Saint Charles the Reformer

Saint Charles Borromeo's remains are interred in the crypt beneath the Milan Cathedral.
Saint Charles Borromeo’s remains are interred in the crypt beneath the Milan Cathedral.

Today the Church celebrates the memorial of a great man, a reformer: Saint Charles Borromeo, cardinal archbishop of Milan. St Charles lived in a time which is not too unlike our own. There were political disputes between the Church and secular authorities and the Church was in a period of decline.

We could call St Charles the unlikely reformer because at age 21 he was named a cardinal by Pope Pius IV, who happened to be his uncle. Aside from the charge of nepotism, he was from a family of great wealth and power. These external trappings, however, did not entrap his heart. St Charles freely gave that to the Lord and his wealth to the poor.

Saint Charles the Reformer, it sounds nice though talk of reform often makes people nervous. With regards to the reform of the Church there are two groups who are hardest to budge: priests and religious. Think about it: they, by virtue of their consecration, should be attached to the things of heaven, not clinging to money, luxury, or leisure. As the world thinks, those ordained or consecrated have the most to lose by Church reform, but divine thinking shows us that their gains would be eternal! Make no mistake, God wants all to be reformed into living a life more in conformity with the Gospel. Those in the lay state have the particular task of sanctifying their families, communities, and workplaces. When we are called to reform we can respond with resentment, calumny, betrayal or conversion.

Reforming oneself as well as reforming others is not easy work. On at least two occasions St Charles was fired upon by those who resisted his reforms. That St Charles suffered as reformer should serve as a reminder for us: love–not hatred, gossip or slander–should be our response to those who call us to follow Christ ever closer, especially if they have the wisdom to call us to let go of our earthy attachments. When we become coworkers in reforming ourselves and others, we should not be surprised when we have to suffer.

How does reforming happen? By emptying ourselves as Christ and St Charles emptied themselves (cf. Philippians 2:7). We are not truly free until we have emptied ourselves of ourselves, then we can say honestly: “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11). With the intercession of Saint Charles Borromeo may we heed the command of the man who gave a great dinner: “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in here the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame!” (Luke 14:21).

Saint Charles Borromeo, pray for us!

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