Stories of the Saints - Grace Hall

St Charles Borromeo

One day—God willing—you will go to Italy, and if you enter by the Simplon Pass, you will see, on a height near the shores of Lago Maggiore by which he was born, the great statue of St Charles Borromeo. There he stands, Il Buon Santo, in colossal proportions, the statue and pedestal together measuring seventy feet in height. His hand is raised in benediction of the country that loves him, and that he so loved.

Then, when you go to Milan, you will see in the sacristy of the cathedral a life-sized statue of him made of pure silver. Furthermore, you will see the chapel where are his remains, encased in a crystal casket. He lies, his skeleton draped in rich robes, his skull crowned with a jewelled mitre. On the casket and all about the shrine is repeated the Saint's own motto, "Humilitas"—Humility—in the midst of walls paneled with silver, glowing with gold, sparkling with gems—and his glittering and gorgeous setting seems to continue after death what the Buon Santo experienced in life, though in what esteem he held it is easy to read in the story of his life.

He belonged to one of the oldest, noblest, richest, and proudest families of Lombardy, his father being Gilberto Borromeo, Count of Arona, his mother Margherita dei Medici, sister of Giovanni Angelo, afterward Pope Pius IV.

Being a second son, he was from infancy dedicated to the Church, for which he studied at Milan and at Pavia.

When he was twelve years of age, he was granted by an uncle, Giulio Cesare Borromeo, the rich revenues of the Benedictine monastery of SS. Gratinian and Felin. Upon the death of his father, when he was twenty, he received a share of the family fortune, and when he was twenty-six, at the death of his elder brother Federigo, he succeeded to all the family treasure and honours. Add to this that another uncle joined the benefices of another abbey to the youth's income, and that King Philip II settled a pension of 9000 crowns yearly upon him, and gave him the principality of Oria, that his uncle Pius IV created him cardinal and archbishop of Milan when he was twenty-three, and then pile upon all this the fact that he lived in Italy in the middle of the sixteenth century, and you will feel that had he been spoiled, or had his head been turned by such wealth and power, it would have been comprehensible if not pardonable.

But Carlo Borromeo was from childhood marked by a gravity and gentle sanctity of character, a simple humility, a spirituality. a serene austerity, and a beneficence almost unique in one of his station.

He lived in Rome as his uncle's chief adviser and companion, not only spotless among the intrigue and snares of the Court, but an object of marvel and reverence for the extraordinary combination in one so youthful, of wisdom and modesty, of caution and sincerity, of dignity and candour.

On the death of his brother he left Rome and returned to Milan to take charge of his diocese and of his huge estates. But in those estates and in his enormous fortune he personally took little pleasure. His self-denial and his charity seem unmatched save perhaps by those of some of the early Apostles of the Christian Church. All that he reserved for himself out of his almost boundless revenues was straw upon which to sleep. Literally all—everything that he had he gave either to public good works or to private charities. He was obliged, owing to his station, to live in splendour befitting his rank as Archbishop, but under his gorgeous robes of scarlet and ermine he wore a poor threadbare black cassock, and at the banquets which he gave for others, as part of his unlimited hospitality, he himself took only his habitual dry bread and water.

Tall and emaciated and stooping in figure, pale and beardless of face, with gentle dark eyes, aquiline nose, and large kindly mouth, he was, as has been said, a Saint "whom Jews might bless and Protestants adore," the model of pastors and the reformer of ecclesiastical discipline in the degenerate age in which he lived.

For a reformer he pre-eminently was. He spared not himself, his rule over himself was of the strictest, but he insisted upon and with all his power enforced the restoration of discipline in the Orders, which had fallen into days of corruption and laxity, of dishonesty and sloth and immorality.

This naturally raised up against him an army of enemies over whom his gentle inflexibility invariably triumphed—not only among the higher clergy who were using their church revenues for their own indulgence, but among the lower Orders, the Franciscans and the Umiliati, of whom he required that they live according to the laws of their Order, laws from which they had shamefully departed.

It was from among these last that one, Fra Farina by name, was hired to assassinate him.

Late on a November afternoon San Carlo was celebrating the evening service in his own chapel. He was on his knees at the altar; behind him the people were intoning an anthem, when the shot rang out which Fra Farina had aimed from behind a door. It struck fairly, but though some of the smaller shots penetrated his clothing and bruised his back, the bullet was deflected by the heavy gold embroidery on San Carlo's cope.

This, however, was not at first apparent. At the sound of the report the congregation arose in tumult to their feet, and rushed to the assistance of their beloved Father, but he—although he supposed himself mortally wounded—rising, ordered them to their knees again, and with unshaken calm and an unmoved countenance proceeded with the service.

Then he retired, and when he found his life in no danger, consecrated it anew to the service of his Master.

In those days the music performed in the Church had, with all else concerning it, fallen into such lines of secularity and profanity that at the Council of Trent the question was raised whether it were not to the detriment of religion to continue the performance of music in the churches. Pius IV referred the matter to the judgment of Carlo Borromeo. With his zeal for reform and purification, it seems probable that he might for all time have then banished music from the Church had not a champion arisen to defend the noble art, of a genius so pure, so rare, and elevated that no hearer could resist him. When his great Mass was performed before the listening judge, San Carlo's heart was won by the angelic beauty and majesty of its strains. It was the Mass of Palestrina.

His love of his people was that which brought about the most wonderful act of San Carlo Borromeo's beautiful life.

The plague broke out in Milan in 1585. He was at that moment in Lodi. When news of it reached him he determined to return at once to Milan. In vain his clerics, his friends, and relatives remonstrated; in vain they told him that to return meant certain death to one in his delicate health; in vain they assured him that the other clergy, all the nobles, in fact every one who was materially able to do so, were fleeing from Milan to some place of safety. He replied that a shepherd's place was with his flock. He returned, and for the entire period of the plague, which carried away thousands, he preached daily, and prayed with his people and for them. He tended the sick, distributing medicines and performing the last rites for the dying, and helped to bury the dead; he gave himself, body, soul, and spirit. Time and again he walked barefoot to the cathedral with a halter round his neck, and before the altar offered himself as a sacrifice for his congregation. Twenty-eight of his priests, fired by his enthusiasm of self-forgetfulness, assisted him in his angelic ministry, and not one of these, nor San Carlo himself, was touched by the universal scourge.

Eleven years later, when he had arrived .at his forty-sixth year, he died of a fever, brought on doubtless by his long-sustained privations.

His last moments were beatific. Radiant with an inner glory, he was heard to murmur: "Ecce—venio" ("Behold—I come"), and then he expired.

No Saint of legend this—of miracles and wonders, beyond the miracle of an all-loving heart and the wonder of a stainless soul.