Why the writings of St. Charles Borromeo offer the Church a spiritual roadmap to renewal
Kathryn Jean Lopez Oct. 31, 2018
“If you want to go to hell, become a priest.”
Such a situation, thanks be to God, is perhaps not quite what we’re facing today, even after the revelations about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s alleged abuses and the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report.
But it was a common saying in 16th-century Milan during the time when St. Charles Borromeo served as the city’s archbishop, a time well-known for corruption and confusion inside the Church.
He had actually petitioned Pope Pius IV, who was also his uncle, to let him reside there, after a three-decade absence of a bishop. An effective administrator reformer, Borromeo could have had a cushy life. But he knew he was made for more, that the Church needed more.
“It is difficult to appreciate how challenging the times were during Charles’ life and how badly the Church was in need of reform and renewal, especially among her bishops and clergy,” writes Msgr. John R. Cihak in his introduction to a recent translation of some of his sermons in a book titled “Charles Borromeo: Selected Orations, Homilies and Writings” (Bloomsbury, T&T Clark, $29.95).
Religious orders in Milan, too, “had fallen into laxity.” (Though that may be an understatement when you learn that “civil authorities in Milan decreed the death penalty for whomever had carnal relations with a nun.”)
Among the laity, meanwhile, people weren’t receiving the sacraments and were more likely to be superstitious than knowledgeable about their Catholic faith.
There are no easy answers or “takes” in this time of scandal other than more radical conversion, gazing at the cross and meditating on the Scripture and understanding that we all have a role to play and a responsibility in reforming the Church.
In our own season of scandal, the consequences of decades of divides and laxity in the Church — at times and in many places surrendering to or blending in with or hiding from the culture that had been consumed by sexual revolutionary values — the folks who have the right idea, are talking about and praying for saints.
Among the laity. Among religious. Among priests. Among the bishops and cardinals. That’s only going to bear fruit in serious prayer and fasting all around.
To do so, it helps to get to know a saint like Borromeo better — and calling upon his intercession can only help.
Reading through his writings, you can hear him speaking to the priests and bishops of today: “For woe shall it be to you, if through you comes scandal, and if on account of you the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles, and the majesty of our Most Holy Mother the Church is brought into contempt!”
That’s from a Pentecost season sermon in 1587 in the Cathedral of Milan to men on the road to the priesthood. This is the kind of witness — not just words — the Church needs.
Pope Francis, for his part, has often touched on a theme found frequently in Borromeo’s writings: Remembering one’s first love, Jesus Christ — the one who chose you, who called you, and who draws you to a deeper life in God.
“Scrutinize your past life, go over the years of your life, place your past ways of acting before your gaze,” Borromeo said in a 1584 homily. “Inspect and evaluate your black spots and faults.” Decide, he said, to start examining your errors “not perfunctorily but seriously.”
Today it has been pointed out that policies put in place in the past decade and a half have improved things, that the Pennsylvania grand jury report was about past evils.
Borromeo seems to have been dealing with a similar reality: “As you have heard, the state of our clergy is such as to offer us occasion both for thanksgiving to God and for tears at the same time; thanks indeed for the amendment of life already established, but tears indeed for the errors still allowed to pass,” he said in the same homily.
Sounding very much like Francis in some of his homilies, Borromeo warned priests about the “great and fearful sickness” that is “the tepidity that is found in men consecrated to God.”
“Oh how many seem to be alive to others, but are close to death! They are indeed a little reformed outwardly, but interiorly they are cold, tepid, dead. Great is the battle of the Spirit against the tepid, brothers.”
This is not a time for going along and getting along with the ways of the world. Nor was yesterday. But yesterday we leave to God’s mercy. Trusting in his Providence, the sins will be uncovered and the institutions will have to look much different in the future.
Speaking at a provincial council in 1569, Borromeo said:
In this crisis… see how great is the obligation laid upon us, who are the chosen standard-bearers of the Christian army and the doctors of souls… so that coming together as many into one, with the Holy Spirit leading, we may more easily implore aid from the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort (2 Cor 1:3).
This, Fathers, is our task. This is our office. If indeed we have been placed in the exalted Chair of episcopal dignity, then we must as if from a watchtower be on the lookout for and repel whatever dangers hang over those who come under our faithfulness and our care. ... If we are shepherds, we must never cast our eyes away from the sheep, which Jesus Christ rescued from the jars and gullet of hell by his most holy death. And if any of them are wasting away in the impure stain of vices, we must heal them with the salt of keen correction.
Late in the same talk, he continues:
Let us direct our counsels, thoughts, efforts and actions to the certain norm of the will of God. ... So we may take care to restore by our decrees, not a mere sketch, but the express image of Christian discipline, which with the breath of the Holy Spirit at the Church’s birth, was instituted by the word of God, which is living and effectual, and more piercing than any two edged sword; and reaching until the division of the souls and the spirit, of the joints also and the also and the arrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Heb 4:12).
If we do not strive to tear up the seeds of vices by the roots, but instead consider it sufficient to use a light touch to correct only certain external matters that cause offense to the popular mind, then it will turn out for us as it does for farmers. They neglect to tear out weeds by the roots, but only cut off those that spring up and do not purge the field of noxious stems. In doing so they bring about what they plainly do not want, namely, that after a few days the weeds spring up more abundantly.
Teach. Instruct. Restore. Recreate, Motivate. These, too, are Borromeo’s entreaties to bishops. He seems to be urging the whole Church to a penitential posture, but one that is boldly confident in the Holy Spirit.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is a contributing editor to Angelus, and editor-at-large of the National Review Online. She is also a Senior Fellow at the National Review Institute and a nationally syndicated columnist with United Media’s Newspaper Enterprise Association. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Post, The Human Life Review, First Things and elsewhere.
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