrimages, with the cult of the Passion of Christ and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary occupying a special place in his piety. He made four pilgrimages to Turin (1578, 1581, 1582, 1584) and to Loreto (1566, 1572, 1579, 1583), as well as to minor Marian shrines (Saronno, Varese, Rho and Tirano) and places connected with the devotion to the Passion (Monte Varallo). He reminded the faithful of the duty of charity and provided it personally, visiting hospitals and supporting the poor, and during the epidemic that decimated the inhabitants of Milan and the surrounding area in 1576, he himself ministered to the sick and the needy, whom he supported with private funds. In the city abandoned by the Spanish governor, he organised a quarantine system and medical care for the infected, building, among other things, an isolation ward. He also saw to the pastoral care of the sick, personally administering the sacrament of the last anointing and the viaticum, and ordering the dead to be buried with dignity. For the spiritual strengthening of the faithful, and to ask God’s grace in the fight against the plague, he organised processions, during which he walked barefoot through the streets of Milan, carrying the relics of the Holy Cross.

Charles Borromeo and the Shroud of Turin

In 1578, C. Borromeo decided to make a pilgrimage to Chambéry in Savoy to give thanks in the Chapel of the Holy Shroud for the liberation of Milan from the epidemic that had decimated the city’s inhabitants a few years earlier. Informed of this, Duke Emanuel Filibert of Savoy decided to move the Shroud to Turin, which lay about a third of the way from Milan to Chambéry, and thus meet the pious wish of the cardinal, who would not have to make the journey across the Alps, too arduous for an ailing pilgrim. The prince informed the cardinal of his decision, who in turn seized the opportunity quite quickly to organise the pilgrimage. The events surrounding C. Borromeo’s arrival in Turin were only a pretext for Duke Emmanuel Filibert to remove the Shroud from Chambéry, which was threatened by Catholic-Huguenot clashes, and permanently deposit it in the new capital of his duchy.

On 6 October 1578, C. Borromeo and 12 priests accompanying him set off on foot towards Sedriano, from where, after a short rest, they set off for Trecate, where they spent the night in a Franciscan monastery. The next day, the pilgrims headed towards Novara, from where, after celebrating Mass, they travelled in the pouring rain via Cameriano to Vercelli, where they stayed for the night. The next day they reached Crova, and late in the evening they arrived in Cigliano. On the fourth day the pilgrims stopped at Cascina Riomartino, where they were greeted by the Archbishop of Turin, Girolamo Della Rovere, with whom they proceeded towards the city. On the outskirts of Turin, they were greeted by Prince Emanuel Filibert, who, accompanied by cannon salutes, led the cardinal through the city and into the palace chapel. An eyewitness to those events, the Jesuit Francis Adorno, recorded that C. Borromeo and a few chosen men venerated the Shroud by kissing the reflections on it of the wounds on his feet and the wounds on his side pierced by a spear. According to him, when confronted with the relic, both the cardinal and the others who were given the opportunity to venerate the Shroud in this way experienced the same feeling that the Templars experienced: absolute, speechless and paralysing amazement. In an account he left behind, F. Adorno wrote that although it had already been given to him to see a portrait of the same size, sent by the Duke of Savoy to the Marquis d’Ayamonte, Governor of that State, for the Catholic King. However, this is as great a difference as between the portrait of a man and the living man himself, who is giving his last breath (Frale 2012, p. 93). Two days later, i.e. on 12 October 1578, C. Borromeo adored the Shroud again, but this time in a public presentation of the cloth to a crowd of many thousands. He did so in the company of Cardinal Guido Ferrer di Castelvallone and the bishops of Aosta, Asti, Montiers, Pavia, Saluzzo, Savona, Vance and Vercelli. In the days that followed, he devoted himself several more times to prayer before the face of Christ imprinted on the Shroud.

Charles Borromeo prepared his pilgrimage with great care, taking care of all the details, including determining which devotions and prayers should be performed on which days. The theme of the meditation on the first day was “the peregrination of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” which was inspired by three Gospel passages: He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people (Matt 4:23), Jacob’s well was there. Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down there at the well. It was about noon (John 4:6), They were on the way, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus went ahead of them. They were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. Taking the Twelve aside again, he began to tell them what was going to happen to him (Mark 10:32). The theme of the second day of the pilgrimage was “the peregrination of the Apostles,” which was motivated by a passage from the Gospel according to St Matthew: As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ (Matt 10:7) and the Acts of the Apostles: While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2–5). On the third day, the thought concerning human life as a continuous pilgrimage was considered, inspired by as many as four passages of Scripture, two each from the Old and New Testaments: The LORD said to Abram: Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you (Gen 12:1), Listen to my prayer, LORD, hear my cry; do not be deaf to my weeping! For I am with you like a foreigner, a refugee, like my ancestors (Ps 38:13), All these died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on earth (Heb 11:13), and Beloved, I urge you as aliens and sojourners to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against the soul (1 Pet 2:11). The theme of the meditation on the last, fourth day of the pilgrimage was the preparation for the adoration of the Shroud, during which C. Borromeo and his companions were to focus on three points: the manner of adoration of the relics themselves, the relationship that occurs between the Shroud and the mystery of the Eucharist, and personal prayer requests.

In the following years, C. Borromeo went to Turin three more times (1581, 1582, 1584). The last pilgrimage was combined with a visit to Monte Varallo, where a Passion shrine was located. The pilgrimage began on 19 September 1584, when C. Borromeo left Milan and travelled to Turin, from where he set off for Monte Varallo on 8 October, where he in turn stayed from 11–17 and 20–28 October for a spiritual retreat. The long penitential practices and the vigil in the sanctuary, situated in the midst of the cold mountains at that time of year, proved too much for his body, which was exhausted by constant work and asceticism. Although on 24 October he contracted a severe fever that weakened him considerably, a few days later (30 October) he attended the opening of the college in Ascona, from where he travelled to his native Arona. There he celebrated the last Mass of his life before the fever finally took hold of him. From there he was brought to Milan, where he died in the bishop’s palace on 3 November 1584. Four days later, funeral ceremonies were held in Milan Cathedral, presided over by Cardinal Niccolò Sfondrati, Bishop of Cremona and a friend of the deceased. Charles Borromeo was buried in the cathedral and, after his canonisation in 1610, his mortal remains were transferred to the crypt under the presbytery.


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Source of Image

1. Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Orazio_Borgianni_-_St_Carlo_Borromeo_-_WGA2468.jpg (public domain)

Bartłomiej Wołyniec

Historian of the modern period. Graduate of history studies at the Institute of History of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and doctoral studies in the discipline of history at the Faculty of History of the Jagiellonian University. Since 2020, he has been affiliated with the Institute of History at the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow. He deals with the history of the Church in the modern period, with particular emphasis on the activities of the Bishops of Cracow, and auxiliary sciences of history. Member of the Polish Heraldic Society and the editorial board of the journal “Folia Historica Cracoviensia.”

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