St Charles Borromeo

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Archbishop of Milan. St Charles was born in 1528 to an aristocratic family, who lived in a castle on the shore of Lake Maggiore. He suffered a speech impediment but was a very bright student. By the age of 22 he had his doctor's degree. His uncle Pope Pius IV heaped honours on him, including the administration of the diocese of Milan and appointment as Cardinal. Charles would have preferred to leave the court and be a monk, but there was work he had to do in Rome.

Charles supported Pius IV at the Council of Trent. He helped draft the new Catechism and was responsible for reforming many liturgical books and church music. He was a patron of Palestrina.

In 1564, he was ordained priest and consecrated a bishop. As papal legat for all Italy, he held a council at Milan which promoted the Tridentine decrees of reform. He was summoned to the Pope's deathbed in 1565 and the new Pope Pius V made him the first resident bishop in Milan for 50 years.

From this time St Charles adopted a very simple lifestyle. He gave away much of his considerable wealth and set about reorganising church administration and schools. He was particularly concerned with clerical education and set up seminaries which were copied elsewhere. He gave very generous help to the English College at Douai. St Charles was determined to root out corruption in the church. His reforms didn't make him popular in some circles. There was even one attempt on his life.

During a plague and then a famine, St Charles organised relief work and personally went out and helped care for the sick and dying. In 1580 he was visited by a party of young Englishmen on their way home. They included the future martyrs Ralph Sherwin and Edmund Campion.Three years later, St Charles was appointed apostolic visitor in Switzerland where he had to deal with witchcraft and sorcery as well as the teachings of Calvin and Zwingli.

Tireless, energetic always on the move, he was worn out by the time he was 46. St Charles died on this night with his Welsh confessor Dr Griffiths Roberts by his bedside. A spontaneous cult grew around him almost immediately and he was canonised in 1610. His reforming influence, particularly in the field of clerical education and catechising has been compared with that of Ignatius Loyola or Philip Neri. Above all, he gave an example of an utterly devoted priest in an important diocese, at a time when it was most needed.

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