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St. Charles Borromeo: The “provocative” reformer translated into English after 400 years

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“Don’t prefer a long life over a holy one.”

VATICAN CITY — What saint became an abbot at 19, was a cardinal before he was a priest, founded the seminary system as we know it today, required bishops to reside in their diocese, and heroically climbed a pile of corpses to give a man the last rites before he died? The answer: St. Charles Borromeo.

A giant of the Catholic Reformation, St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), Archbishop of Milan, became the model for a faithful and zealous bishop after the great Ecumenical Council of Trent.

Blessed Paul VI sent a selection of his writings to the fathers of Vatican II to remind them of his heroic example and its relevance for these times.

Sadly, very little of the writings of St. Charles Borromeo has been translated into English. But now, after 400 years, an important selection of his works has been translated for the modern reader.

Aleteia sat down with Msgr. John Cihak, editor of the new volume Charles Borromeo: Selected Orations, Homilies and Writings. Msgr. Cihak is a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, and works as an Official of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops and Papal Master of Ceremonies.

Msgr. Cihak highlights how the young Charles Borromeo became a driving force of reform within the Catholic Church. At the heart of his idea of reform was the conviction that “if we’re going to follow Jesus, it’s going to mean the reform of my life.”

A “provocative” and at times “uncomfortable” saint, Borromeo’s “practical genius” enabled him to translate the principles of reform into people’s personal lives. With razor-sharp clarity, Msgr. Cihak says, St. Charles instructed bishops, priests and lay men and women on what needs, and needs not, to be done in order to foster holiness.

Msgr. Cihak, many readers will not be familiar with St. Charles Borromeo. Can you tell us a little about him?

St. Charles Borromeo is a figure that people may have heard of but do not know. People are surprised to know that both Pope St. John XXIII and Pope Paul VI were very interested in Borromeo. Pope John XXIII wrote his doctoral thesis on Borromeo and Paul VI, when he took over as pope, sent to all the bishops of the world 12 of Borromeo’s Orations, in Latin, as a way of inspiring and guiding the bishops in their deliberations in Vatican II.

What is so amazing is how he attained such holiness in a relatively brief span of time during such a difficult and complex historical period. I’m 46 years old. That’s the age when he died, after already having been a bishop for over 20 years.

Tell us more about his personal life

As the second son, he was destined for the Church. He was from the nobility. He was given an abbey at the age of 19, and made the titular abbot. And he takes all of his income from that abbey and gives it to the poor, and then tells the monks that they need to start living according to the Rule — “vacation’s over.” And it wasn’t as though St. Charles thought “I am a reformer.” This is why I think he’s timeless; he simply acknowledged that “I need to follow Jesus Christ. I need to be holy. And so do you. And if I’m responsible for you, I’m going to make sure we’re doing this together.” His reform was more the consequence of what today we would call “intentional discipleship.” If we’re going to follow Jesus, it’s going to mean the reform of my life, because we are sinners.

At the age of 22 and before he was even ordained a priest, he was named cardinal by his uncle, who was Pius IV.

Did he go to seminary?

He founded the seminary system. He did a double doctorate in jurisprudence and canon law, and then when his uncle was elected pope he became the pope’s “right hand man.” Then Charles’ older brother suddenly died. That was a turning point in his life. He was pressured, even by his uncle Pope Pius IV, to leave the ecclesiastical path and get married to carry on the family line. Borromeo then made the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius … and he came out of the retreat determined to become a priest.

We often think of Church reform as something exterior. Generally, when the faithful hear about the reform of the Church, they don’t think of it as something that touches their own lives.

Exactly. It’s very safe to say: “the Church should be reformed.” But we forget that we are the sinful members of the Church needing reform. I am a member of the Church. I am a sinner. I need to be reformed. And this was Borromeo’s genius: he translated the ideals of Trent into one’s concrete personal life. That’s when it hits home. That’s also why Milan became a powerhouse of ecclesial life in the wake of his being bishop there, because he could get reform into people’s hearts. When we talk about the reform of the Church today, Borromeo insists: it begins right here. It’s my heart, and my walk with Christ, and that’s what I need to be focused on. Because if enough of us do it, since we’re members of the Church, then the Church will be reformed.

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