When Pope Francis selected Mario Delpini as the new archbishop of Milan, commentators began discussing whether Delpini was a so-called “Francis bishop .” But it was a misleading debate. The only question that matters is whether Delpini will be a sound archbishop—and better yet, a holy and courageous one. The new archbishop can take inspiration from one of his predecessors, St. Charles Borromeo, the greatest prelate ever to lead the archdiocese of Milan, and a man as holy as he was a genuine reformer.
Charles Borromeo lived only forty-six years, but he accomplished more during his brief life than most Catholics do who live to twice his age.
Born into nobility in 1538, Charles seemed destined for a life of luxury, but he stepped away early from those temptations. Granted an income from a wealthy Benedictine abbey, he made certain that any money beyond his basic needs was donated to the poor. Attending the University of Pavia, he was considered “slow” because of a slight speech impediment, but he confounded his critics by earning a double doctorate, in civil and canon law, and becoming an eloquent speaker. When his uncle, Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Medici, became Pope Pius IV in 1559, he invited Borromeo to Rome to employ his talents—a situation Borromeo could have exploited. But after his uncle made him a cardinal at the age of twenty-one, he turned his elevation to the Church’s advantage.
He helped his uncle revive and complete the Council of Trent, which had begun in 1545 and been repeatedly delayed and interrupted. During its final sessions, in 1562-63, Pius IV leaned heavily on his nephew. After it concluded, Borromeo took the lead in implementing its decrees, and bringing out the Roman Catechism in 1566. By then, he had been ordained and appointed archbishop of Milan—a diocese nearly in ruins, due to an eighty-year absence of archbishops. But it was the largest archdiocese in Italy, with 3,000 clergy and 800,000 people, and needed to be saved. Many religious and laity had fallen away from the Church, and many who remained were corrupt or wayward. Borromeo was undaunted. With a cheerfulness and determination that astonished his contemporaries, he travelled up and down his diocese, enacting vigorous reforms in line with Trent and the Roman Catechism. He convoked six provincial and eleven diocesan synods, founded seminaries to educate a new generation of priests, established hospitals, and set aside his large inheritance for the needs of the poor. He renewed religious life, and started a new congregation of secular priests, the Oblates. In 1576, when a plague struck Milan, many of the healthy fled, but Borromeo remained in the city, visiting the stricken and comforting the dying. In one extraordinary episode, he climbed a stack of corpses to give the Last Rites to a man who was still breathing and begging for the sacraments.
He became a beloved figure—except amongst those who resented his reforms and disciplinary measures. For standing firm against evil, Borromeo was condemned and had his life threatened. But as one of his biographers commented:
He was not discouraged; he had continued to do what he could to regenerate Milan; to make the people live honest, God-fearing lives; how was this to be done, if sin and iniquity were allowed to stalk unrebuked through the streets of the city; if vices that sent a blush to the cheek of an honest citizen were allowed to pass unpunished?
One of his most famous teachings centered on Holy Communion: “The people should not only be urged to receive Holy Communion frequently,” he wrote, “but also how dangerous and fatal it would be to approach the Sacred Table of Divine Food unworthily.” In a separate sermon on the subject, he stressed: “The Most Holy Eucharist is properly a sacrament of the living, it requires that those who receive it be spiritually living, for it was instituted for the sake of sustaining and increasing life. Therefore, he who remains in death, who is in mortal sin, should stay far from the Table. . . . Let him first hasten to life, to penance. . . . For the Sacrament of Confession is the first and necessary disposition for the Eucharist.”
Were he alive today, in our post–Amoris Laetitia Church, one can only imagine what St. Charles would have thought of the idea that receiving unworthily can be a sign of virtue—or that by invoking the mercy of Christ, the gravest of sins can be excused and continued.
It might be argued that St. Charles, for all his zeal and good will, was a man for another time, and not suited to the Church after Vatican II. The problem with that narrative is that the two popes who led the Council loved Borromeo, and wanted his teachings to influence the contemporary Church. St. John XXIII wrote no less than five volumes on Borromeo, and was so devoted to the great reformer that he arranged his coronation as pope to take place on St. Charles’s feast day, November 4. After John’s death, Blessed Paul VI sent the bishops of the world a dozen of Borromeo’s orations in Latin, in hopes of guiding their deliberations at Vatican II. More recently, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated the four hundredth anniversary of St. Charles’s canonization, just as Pius X had honored the three hundredth. And now, after a long wait, many of Borromeo’s most important commentaries have been translated into English under the title, Charles Borromeo: Selected Orations, Homilies and Writings, edited by Msgr. John Cihak.
Borromeo’s influence endures because he understood three things. First, that the role of a faithful bishop is not to accommodate or enable sin, but to teach the faithful what is right and wrong, according to the Gospel and Christ’s Church. Second, that all reforms begin within the individual heart, and consequently there will be no Church reform unless the people carrying it out live honorable and reformed lives themselves. Finally, that there is a monumental difference between true reform and false reform—and that Catholics should expose and flee from the latter if they have any regard for their eternal salvation and the salvation of others.
As Pope St. Pius X affirmed: “St. Charles is a model for both clergy and people in these days,” because he was “an unwearied advocate and defender of the true Catholic reformation, opposing those innovators whose purpose was not the restoration, but the effacement and destruction of faith and morals.”
If today’s dissenters and misguided “reformers” awaken to these truths, St. Charles Borromeo will always be there to accompany them, leading them back to authentic spiritual renewal, and fidelity to Jesus Christ.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.