Hey, it turns out that the life story of St. Charles Borromeo is HIGHLY TOPICAL. I had no idea how topical. He faced a lot of the same challenges that people today face – laxity, crazy ideas, stupid hostility in high places – but managed to get through it all with his head held high and his love for God intact.
OTOH, he was a very very very obedient guy. Very.
Which must have been really disconcerting, when this big tall built guy, with this skinny face from fasting and all these highly connected relatives, insisted that he would totally do what you want. But also that this is what you should want to order him, for the following reasons.
He also gave First Communion to St. Aloysius Gonzaga.
Also, when he was sent by the pope to do visitations of tiny little towns up in the mountains, he’d be staying in these tiny little inns where bandits also used to stay. And he would hear their Confessions, and then they would go find another line of work. One time, an entire troop of bandits all did this, and he sent them to an official who could give them work, with an explanatory letter.
He put a lost and found box in every church in Milan, for the purpose of having a place for penitent thieves to return stolen goods. He also started a School of Christian Doctrine, which met on feast days, and which taught every layperson in Milan the basics of literacy, math, and the new Catechism. He also bought his seminary a printing press, which allowed him to provide gift books to all his priests, as well as selling other useful works at low prices. In return, he insisted that every parish priest must take time to study, as part of his spiritual development, and must prepare sermons based on his study.
He was a great defender of the Ambrosian Rite, which he insisted on having celebrated instead of the Roman Rite. Even though he loved the Roman Rite, the Ambrosian Rite belonged to Milan as her heritage from the Early Christians.
He wasn’t much for fancy things, but he insisted that churches should be beautiful and not overly plain. Plain buildings for him represented “human powers,” while beautiful churches were built “in conformity with Divine Providence.” Similarly, he wanted sacred music and singing to be beautiful and “intelligible.”
St. Charles had to deal with a year-long epidemic of the plague in Milan, with people dying left and right. He consulted the best medical books of the day, planned for people attending church “with a space around them,” and got the Pope to issue a plenary indulgence for anyone who caught the plague but also for anyone caring for plague victims.
But he worried most about those trapped in their houses under lockdown, and the “plague of the soul.”
“It is especially necessary to care for that multitude of people locked in their own houses, who by their long absence from the church may accustom themselves to negligence in their religious duties, which then will no longer hold an attraction for them. That would be a misfortune worse than the plague.”
When the plague was most violent, he ordered priests to set up portable altars on street corners, and say Mass for all the residences around, while the citizens attended Mass at their windows. Those priests in Italy who did this were obviously drawing on this history… and you wonder why more people didn’t know about it.
After giving Communion on the tongue to a sick person in the hospital, he would hold his fingers over a candle flame to destroy contagion. He took care to stay away from others, including his house servants, and he ordered that everyone caring for the sick would change clothes in a room separate from all others, and that their laundry would be done separately. Nothing was too small to avoid his planning and notice, but all of his regulations were sensible and easy to carry out.
The fifth provincial council of Milan laid down regulations for the future, including how to set up a field hospital in small towns that didn’t have facilities, and what to do about spit in church.
Still, there’s a big difference between a real plague and a minor disease. In the smaller Venice of his time, 40,000 people died in Venice. Borromeo’s regulations held it down to 17,000 in Milan, of which only three were people in the seminary, and none in the cardinal’s household.
Travel was arduous in Northern Italy, and he also went through Switzerland a lot. He almost always rode horses or mules. He had mules roll on top of him several times, but he always remained calm and was usually unhurt.
He died at a fairly young age, exhausted from his labors and travels, but still very particular about his actions. He had his bedroom at his house set up for a recollected death, with a couple of good paintings of Christ. (One was a Correggio depicting “The Prayer in the Garden,” what we call “the Agony in the Garden.”)
- “Contagion” and “miasma” was basically the medieval world figuring that something was in the air or on the body and breath of sick people. But they didn’t know exactly what, or how to keep it from making other people sick, or whether it arose from natural weather or landscape features. There was a shrewd idea that vigorous cleaning could destroy it, often including fire, or lime, or strong wine, or other chemicals. Borromeo was keenly aware that wearing the clothes of plague victims was associated with catching the disease, and he also knew about the association with rats and ordered every rat in Milan to be killed.