Borromeo, Carlo

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BORROMEO, CARLO (15381584), reforming archbishop of Milan, cardinal, and canonized saint of the Roman Catholic church. Carlo Borromeo, second son of Count Gilberto Borromeo and Margherita de' Medici, was born at Arona, northwest of Milan, on October 2, 1538. From 1552 he attended the University of Pavia, where he received a doctorate in civil and canon law in 1559. At the end of that year his maternal uncle, Gian Angelo de' Medici, was elected Pope Pius IV and immediately bestowed upon his twenty-one-year-old nephew the archbishopric of Milan, a collection of other wealthy benefices, and a cardinal's hat. Borromeo, however, proved by his seriousness and personal austerity to be an atypical beneficiary of nepotism; thus when his elder brother died heirless and his family attempted to persuade him to revert to lay status, marry, and assume the noble title, he refused and instead had himself secretly ordained a priest July 17, 1563.

Borromeo's most significant role in the pontifical government of his uncle was his work as liaison between the Curia Romana and the third session of the Council of Trent (15601563). Afterward he served on various postconciliar commissions and oversaw the preparation of the Catechism of the Council of Trent not so much a catechism in the ordinary sense as a doctrinal manual for the use of parish priests. This book was completed in 1564 and published in 1566.

Among the most important reforms of the Council of Trent was the requirement that bishops reside in their dioceses, but Pius IV would not allow his nephew to fulfill this obligation. Borromeo did however visit Milan in September and October of 1565, during which time he summoned and presided over his first provincial council. Recalled to Rome to assist at his uncle's deathbed, he participated in the conclave that followed and was instrumental in the election of his fellow-reformer, Pius V, on January 8, 1566.

Borromeo returned to Milan in April 1566 and labored there for the rest of his life. He became during those years the ideal of the Counter-Reformation bishop, not only because his own spiritual life was rich and deep and in accord with the ascetic principles of his time, but also because he reconstructed his great diocese and province along the lines mandated by the Council of Trent. He was present everywhere to oversee the moral reform of clergy, laity, and religious, either through tireless journeys of episcopal visitation or through the six provincial and eleven diocesan synods he held during his tenure. He founded six seminaries and a special missionary college to train priests to work in nearby Switzerland. He established hundreds of catechetical centers, which by the time he died were serving regularly more than twenty thousand children. He founded orphanages, hospitals, and homes for abandoned women. In his educational projects he worked closely with the new Society of Jesus. He was punctilious in carrying out his pastoral duties and careless of his personal safety, notably during the plague years of 1570 and 1576.

Borromeo's severity earned him enemies as well as adherents. In 1569 a friar attempted to assassinate him. He was constantly at odds with the Spanish authorities who governed the duchy of Milan, and particularly with the redoubtable viceroy, Requesens, whom he excommunicated. But Borromeo never heeded opposition, and during his relatively short span of years he established the model of the Tridentine bishop, a model destined to perdure for nearly four centuries. He was canonized on November 1, 1610.


Borromeo's own works, especially letters and devotional literature, are in Opere complete di S. Carlo Borromeo, 5 vols., edited by J. A. Sassi (Milan, 17471748). His reform legislation is found in Acta ecclesiae mediolanensis, 2 vols. (Lyon, 1683). The standard life is Andrée Deroo's Saint Charles Borromée, cardinal, réformateur, docteur de la pastorale (Paris, 1963); a popular treatment is Margaret Yeo's A Prince of Pastors: St. Charles Borromeo (New York, 1938). A particularly incisive treatment of Borromeo's work is Roger Mols's "Saint Charles Borromée, pionnier de la pastorale moderne," Nouvelle revue théologique 79 (1957): 600622.

Marvin R. O'Connell (1987)