Ordinary Time: November 4th
Charles Borromeo, the bishop of Milan, came from a wealthy,
aristocratic Italian family. He was born in the family castle, and
lived a rather lavish life, entertaining sumptuously as befit a
Renaissance court. He personally enjoyed athletics, music, art, and
the fine dining that went along with lifestyles of the rich and
famous of the sixteenth century. His maternal uncle, from the
powerful Medici family, was pope. As was typical of the times, his
uncle-pope made him a cardinal-deacon at age twenty-three and
bestowed on him numerous offices. He was appointed papal legate to
Bologna, the Low Countries, and the cantons of Switzerland, and to
the religious orders of St. Francis, the Carmelites, the Knights of
Malta, and others.
When Count Frederick Borromeo passed away, many people thought
Charles would give up the clerical life and marry now that he had
become head of the Borromeo family. But he did not. He deferred to
another uncle and became a priest. Shortly thereafter, he was
appointed bishop of Milan, a city that had not had a resident bishop
for over eighty years.
Although raised to the grand life, Borromeo spent much of his time
dealing with hardship and suffering. The famine of 1570 required him
to bring in food to feed three thousand people a day for three
months. Six years later, a two-year plague swept through the region.
Borromeo mobilized priests, religious, and lay volunteers to feed
and care for the sixty thousand to seventy thousand people living in
the Alpine villages of his district. He personally cared for many,
who were sick and dying. In the process, Borromeo ran up huge debts,
depleting his resources in order to feed, clothe, administer medical
care, and build shelters for thousands of plague-stricken people.
As if the natural disasters facing Borromeo were not enough, a
disgruntled priest from a religious order falling out of favor with
Church authorities attempted to assassinate him. As Charles knelt in
prayer before the altar, the would-be assassin pulled a gun and shot
him. At first, Charles thought he was dying, but the bullet never
passed through the thick vestments he was wearing. It only bruised
Borromeo combined the love of the good life with the
self-sacrificing zeal one would expect of a Renaissance churchman.
Once when he was playing billiards, someone asked what he would do
if he knew he only had fifteen more minutes to live. "Keep playing
billiards," he replied. He died at age forty-six, not at the
billiard table, but quietly in bed.
—Excerpted from The Way of the Saints, Tom Cowan