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St. Charles Borromeo

St Charles Borromeo or Carlo Borromeo (1538–1584) was born in Milan, Italy. He was the cardinal archbishop of Milan from 1564 to 1584. Among the great reformers of the troubled 16th century, Borromeo, with St. Ignatius of Loyola & St. Philip Neri led the movement to combat the inroads of the Protestant Reformation. He is the patron for catechists, spiritual leaders, colic and stomach diseases.

He was a leading figure during the Counter-Reformation and was responsible for significant reforms in the Catholic Church, including the founding of seminaries for the education of priests. He is honoured as a saint in the Catholic Church and his feast day is 4 November.


His life was originally written by three eminent persons who all had occasion to live some time with him. Two in Latin, by Agostino Valerio, afterwards Cardinal and Bishop of Verona, and by Carlo Bascape, General of the Barnabites, afterwards Bishop of Novara; plus a third in more detail in Italian by Pietro Giussano, a priest of the congregation of the Oblates at Milan.

Early life

His father, Count Gilberto Borromeo was a man of piety and ability, and his mother was a member of the Milan's branch of the House of Medici. The third son in a family of six children, Carlo was born in the castle of Arona on Lake Maggiore, fourteen miles from Milan, on October 2, 1538. The family of Borromeo was one of the most ancient and wealthy in Lombardy, and famous for several great men, both in the church and state. The aristocratic Borromeo family's coat of arms included the Borromean rings, sometimes taken to symbolize the Holy Trinity.

He received the tonsure when he was about twelve years old. At this time his paternal uncle, Julius Caesar Borromeo, turned over to him the income from the rich Benedictine abbey of Sts. Gratinian and Felin, one of the ancient perquisites of this noble family. In spite of his youth, Carlo made plain to his father that all revenues from the abbey beyond what was required to prepare him for a career in the Church belonged to the poor and could not be applied to secular use. The young man attended the University of Pavia, where he applied himself to the study of civil and canon law. Due to a slight impediment of speech, he was regarded as slow; yet his thoroughness and industry more than compensated for the handicap. In 1554 his father died, and although he had an elder brother, Count Federico, he was requested by the family to take the management of their domestic affairs. After a time, he resumed his studies, and on December 6, 1559 he earned a doctorate in utroque iure.

On December 25, 1559 his uncle, Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Medici, was raised to the pontificate as Pope Pius IV. The new elected pope required his nephew Charles Borromeo to come to Rome, and appointed him on January 13, 1560 protonotary apostolic. Shortly later, on January 31, 1560 the Pope created him Cardinal, and thus Charles Borromeo as Cardinal-nephew was entrusted with both the public and the privy seal of the ecclesiastical state. He was also entrusted in the government of the Papal States and appointed supervisor of the Franciscans, Carmelites and Knights of Malta.

During his four years in Rome Charles Borromeo lived in austerity, compelled the personnel in the Roman Curia to wear in black and established an academy of learned persons, the Academy of the Vatican Nights, publishing their memoirs as the Noctes Vaticanae. He committed to organize the third and last section of the Council of Trent, in 1562-63.

On November 19, 1562 his older brother, Federico, suddenly died. Even if Charles was the only male survived sons of his family, he decided not to leave the ecclesiastic state. His brother's death, along with his contacts with the Jesuits and the Theatines and the example of bishops such as Bartholomew of Braga, were the causes of a conversion of Charles towards a more strict and operative Christian life, and his aim became to put into practice the dignity and duties of the bishop as drafted by the recent Council of Trent.

Archbishop of Milan

Charles Borromeo had been since February 7, 1560 appointed as Administrator of the Archdiocese of Milan. After his decision to live into practice the role of bishop, he decided to be ordained Priest (September 4, 1563) and on December 7, 1563 he was consecrated bishop in the Sistine Chapel by Cardinal Giovanni Serbelloni. Charles was formally appointed as archbishop of Milan on May 12, 1564 after that the former archbishop Ippolito II d'Este waived his claims on that archbishopric, but he was allowed by the Pope to leave Rome only one year later: Charles Borromeo made his formal entry in Milan as archbishop on September 23, 1565.

About the same time, Borromeo founded and endowed a college at Pavia, today known as Almo Collegio Borromeo, which he dedicated to Saint Justina of Padua. On the death of his elder brother Federico, his family urged Borromeo to quit the church to marry and have children, so that the family name would not become extinct. Borromeo declined the proposal. He worked even harder for the welfare of the church. Owing to his influence over Pius IV, he facilitated the final deliberations of the Council of Trent. He took a large share in the creation of the Tridentine Catechism (Catechismus Romanus). Borromeo also worked closely with Francisco Borgia, General of the Jesuits, and with Andrea Avellino of the Theatines, who gave great help to his work in Milan.

Reform Program (Acta Ecclesiae Mediolanensis)

After the death of his uncle, Pius IV (1566), Borromeo contributed materially to suppressing the cabals of the conclave. Before Borromeo went to Milan, while he was overseeing reform in Rome, a nobleman remarked that the latter city was no longer a place to enjoy oneself or to make a fortune. "Carlo Borromeo has undertaken to remake the city from top to bottom," he said, predicting dryly that the reformer's enthusiasm "would lead him to correct the rest of the world once he has finished with Rome."

Subsequently he devoted himself wholly to the reformation of his diocese. It had deteriorated in practice owing to the 80-year absence of previous archbishops. When Borromeo arrived in Milan, he faced a daunting task. Milan was the largest archdiocese in Italy at the time, with more than 3,000 clergy and 800 thousand people. Both its clergy and laity had drifted from church teaching. The selling of indulgences and ecclesiastical positions was prevalent; monasteries were "full of disorder"; many religious were "lazy, ignorant, and debauched". Borromeo made numerous pastoral visits, and restored dignity to divine service. In conformity with the decrees of the Council of Trent, which suggested simplifying church interiors, Borromeo cleared the cathedral of ornate tombs, rich ornaments, banners, and arms. He did not even spare the monuments of his own relatives. He divided the nave of the church into two compartments to separate the sexes at worship.

He extended his reforms to the collegiate churches, monasteries and even to the Confraternities of Penitents, particularly that of St. John the Baptist. This group was to attend to prisoners and those condemned to death, to give them help and support.

Borromeo believed that abuses in the church arose from ignorant clergy. Among his most important actions, he established seminaries, colleges and communities for the education of candidates for holy orders. His emphasis on Catholic learning greatly increased the preparation of men for priesthood and benefited their congregations. In addition, Borromeo founded the fraternity of Oblates of St. Ambrose, a society of secular men who did not take orders, but devoted themselves to the church and followed a discipline of monastic prayers and study. They provided assistance to parishes where ordered by the church. The new archbishop's efforts for catechesis and the instruction of youth were especially fruitful, initiating the work of the Confraternity for Christian Doctrine and the first "Sunday School" classes.

His reforms of the diocese, in accordance with the decrees of the council, were dramatic and effective. Borromeo faced staunch opposition of several religious orders, particularly that of the Humiliati (Brothers of Humility), a decayed penitential order which, although reduced to about 170 members, owned some ninety monasteries. Some members of that society formed a conspiracy against his life, and a shot was fired at him in the archiepiscopal chapel. His survival was considered miraculous.

Borromeo had also been involved in English affairs when he assisted Pius IV. Many English Catholics had fled to Italy at this time because of the persecutions under Queen Elizabeth. He gave important pastoral attention to English Catholics who fled to Italy to escape the new laws against the Catholic faith. Saint Edmund Campion, a Jesuit, visited Borromeo at Milan in 1580 on his way to England. Campion visited with Borromeo for eight days, when they would talk at length every night after dinner. A Welshman, Dr. Griffith Roberts, served as Borromeo's as canon theologian, and an Englishman, Thomas Goldwell, as vicar-general. The Archbishop carried on his person a small picture of St. John Fisher, who, with St. Thomas More, had been martyred for the faith during the reign of Henry VIII, and for whom he held a great veneration.

Suppression of witchcraft and heresy

Though the Diet of Ilanz of 1524 and 1526 had proclaimed freedom of worship in the Republic of the Three Leagues, Saint Carlo repressed Protestantism in the Swiss valleys. The Catholic Encyclopedia relates: "In November he began a visitation as Apostolic visitor of all the cantons of Switzerland and the Grisons, leaving the affairs of his diocese in the hands of Monsignor Owen Lewis, his vicar-general. He began in the Mesoleina Valley; here not only was there heresy to be fought, but also witchcraft and sorcery, and at Roveredo it was discovered that the provost, or rector, was the foremost in sorceries." During his pastoral visit to the region, the Cardinal had about a hundred people arrested for practising witchcraft. Ten women and the provost were condemned to "the flaming death". They were put to death by being placed head-first in the fire.

Reacting to the pressure of the Protestant Reformation, Borromeo encouraged the Golden League formed in 1586 by Ludwig Pfyffer in Switzerland. Based in Lucerne, the organization (also called the Borromean League) linked activities of several Swiss Catholic cantons of Switzerland, which became the centre of Catholic Counter-Reformation efforts. This Inquisition-type organization was determined to expel heretics and burned some people at the stake. It created severe strains in the civil administration of the confederation, and it caused the break-up of Appenzell canton along religious lines.

In 1576 there was famine at Milan due to crop failures, and later came an outbreak of the plague. The city's trade fell off, and along with it the people's source of income. The governor and many members of the nobility fled the city, but the bishop remained, to organize the care of those who were stricken and to minister to the dying. He called together the superiors of all the religious communities in the diocese, and won their cooperation. Borromeo tried to feed 60,000 to 70,000 people daily. He used up his own funds and went into debt to provide food for the hungry. Finally he wrote to the governor, and shamed him into coming back to his post.

Controversy and last days

"An austere, dedicated, humorless and uncompromising personality" is the way that a biographer—an admiring biographer—describes Carlo Borromeo. Charged with implementing the reforms dictated by the Council of Trent, Borromeo had to be tough, and his toughness brought him into conflict with secular leaders, priests, and even the pope himself.

Borromeo met with much opposition to his reforms. The governor of the province, and many of the senators, addressed complaints to the courts of Rome and Madrid. They were apprehensive that the cardinal's ordinances would encroach upon the civil jurisdiction.

He successfully attacked his Jesuit confessor, Giovanni Battista Ribera, who, with other members of the college of Milan, was found to be guilty of unnatural offenses. This action increased Borromeo's enemies within the church.

Borromeo's manifold labors and austerities appear to have shortened his life. Travels in his diocese, especially in the difficult Alpine country, had weakened the bishop's constitution. In 1584, during his annual retreat at Monte Varallo, he was stricken with an intermittent fever ague, and on returning to Milan grew rapidly worse. After receiving the Last Sacraments, the beloved bishop died quietly on November 4, at the age of forty-six.


People's devotion to Borromeo as a saint arose quickly and continued to grow. The Milanese celebrated his anniversary as though he were already canonized. Supporters collected documentation for his canonization. They began the process at Milan, Pavia, Bologna and other places. In 1602 Pope Paul V beatified Borromeo. In 1604 his case was sent on to the Congregation of Rites. On 1 November 1610, Paul V canonized Carlo Borromeo. Three years later, the church added Borromeo's feast to the Roman Catholic calendar of saints for celebration on 4 November. Along with Anselm of Lucca, he is one of only two cardinal-nephews to have been canonized. He was canonized in 1610, and his feast is celebrated on 4 November each year in the Roman Catholic Rite.


Borromeo's emblem is the Latin word humilitas (humility), which is a portion of the Borromeo shield. He is usually represented in art in his robes, barefoot, carrying the cross as archbishop; a rope round his neck, one hand raised in blessing, thus recalling his work during the plague.


The position which Carlo Borromeo held in Europe was remarkable. He is venerated as a saint of learning and the arts. The mass of correspondence both to and by him testifies to how often his opinion was sought. The popes under whom he served sought his advice. The Catholic sovereigns of Europe – Henry III of France, Philip II of Spain, Mary, Queen of Scots – and others showed how they valued his influence. His brother cardinals wrote in praise of his virtues. Cardinal Valerio of Verona said of him that Borromeo was "to the well-born a pattern of virtue, to his brother cardinals an example of true nobility." Cardinal Baronius styled him "a second Ambrose, whose early death, lamented by all good men, inflicted great loss on the Church."

Late in the sixteenth or at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Catholics in England circulated among themselves a "Life of St. Charles".

  Besides the Noctes Vaticanae, to which he appeared to have contributed, Borromeo's written legacy consisted only of some homilies, discourses and sermons, with a collection of letters. Borromeo's sermons have been translated into many languages.

  Contrary to Borromeo's last wishes, the Duomo di Milano created a memorial crypt to honor him at the church.

  His nephew, Federico Borromeo (1564–1631), was archbishop of Milan from 1595 and, furthering Carlo's support for Catholic learning, in 1609 founded the Ambrosian Library in that city. He donated a tremendous collection of art and literature to the library.

  His relative Federico Borromeo and admirers commissioned a statue 20 m high that was erected on the hill above Arona, as they regarded him an important leader of the Counter-Reformation.

  The famous church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome was dedicated in his honor.

  Borromeo is one of only four people mentioned at the beginning of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, citing them as responsible for the Council of Trent, which gave way to the modern day catechism. The others mentioned are St. Peter Canisius, St. Turibius of Mongrovejo and St. Roberto Bellarmine.

  The city and county of St. Charles, Missouri are named for Borromeo. Also, a Brazilian city was named after him, named in Portuguese Sao Carlos.

  The Parish of St. Charles, Louisiana is named for Borromeo.

Karlskirche, Vienna, Austria; Carolus Borromeuskerk, Antwerp, Belgium; Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California; Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo in nearby Monterey, California; the city of Saint Charles, Missouri, San Carlos City, Negros Occidental, are all named in his honor.

Roman Catholic schools and parishes named for St. Charles Borromeo include those in: Toronto, Canada; Tacoma, Washington;Kettering, Ohio; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Bloomington, Indiana; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Bayport, Minnesota; Paisley, Scotland; Brooklyn, New York, Staten Island, New York; Syracuse, New York; London, England; New York; Woonsocket, Rhode Island; Cinnaminson, New Jersey; Montgomery, New Jersey; Peoria, Arizona; Orlando, Florida; Port Charlotte, Florida; San Francisco, California; Livermore, California; Sacramento, California; Bloomington, California; Columbus, Ohio; Lima, Ohio; Cassville, Wisconsin;Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin; Hartland, Wisconsin; Pikesville, Maryland; Arlington, Virginia; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Cheboygan, Michigan; Ahoskie, North Carolina; Newport, Michigan; Ryde, New South Wales, Australia; Waverley, New South Wales, Australia; Portland, Oregon; Cleveland, Ohio; Cebu City, Philippines

A number of seminaries besr his name: The San Carlos Seminary of the Archdiocese of Manila in Makati City, Philippines, San Carlos Major Seminary of the Archdiocese of Cebu, University of San Carlos in Cebu City, Philippines, the Priestly Seminary of St. Charles Borromeo (Kňazsky Seminar sv. Karola Boromejskeho) in Košice, Slovakia, the seminary of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Colegio San Carlos in Bogota, Colombia, the Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso, Texas, are all named after him.

Also, a castle (fortress) in Margarita Island, Venezuela is named after him.

The text in this box was generated from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the CC-BY-SA.

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