The Holy Cardinal Nephew

st-charles-borromeoAnyone ever visited Milan? It’s the largest metropolitan area in Italy.

Ever heard of Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan? It proclaimed religious tolerance in the Roman Empire. It’s called “Edict of Milan” because Milan, not Rome, served as the western capital of the empire at that time.

Anyone ever heard of St. Ambrose, one of the Fathers of the Church, quoted in the Catechism 21 times? He was Bishop of… Milan. Or have you heard of St. Augustine? He entered the Church while living in… Milan.

So Milan is a pretty important place. Pretty important “local church,” as they say.

But: At the time of the Council of Trent, four and a-half centuries ago, the Archbishops of Milan hadn’t actually lived in Milan for over eighty years. Pope Pius IV made his twenty-one-year-old nephew, Charles Borromeo, a Cardinal and the Archbishop of Milan. Charles was living in Rome at the time, and he wasn’t a priest.

Shortly thereafter, Charles’ one brother died. Many well-meaning people urged Charles to marry, in order to continue his noble family line. He didn’t necessarily have to become a priest, to be the non-resident Cardinal Archbishop of the largest city in Italy.

Pretty messed-up situation. But that was the way the sixteenth-century Church rolled. And Charles’ uncle Pope Pius was not a particularly bad man. To the contrary, he was hugely kind and pretty holy. He had noble ideals and goals. Pope Pius IV is actually one of the great heroes of the Council of Trent. He successfully re-convoked the Council after a decade-long hiatus, and he saw to its completion.

Duomo Milano columns
the Milan duomo, where St. Charles lies, under the main altar

Meanwhile, though: Being a non-resident Archbishop bothered young Charles enormously. Even though he was basically running the Holy See of Rome, as his kindly old uncle’s principal advisor and executive supervisor, Charles considered his true duty to lie with the souls of the city of Milan. Charles knew all too well that many of the priests of his diocese did not know how to celebrate the sacraments. And the people did not know the Apostles’ Creed.

So after his uncle died, Charles begged the next pope, St. Pius V, to let him go to his diocese and take up permanent residence there, so he could shepherd his flock as he should.

The rest is history. Charles Borromeo spent himself as a pastor of souls and died 435 years ago today, at age forty. He managed to give back to the Catholic clergy the ideal of shepherding the souls in your charge, by living among them, as one of them.

As you know, dear reader, in September I had the chance to follow in St. Charles’ footsteps in northern Italy, and I visited his tomb. I prayed for you there.

May St. Charles help us. Seems like Holy Church needs his help now–every bit as much as She did when he walked the streets of Milan.

3 thoughts on “The Holy Cardinal Nephew

  1. I pray that it will be God’s will to send to the Catholic Church another true Holy Person of strong and unshakeable faith, with the courage and willingness to lead us through these difficult times in obedience to God, and setting the example for others to follow.

  2. To Judy R.: God did send him – he’s shepherding souls in the Martinsville and Rocky Mount communities. We just gotta figure out a way to get him a seat at St. John Lateran…

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