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

Public Domain

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

 His reforms also nearly cost him his life. How exactly did this happen?

There were members of a religious community who tried to assassinate Borromeo. This community, called the Humiliati, was founded in the 1200s with a good beginning. By St. Charles’ time this community had grown immensely wealthy and was no longer much interested in living a religious life. Borromeo was pushing his reforms and four of the friars hatched a plot to kill him. They succeeded in shooting him in the back during vespers, but miraculously the ball didn’t break the skin. But it did leave a welt on his back for the rest of his life.

He apparently said: “I’ve been shot, keep praying.”

How does the story of the plague recounted in the book illustrate Borromeo’s idea of reform of the clergy?

When the plague hit Milan, the government and nobility fled, but a lot of people couldn’t flee, especially the poor. Borromeo said he would stay. He wrote a letter, which is translated in the book, urging priests not to leave.

The plague killed over 20,000 people. And the scene that almost brings me to tears every time I think about it is that of him climbing up a stack of corpses because there was someone at the top who was still alive and needed the last rites. Imagine, Borromeo, the nephew of the pope, from the Medicis, climbing up these dead bodies. Here is the shepherd; here is the priest.

He organized hospitals, work crews, and orphanages for the children who lost their parents. He sold off most of the stuff in the archbishop’s house to pay for the care of the poor. In order to maintain the quarantine, he would organize Masses to be said in squares or at crossroads, so that people could come to their windows to worship. One hundred priests died in the plague. This shows how the reform was already being realized: that 100 priests sacrificed their lives for the good of their people.

It’s one of the extraordinary moments in a saint’s life, and it exemplifies who a bishop should be, who a priest should be, when they give up their lives for the people.

What I love about St. Charles Borromeo is that he’s the real deal. It wasn’t flashy or grandstanding. He was just himself.

SPECIAL NOTE: Tune in to the Sirius XM Catholic Channel with Cardinal Dolan at 2:40pm EDT on Tuesday, June 20, to hear Msgr. John Cihak talk about his new book, Charles Borromeo: Selected Orations, Homilies and Writings.

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