Charles Borromeo

For the Indian sprinter, see Charles Borromeo (athlete).
Charles Borromeo
Cardinal, Archbishop of Milan

Carlo Borromeo, by Giovanni Figino. Oil on canvas, 41 × 48 cm. Biblioteca Ambrosiana
Native name Count Carlo Borromeo di Arona
Archdiocese Milan
See Milan, Italy
Appointed 12 May 1564
Term ended 3 November 1584
Predecessor Giovanni Angelo de’ Medici
Successor Gaspare Visconti
Other posts Cardinal-Priest of Santa Prassede
Ordination 4 September 1563
by Federico Cesi
Consecration 7 December 1563
by Giovanni Serbelloni
Created Cardinal 31 January 1560
by Pius IV
Rank Cardinal-Priest
Personal details
Born (1538-10-02)2 October 1538
Castle of Arona, Duchy of Milan
Died 3 November 1584(1584-11-03) (aged 46)
Buried Milan Cathedral
Denomination Roman Catholic
  • Gilberto Borromeo, 7th Count of Arona
  • Margherita de' Medici di Marignano
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Coat of arms {{{coat_of_arms_alt}}}
Feast day 4 November
Venerated in Catholic Church
Beatified 12 May 1602
by Paul V
Canonized 1 November 1610
by Paul V
Attributes cord, red cardinal robes
Patronage against ulcers; apple orchards; bishops; catechists; catechumens; colic; intestinal disorders; Lombardy, Italy; Monterey California; cardinals; seminarians; spiritual directors; spiritual leaders; starch makers; stomach diseases; São Carlos city in Brazil (as the name indicates)
Shrines Milan Cathedral

Charles Borromeo (Italian: Carlo Borromeo, Latin: Carolus Borromeus, 2 October 1538 – 3 November 1584) was a cardinal who was archbishop of Milan from 1564 to 1584. Among the great reformers of the troubled sixteenth century, Borromeo, with St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Philip Neri, and others, led the movement to combat the inroads of the Protestant Reformation. He was a leading figure during the Counter-Reformation and was responsible for significant reforms in the Catholic Church, including the founding of seminaries for the education of priests. He is honoured as a saint in the Catholic Church and his feast day is 4 November.


Charles' biography was originally written by three of his contemporaries: Agostino Valerio (afterwards cardinal and Bishop of Verona) and Carlo Bascape (General of the Barnabites, afterwards Bishop of Novara), who wrote their contributions in Latin, and Pietro Giussanno (a priest), who wrote his in Italian. Father Giussanno's account was the most detailed of the three.[1]

Early life

Charles was a descendant of nobility: the family of Borromeo was one of the most ancient and wealthy in Lombardy, made famous by several notable men, both in the church and state.[1] The aristocratic Borromeo family's coat of arms included the Borromean rings, sometimes taken to symbolize the Holy Trinity.

Charles' father Gilbert was Count of Arona; his mother Margaret was a member of the Milan branch of the House of Medici. The third son in a family of six children, he was born in the castle of Arona on Lake Maggiore, thirty-six miles from Milan, on 2 October 1538.[2]

Borromeo received the tonsure when he was about twelve years old. At this time his paternal uncle, Julius Caesar Borromeo, turned over to him the income from the rich Benedictine abbey of Sts. Gratinian and Felin, one of the ancient perquisites of this noble family. In spite of his youth, Charles made plain to his father that all revenues from the abbey beyond what was required to prepare him for a career in the Church belonged to the poor and could not be applied to secular use. The young man attended the University of Pavia, where he applied himself to the study of civil and canon law. Due to a slight impediment of speech, he was regarded as slow; yet his thoroughness and industry more than compensated for the handicap.[2] In 1554 his father died, and although he had an elder brother, Count Federico, he was requested by the family to take the management of their domestic affairs. After a time, he resumed his studies, and on 6 December 1559 he earned a doctorate in utroque iure (canon and civil law).

Rome period

On 25 December 1559, his uncle, Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Medici, was raised to the pontificate as Pope Pius IV. The newly elected pope required his nephew Charles Borromeo to come to Rome, and on 13 January 1560, appointed him protonotary apostolic.[3] Shortly thereafter, on 31 January 1560, the pope created him cardinal, and thus Charles as cardinal-nephew was entrusted with both the public and the privy seal of the ecclesiastical state.[4] He was also entrusted in the government of the Papal States and appointed supervisor of the Franciscans, Carmelites and Knights of Malta.

During his four years in Rome Charles lived in austerity, compelled the personnel in the Roman Curia to wear black and established an academy of learned persons, the Academy of the Vatican Nights, publishing their memoirs as the Noctes Vaticanae.[5]

Charles committed to organize the third and last section of the Council of Trent, in 1562-63. He took a large share in the creation of the Tridentine Catechism (Catechismus Romanus). In 1561, Borromeo founded and endowed a college at Pavia, today known as Almo Collegio Borromeo, which he dedicated to St. Justina of Padua.

On 19 November 1562, his older brother, Federico, suddenly died. His family urged Charles to leave the church to marry and have children, so that the family name would not become extinct, but he decided not to leave the ecclesiastic state.[6] His brother's death, along with his contacts with the Jesuits and the Theatines and the example of bishops such as Bartholomew of Braga, were the causes of a conversion of Charles towards a more strict and operative Christian life, and his aim became to put into practice the dignity and duties of the bishop as drafted by the recent Council of Trent.[5]

Archbishop of Milan

Charles was appointed administrator of the Archdiocese of Milan on 7 February 1560. After his decision to put into practice the role of bishop, he decided to be ordained priest (4 September 1563) and on 7 December 1563 he was consecrated bishop in the Sistine Chapel by Cardinal Giovanni Serbelloni.[7] Charles was formally appointed archbishop of Milan on 12 May 1564 after the former archbishop Ippolito II d'Este waived his claims on that archbishopric, but he was only allowed by the pope to leave Rome one year later. Charles made his formal entry into Milan as archbishop on 23 September 1565.[6]

Reform Program (Acta Ecclesiae Mediolanensis)

Intercession of Charles Borromeo supported by the Virgin Mary by Rottmayr (Karlskirche, Vienna)

After the death of his uncle, Pius IV (1566), Charles contributed materially to suppressing the cabals of the conclave. Before Charles went to Milan, while he was overseeing reform in Rome, a nobleman remarked that the latter city was no longer a place to enjoy oneself or to make a fortune. "Carlo Borromeo has undertaken to remake the city from top to bottom," he said, predicting dryly that the reformer's enthusiasm "would lead him to correct the rest of the world once he has finished with Rome."[8]

Subsequently, he devoted himself wholly to the reformation of his diocese. It had deteriorated in practice owing to the 80-year absence of previous archbishops.[9] When Charles arrived in Milan, he faced a daunting task. Milan was the largest archdiocese in Italy at the time, with more than 3,000 clergy and 800,000 people. Both its clergy and laity had drifted from church teaching. The selling of indulgences and ecclesiastical positions was prevalent; monasteries were "full of disorder"; many religious were "lazy, ignorant, and debauched".[8] Charles made numerous pastoral visits, and restored dignity to divine service. In conformity with the decrees of the Council of Trent, which suggested simplifying church interiors, he cleared the cathedral of ornate tombs, rich ornaments, banners and arms. He did not even spare the monuments of his own relatives. He divided the nave of the church into two compartments to separate the sexes at worship.

He extended his reforms to the collegiate churches, monasteries and even to the Confraternities of Penitents, particularly that of St. John the Baptist. This group was to attend to prisoners and those condemned to death, to give them help and support.

Charles believed that abuses in the church arose from ignorant clergy. Among his most important actions, he established seminaries, colleges and communities for the education of candidates for holy orders.[10] His emphasis on Catholic learning greatly increased the preparation of men for priesthood and benefited their congregations. In addition, he founded the fraternity of Oblates of St. Ambrose, a society of secular men who did not take orders, but devoted themselves to the church and followed a discipline of monastic prayers and study. They provided assistance to parishes where ordered by the church.[9] The new archbishop's efforts for catechesis and the instruction of youth were especially fruitful, initiating the work of the Confraternity for Christian Doctrine and the first “Sunday School” classes.

His reforms of the diocese, in accordance with the decrees of the council, were dramatic and effective. Borromeo faced staunch opposition of several religious orders, particularly that of the Humiliati (Brothers of Humility), a decayed penitential order which, although reduced to about 170 members, owned some ninety monasteries. Some members of that society formed a conspiracy against his life, and a shot was fired at him in the archiepiscopal chapel. His survival was considered miraculous.[10]

In 1576 there was famine at Milan due to crop failures, and later came an outbreak of the plague. The city's trade fell off, and along with it the people's source of income. The Governor and many members of the nobility fled the city, but the bishop remained, to organize the care of those who were stricken and to minister to the dying. He called together the superiors of all the religious communities in the diocese, and won their cooperation. Borromeo tried to feed 60,000 to 70,000 people daily. He used up his own funds and went into debt to provide food for the hungry. Finally he wrote to the Governor, and shamed him into coming back to his post.[2][4]

Charles had also been involved in English affairs when he assisted Pius IV. Many English Catholics had fled to Italy at this time because of the persecutions under Queen Elizabeth I. He gave important pastoral attention to English Catholics who fled to Italy to escape the new laws against the Catholic faith.[10] Saint Edmund Campion, a Jesuit, along with Saint Ralph Sherwin visited him at Milan in 1580 on their way to England. They stayed with him for eight days, talking at length with him every night after dinner. A Welshman, Dr. Griffith Roberts, served as his canon theologian, and an Englishman, Thomas Goldwell, as vicar-general. The archbishop carried on his person a small picture of St. John Fisher, who, with St. Thomas More, had been martyred for the faith during the reign of Henry VIII, and for whom he held a great veneration.

Suppression of heresy

Painting by Francesco Caccianiga showing an angel tending to Charles Borromeo

Though the Diet of Ilanz of 1524 and 1526 had proclaimed freedom of worship in the Republic of the Three Leagues, Charles repressed Protestantism in the Swiss valleys. The Catholic Encyclopedia relates: “In November [1583] he began a visitation as Apostolic visitor of all the cantons of Switzerland and the Grisons, leaving the affairs of his diocese in the hands of Monsignor Owen Lewis, his vicar-general. He began in the Mesoleina Valley; here not only was there heresy to be fought, but also witchcraft and sorcery, and at Roveredo it was discovered that the provost, or rector, was the foremost in sorceries.”[11] During his pastoral visit to the region, 150 people were arrested for practicing witchcraft. Eleven women and the provost were condemned to be burned alive.[12]

Reacting to the pressure of the Protestant Reformation, Borromeo encouraged Ludwig Pfyffer in his development of the Golden League, but did not live to see its formation in 1586. Based in Lucerne, the organization (also called the Borromean League) linked activities of several Swiss Catholic cantons of Switzerland, which became the centre of Catholic Counter-Reformation efforts. This organization was determined to expel heretics and burned some people at the stake. It created severe strains in the civil administration of the confederation, and caused the break-up of Appenzell canton along religious lines. [13]

Controversy and last days

A coffin with glass sides allowing us to see the preserved body within, on a table inside an elaborately carved wooden nook, under a silver electric chandelier
Crypt of Charles Borromeo, in the Duomo di Milano

“An austere, dedicated, humorless and uncompromising personality” is the way that a biographer—an admiring biographer—describes Charles. Charged with implementing the reforms dictated by the Council of Trent, Charles had to be tough, and his toughness brought him into conflict with secular leaders, priests, and even the pope himself.[8] He met with much opposition to his reforms. The governor of the province, and many of the senators, addressed complaints to the courts of Rome and Madrid. They were apprehensive that the cardinal's ordinances would encroach upon the civil jurisdiction.

He successfully attacked his Jesuit confessor, Giovanni Battista Ribera, who, with other members of the college of Milan, was found to be guilty of unnatural offenses. This action increased Borromeo's enemies within the church.

Charles' manifold labors and austerities appear to have shortened his life. Travels in his diocese, especially in the difficult Alpine country, had weakened the bishop's constitution. In 1584, during his annual retreat at Monte Varallo, he was stricken with an intermittent fever and ague, and on returning to Milan grew rapidly worse. After receiving the Last Sacraments, the beloved bishop died quietly on 4 November at the age of 46.[2]


Following his death, popular devotion to Charles arose quickly and continued to grow. The Milanese celebrated his anniversary as though he were already a saint, and supporters in a number of cities collected documentation to support his canonization. In 1602 Pope Paul V beatified Charles. In 1604 his case was sent on to the Congregation of Rites. On 1 November 1610, Paul V canonized Charles. Three years later, the church added his feast to the General Roman Calendar for celebration on 4 November. Along with Anselm of Lucca, he is one of only two cardinal-nephews to have been canonized.


Borromeo's emblem is the Latin word humilitas (humility), which is a portion of the Borromeo shield. He is usually represented in art in his robes, barefoot, carrying the cross as archbishop, a rope round his neck, one hand raised in blessing, thus recalling his work during the plague.


Il Sancarlone (English: The huge Saint Charles): colossal statue of Carlo Borromeo erected in Arona, Italy in 1697. The work of Giovanni Battista Crespi, the statue is 23 m tall and stands on a plinth 12 m in height.

The position which Charles held in Europe was remarkable. He is venerated as a saint of learning and the arts. The mass of correspondence both to and by him testifies to how often his opinion was sought. The Popes under whom he served sought his advice. The Catholic sovereigns of Europe – Henry III of France, Philip II of Spain, Mary, Queen of Scots – and others showed how they valued his influence. His brother Cardinals wrote in praise of his virtues. Cardinal Valerio of Verona said of him that Borromeo was "to the well-born a pattern of virtue, to his brother cardinals an example of true nobility." Cardinal Baronius styled him "a second Ambrose, whose early death, lamented by all good men, inflicted great loss on the Church."

Late in the sixteenth or at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Catholics in England circulated among themselves a "Life of St. Charles".[14]

Depiction of Charles Borromeo in a stained glass window.

Karlskirche, Vienna, Austria; Carolus Borromeuskerk, Antwerp, Belgium; Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California; Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo in nearby Monterey, California; and the cities of Saint Charles, Missouri and San Carlos City, Negros Occidental are all named in his honor.

A number of seminaries bear his name and are honored by his patronage:

Roman Catholic schools, parishes and hospital named for St. Charles Borromeo include those in:
Ryde, New South Wales.
Toronto, Ontario; Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Cebu City.
Kraków, Warsaw.
United Kingdom
London, Paisley.
United States
Ahoskie, North Carolina; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Arlington, Virginia  Bayport, Minnesota; Bloomington, California; Bloomington, Indiana; Brooklyn, New York; Burlington, Wisconsin  Cassville, Wisconsin; Cheboygan, Michigan; Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin; Cinnaminson, New Jersey; Cleveland, Ohio; Columbus, Ohio  Destrehan, Louisiana; Bensenville, Illinois; Du Bois, Illinois  Fort Wayne, Indiana; Frankston, Texas  Hartland, Wisconsin  Kettering, Ohio  Lima, Ohio; Livermore, California  Meredith, New Hampshire;  Bellows Falls, Vermont  Montgomery, New Jersey  Nederland, Texas; Newport, Michigan; North Hollywood, California  Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Orlando, Florida  Peoria, Arizona; Pikesville, Maryland; Port Charlotte, Florida; Portland, Oregon  Rochester, New York  Sacramento, California; San Diego, California; San Francisco, California; Staten Island, New York; Syracuse, New York  Tacoma, Washington  Waverley, New South Wales; Kingsland, Texas[16] and Woonsocket, Rhode Island.

Also, a castle (fortress) in Margarita Island, Venezuela is named after him.

See also


  1. 1 2 Butler, Alban, The Lives or the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints, Vol. III
  2. 1 2 3 4 "St. Charles Borromeo Archbishop, Cardinal", Lives of the Saints, John J. Crowley & Co., Inc.
  3. Salvador Miranda. "Borromeo, Carlo". Retrieved 20 Jan 2013.
  4. 1 2 Foley, O.F.M., Leonard, Saint of the Day (rev. by Pat McCloskey O.F.M.)
  5. 1 2 De Certau, Michel (1977). "Carlo Borromeo, santo". Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani (in Italian). 20. Treccani.
  6. 1 2 Cazzani, Eugenio (1996). Vescovi e arcivescovi di Milano (in Italian). Milano: Massimo. pp. 226–230. ISBN 88-7030-891-X.
  7. "St. Charles Cardinal Borromeo". David M. Cheney. Retrieved 20 Jan 2013.
  8. 1 2 3 Swetnam, Susan H., "My Best Teachers Were Saints", Loyola Press ISBN 978-0-8294-2329-7
  9. 1 2 "Saint Charles Borromeo", Catholic Online, accessed 14 Dec 2008
  10. 1 2 3 "St. Charles Borromeo", Catholic News Agency, November 4, 2013
  11. Keogh, William. "St. Carlo Borromeo." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 11 Jan. 2013
  12. Louise M. Stacpoole-Kenny, Saint Charles Borromeo: a sketch of the reforming cardinal, 1911.
  13. "Nov 4 – St Charles Borromeo, (1538-1584), Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, Patron of Catechists, Great Catholic Reformer". ADULT CATECHESIS & CHRISTIAN RELIGIOUS LITERACY IN THE ROMAN CATHOLIC TRADITION. Retrieved 2016-01-21.
  14. G.P. Giussano, Vita di S. Carlo Borromeo (1610, England, HE Manning, ed., reprinted, London: 1884)
  15. Getz, Christine Suzanne (2005). Music in the Collective Experience in Sixteenth-century Milan. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 63. ISBN 9780754651215.
  16. "Home - St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church". Retrieved 2016-07-20.
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