St Charles was born in an aristocratic family in the castle of Arona on Lake Maggiore, on October 2, 1538. His father was Count Gilbert Borromeo, a talented and saintly man. His mother, Margaret, was a Medici; her younger brother became Pope Pius IV. Gilbert and Margaret had six children; Charles was the second of their two sons. From his earliest years he had a serious disposition and a spirit of devotion to God. When he was twelve, he was already entered on the path toward the priesthood, being placed in the Benedictine Abbey of Saints Gratinian and Felinus in Arona.
Charles was sent to the university of Pavia, but because he had a speech impediment, he was considered slow, and not a particularly brilliant student. Nevertheless, he made good progress and took his doctorate degree when he was 22 years old. He then moved to Milan, and shortly after that learned that his uncle had been elected Pope Pius IV.
Early in 1561 Pope Pius nominated Charles to be Bishop of Milan, but then kept Charles in Rome and entrusted him with many duties and responsibilities, despite his youth (he was only 23) and the fact that he was only in minor orders (i.e., not yet ordained a priest). Charles was a patron of learning and instituted in the Vatican a literary academy of clergy and laymen. He did his best to care for the diocese of Milan through a vicar, despite the fact that Pope Pius continued to keep him in Rome.
Soon after his election, Pope Pius IV had announced his intention of reconvening the Council of Trent, which had been suspended in 1552. Charles was very energetic in bringing this about, and in January 1562 the Council was reopened. There were many difficulties in carrying out the work of the Council, and Charles’s unfailing attention and support of the papal legates were largely instrumental in keeping the Council on track. Charles can be called the mastermind and ruling spirit of the Council of Trent.
During the Council, Count Frederick Borromeo died, leaving Charles as the head of the noble family. Many thought that Charles would abandon the clerical state and marry. But Charles resigned the position of head of the family in favor of his uncle, and was ordained a priest in 1563. Two months later, he was consecrated bishop.
Still Charles was not free to go to his diocese, however. Instead, he was put to work drawing up the Catechism of the Council of Trent, and reforming liturgical books and church music. He commissioned the composition of Palestrina’s Mass Papae Marcelli. You can listen to parts of it here:
Meanwhile, Milan had not had a resident bishop in eighty years, and the diocese was in a deplorable state, which greatly troubled Charles. Charles’s vicar had done his best, but eventually it was necessary for Charles to get the pope’s permission to hold a provincial council and make a visitation to his diocese. The Holy Father was greatly pleased with Charles’s excellent work in Milan, but then Charles had to leave his diocese and assist Pope Pius IV on his death-bed (it was at this point that he met the future St Philip Neri). The new pope, Pius V, wanted to keep Charles in Rome, but Charles was zealous in pleading his case to return to his people in Milan, and the Holy Father dismissed him with his blessing.
When Charles arrived in Milan in April 1566, he went about reforming his diocese with his usual vigor. His first act was to reform his own household, selling silver vessels and other luxurious items and applying the whole sum raised from the sale to the relief of poor families. He arranged retreats for his clergy and took retreats himself twice per year. He made it a rule to confess himself before celebrating Mass every morning. He had great respect for the liturgy, and never prayed or carried out any religious rite with haste or inattention.
St Charles’s rules for the reform of the clergy and people are still consulted as worthwhile models. He directed that children in particular should be carefully instructed in Christian doctrine. He thought it was not enough that priests give public catechesis to the faithful on Sundays and Holy Days, and so he established the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, which provides religious education and formation to children in Catholic parishes to this day.
Charles’s reforms were not popular with everyone, and at one point a plot was hatched to assassinate the reforming and pious Bishop of Milan. On October 26, 1569, a hired assassin posted himself at the door of Charles’s personal chapel, while Charles was at evening prayers with his household. Charles was on his knees before the altar during the singing of a hymn. When the words ‘It is time therefore that I return to Him that sent me,’ were sung, the would-be assassin discharged a gun at Charles. The assassin ran away, and Charles, thinking himself mortally wounded, commended his soul to God. However it was discovered that the bullet had not penetrated his body, but only struck his back, raising a bruise, and fallen harmlessly to the floor. After making a solemn thanksgiving for the preservation of his life, Charles retreated for several days to a Carthusian monastery, where he renewed the consecration of his life to God.
In the ensuing year, we see again Charles’s compassion for the poor, when a great famine afflicted the region of Milan. Charles was able to raise money for the relief of the poor, and personally oversaw the feeding of 3000 people per day for three months. For the 18 years that he was bishop of Milan, Charles was tireless in visiting his parishes. Thanks to Charles, the archdiocese of Milan had three seminaries, and Charles was zealous in making sure that the Tridentine directions for the training of priests be put into effect. In 1575 he went to Rome to gain the indulgence for the great jubilee, which he published the following year in Milan. Crowds of penitents flocked to the city, and brought with them the plague, which spread rapidly. The secular leaders fled the city, but Charles remained and devoted himself to the care of those struck by the plague. He didn’t have enough priests to take care of the sick, so he appealed for help to the heads of religious communities, who responded generously, and were lodged in Charles’s own house. He was able to induce the magistrates and governor to return to the city and try to cope with the crisis. But still there was not enough help or resources to cope with the sixty to seventy thousand people who daily needed food. Charles exhausted himself and went deep into debt in his attempts to alleviate the suffering in his diocese. He used the draperies provided for processions to have clothing made for the poor. He had altars set up in the streets so that the sick could participate in Mass from the windows of their homes. But Charles not only prayed and did penance, organized and paid for the relief of the poor and suffering, he personally ministered to the dying throughout the crisis, which endured from the summer of 1576 until the beginning of 1578.
Between 1580 and 1584, Charles remained as busy as ever, travelling much in the fulfillment of his duties, while not getting enough sleep. Pope Gregory had to personally warn Charles not to ruin his health by overdoing his Lenten fasting. In 1584, Charles’s health was deteriorating. In October he went on his annual retreat, having mentioned to several people that he would not remain long in this world. On October 24th, he was taken ill. On the 29th, he set out for Milan, arriving on All Souls’ Day, having celebrated Mass for the last time on the previous day in his birthplace, Arona. Once returned home to Milan he went straight to bed and asked for the last sacraments. After receiving them, he died quietly in the night between November 3rd and 4th. Charles was 46 years old.
Popular devotion to Charles Borromeo as a saint arose quickly after his death, and there were calls for his canonization almost immediately. In 1602, he was beatified by Pope Paul V, and on November 1, 1610, he was canonized a saint. In 1613, St Charles was added to the calendar of saints, with his feast day being celebrated on November 4. Saint Charles Borromeo is the patron saint of bishops, catechists, catechumens, seminarians, spiritual directors and starch makers. His intercession is invoked against stomach disorders.