PAINTING: St. Charles Borromeo with Two Angels by Antiveduto Grammatica, c. 1620 [Worcester Art Museum, Worchester, MA]
By Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, Cap., The Catholic Thing, Aug. 31, 2017
Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has struggled to renew itself. This renewal has encountered many problems – liturgical, doctrinal, moral, and pastoral. The progress has been laborious, with some successes and frequent setbacks, yet the Church continues to move forward striving to rejuvenate herself in holiness and truth.
Although the theological challenges, the historical circumstances, and the pastoral needs are quite different today than they were in the time following the Council of Trent, yet there are enough similarities that it would be foolish not to recover some of the wisdom from that time. There is no better person to look to than St. Charles Borromeo (1538-84).
Nepotism is normally not a good thing and is frequently sinful. In the case of Charles Borromeo, Pius IV (his uncle) turned it into a virtue. By making young Charles a Cardinal and bishop of Milan, Pius gave to the Church a significant and transforming grace, for Charles became a leading ecclesial, theological, and pastoral light within a careworn Church.
Charles embodied the doctrinal, moral, and pastoral reforms of the Council of Trent and so not only renewed his diocese but became the template for the renewal of the Church at large.
Despite his importance, Charles Borromeo is little known and appreciated within the English-speaking world, primarily because few of his works have been translated. This lacuna has now been filled with the publication of Charles Borromeo: Selected Orations, Homilies and Writings. J.R. Cihak and A. Santogrossi have furnished us with a superb edition and translation of some of Charles’s most significant texts.
Cihak’s introduction provides a short, but splendid, biography of Charles, and a guide to the historical, ecclesial, and pastoral setting for his writings. There follow four sections, which highlight various aspects of Charles’s work.
The first presents orations that Charles gave at his provincial councils. Here he articulates the need for reform and the nature of the reform. Charles notes that the true bishop “is frequently at prayer and in contemplation of heavenly things.” He is “regularly present in the episcopal residence, and likewise totally dedicated and given over to his episcopal duties.” He is “a true father and pastor of the poor, widows and orphans, a patron of the holy places and assiduous in promoting holy observances.”
There is, however, “another bishop.” He “is remiss or negligent in all of these things, or what is worse, does the opposite.” For Charles, his fellow bishops and priests are to be men of the Gospel who love the Church and the people they serve. Above all, they are to be holy shepherds after the manner their supreme Shepherd – Jesus Himself.
Thus, Charles displays both his love for his fellow bishops and priests as well as the need to challenge them if the Church and people of God are to grow in holiness.
The second part contains sermons on the Eucharist, many of which were given on the Feast of Corpus Christi. These sermons manifest Charles’s love for the Mass and for Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Jesus showed His great love for us by giving:
his very self to men as food. You, Christ Jesus, who are the bread of angels, did not distain to become food of rebellious men, the food of most ungrateful sinners. O dignity of human excellence, and how much greater is the restoration than the fall! How much the sublimity of this dignity surpasses previous calamities! O most singular favor bestowed on us by God! O inexplicable love of God toward us!