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St. Charles Borromeo and the key principles of Catholic reform

The life and work of the Tridentine-era Saint are inspiring and edifying, and his approach to ecclesial reform fits particularly well with the current emphases of the Catholic Church on the Universal Call to Holiness and the New Evangelization.

Detail from painting by Francesco Caccianiga (1700-81) showing an angel tending to Charles Borromeo. (Wikipedia)

The Catholic Counter-Reformation of the second-half of the sixteenth century had many important protagonists. One of the men who did the most to advance the cause of reform on the practical level was St. Charles Borromeo (1538-84). Saint Charles was from Arona, near Milan, and spent a great deal of his early adulthood in Rome. During a time of decadence in the social circles in which Charles moved, the saint spent his life practicing severe asceticism and achieved a remarkable degree of personal holiness. He was not an accomplished theologian, but was known for his intelligence and especially for his acute pastoral wisdom and straightforward, incisive preaching.

The personal strengths and experience of St. Charles aided him in the work of ecclesial reform. A man of severe personal discipline, culture, and administrative action, St. Charles served as an important leader of the Council of Trent and its implementation. He reformed the exercise of the episcopal ministry, insisting that bishops reside in their dioceses. He also reformed religious houses and dioceses, called provincial councils and local synods, established the modern Catholic seminary system of priestly formation, and served the poor and the sick with self-sacrificing pastoral charity.

Saint Charles was not heavily involved in the theological controversies of his time, such as those centered on grace and nature, the Sacrifice of the Mass, the sacraments, or ecclesiology. He thought and worked chiefly in the practical sphere, and was especially devoted to his city, Milan. Saint Charles worked diligently, even self-sacrificially, and expected his collaborators to work very hard and with the same focus on the salvation of souls.

Like his contemporary St. Philip Neri, St. Charles not only met the challenges posed by the Protestant Reformation, but also and perhaps even first and foremost worked to solve the internal problems that plagued the Catholic Church of the sixteenth century. Even the name ‘Counter-Reformation’ given to the larger project of ecclesial reform at work in the Catholic Church of the second half of the sixteenth century can be somewhat deceptive, when considering figures such as Philip and Charles. The Reformation posed a considerable challenge to them, as well as to the whole Tridentine-era Catholic Church. But many problems that were at least equally serious existed within the Catholic Church both before and after the drama of the Reformation began in earnest.

Corruptions in clerical life, bishops who did not live in their dioceses among their flocks, widespread secularism, sexual immorality and other forms of sensuality, unbelief and the failure to live according to the Christian faith and moral doctrine—all of these and more were scourges of the age and were not the fault of the Reformation. In fact, the Reformation itself was, among other things, an attempt to right many of the wrongs that had grown like weeds in the Renaissance Church. The aim of clerics such as St. Charles was to remain within the communion of the Catholic Church, working for the salvation of souls. He pursued this lofty goal by becoming holy himself, encouraging individual holiness in those over whom he had influence, and by reforming and revitalizing existing forms of ecclesial life while also developing new forms.

One way of conceiving of the respective approaches to reform taken by St. Philip and St. Charles is to describe St. Philip as operating within the charismatic dimension of the Church, while St. Charles operated more within the Church’s hierarchical dimension. Those categories could be viewed as facile and inadequate, but they at least help give a basic sense of the distinction and complementarity of these two approaches to ecclesial reform.

As a cardinal-archbishop, Charles Borromeo worked in and through ecclesial structures, rooted his own ideas for reform in the chief hierarchical event of the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent, and viewed institutional reform as a necessary means by which to achieve the sanctification of individual Christians.

Today, the Catholic Church throughout the world is wounded by crises: clerical sex abuse, failures of leadership in handling cases of abuse, and among many a lack of confidence in the Church’s hierarchy, not to mention the ever-growing threats of secularism, religious persecution of various kinds, the abandonment of Christian moral norms, and the desire of many for ‘spirituality without religion.’ In the face of all these existential threats from within and without, the Church stands in need of solid models of ecclesial reform. St. Charles Borromeo provides such a model, and his approach to ecclesial reform fits particularly well with the current emphases of the Catholic Church on the Universal Call to Holiness and the New Evangelization. These concepts, rooted in the teachings of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council and the post-conciliar magisterium of the Catholic Church, summon every Christian, clergy and laity alike, to pursue Christ-like holiness and to take up the mission of evangelization, for the sanctification of the world and the salvation of souls.

Responding to the spiritual, disciplinary, moral, and theological threats of his own time, St. Charles worked tirelessly to perform a most fundamental priestly act: to bring Christ to his people, and to bring people to Christ. He served as a priestly mediator according to the gifts with which God had blessed him. And he kept in view the twin goals of holiness and salvation. He did not attempt to save the Catholic Church as an institution merely for its own sake. He was concerned with the health of the Church as both the Body of Christ, Head and members, here on earth and as the instrument of salvation for God’s people. To put the matter most simply, St. Charles loved Jesus Christ, loved his Church, and loved the people he served. He was a man of God who knew his people to be redeemed and loved by Christ.

St. Charles Borromeo and institutional Reform

As a cardinal and later as Archbishop of Milan, St. Charles Borromeo promoted a great program of institutional reform, which had a salubrious effect on countless members of the clergy and laity. He combined sound, precise, if not highly ornate, preaching with severe asceticism, a penetrating critical eye towards the social and ecclesial ills of the day, a focus on conversion and salvation, and a dual-emphasis on spiritual and corporal works of mercy in his apostolic programs. No doubt, St. Charles was born to be a leader, and exercised a charism for ecclesial leadership from his young adulthood onward, spending his life for the building-up of the Church.

St. Charles was born to earthly greatness, yet dedicated his life to serving the Kingdom of God. His family was numbered among the great families of Lombardy. His uncle was elected pope in 1559, taking the name Pius IV. And St. Charles was created a cardinal and served as a close advisor to Pope Pius in Rome. The fulfillment of every usual secular ambition for a young man of his time and place would have come easily to St. Charles, yet from an early age he showed signs of a deep commitment to Christ and his Church.

The theological axiom, ‘Grace builds on nature and perfects it,’ holds true in the life of St. Charles. Although it is easy, and to some extent accurate, to contrast the worldly grandeur into which he was born and raised with the more spiritual ambitions he adopted in the years of his early adulthood, in St. Charles these existential strands were woven together rather than entirely separated. Although he chose a path of spiritual purity and ecclesial reform, his approach to these pursuits was marked by his prior experience and his natural gifts for administration, orderly thinking, and adeptness in leading others, even the very powerful.

In his sermon for the liturgical feast of St. Charles Borromeo, Msgr. Ronald Knox (1888-1957) muses on the distinctively Italian genius Charles had for such leadership. According to Knox, raising-up men like Charles Borromeo during the most difficult moments of Church history is part of the designs of God’s Providence:

Say what you will, Italy breeds the genius for government. So the greatest of Latin poets saw, and summed it up for us in a phrase:

Others shall quicken bronze with softer grace,
And from dull marble life’s own features trace;
Plead with more eloquence, the changing skies
Map with more skill, and con the stars that rise:
Roman, not these thy arts–thy agelong skill
To wield thy empire o’er the peoples still.

Anybody, in naming the world’s great men, will give you almost at once the names of two Italians, Julius Caesar and Napoleon. And, whatever verdict history may pass on our own times, it is in Italy that the anarchical tendencies of the last half-century have provoked the first reaction in favour of efficient government. St. Charles came from a ruling family among that ruling race. Personal humility shone out in him as in the other saints; but there was something Latin all the same about the resolute competence with which he governed his diocese. Men called him a second St. Ambrose; and St. Ambrose, his predecessor in the See of Milan, was a civil magistrate before he was ever a bishop. It was no idle title to call St. Charles a prince of the Church.

By birth, temperament, and experience the approach of St. Charles to ecclesial reform was perhaps more active than contemplative, but the saint was a man of deep prayer and stern personal penance. His approach to ecclesial reform was centered on the Council of Trent, in which he had taken an active part as an organizer and which he sought to implement as Archbishop of Milan.

Despite the importance of it decrees, the Council might have done very little, practically speaking, to benefit the Church if those decrees had not been implemented with great diligence by men such as Charles. In considering the nature of the reform wrought by St. Charles during the years following the Council, perhaps it will be helpful to look first at a few key principles of this reform, followed by a look at the practical steps St. Charles took in order to implement the vision of the Council, according to his own pastoral prudence.

Principles of reform

A first principle at any time of crisis in the life of the Church must be reliance upon Divine Providence and trust in the Lord Jesus. Ronald Knox tells a story about Julius Caesar that illustrates a foundational truth about how St. Charles and other reformers faced the storms buffeting the Church of the sixteenth century:

When Julius Caesar wished to cross from Durazzo to Brindisi in a little boat, and the master of it wanted to turn back, because the wind had risen and he was in danger of shipwreck, Caesar rebuked him for his cowardice in noble words that have come down to us: ‘Take courage, my friend, take courage, and fear nothing; Caesar is your passenger, and Caesar’s fortunes are your freight.’ With greater, and with better grounded confidence, the Church of God, which is Peter’s boat, has breasted the waves all through her troubled history. It is not upon the captain’s judgment or the pilot’s experience, not upon human wisdom or human prudence, that she depends for her safe voyage: she rests secure in the presence of her inviolable passenger. Yet we should do ill if we grudged recognition and gratitude to those servants of his who at various times have steered our course for us through difficult waters, and especially to the saints of the Counter-Reformation–that remarkable group of saints whom God raised up at the time of Europe’s apostasy, by whose influence, humanly speaking, the faith survived that terrible ordeal.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see the wisdom or folly of various courses of action taken by the great figures of history. At the moment when those figures face decisions of such magnitude and consequence, they cannot know the future with certainty. Their only comfort must come from their conviction of the rightness of their actions, and their dependence upon God’s providential care. There were so many forces acting against the stability and vitality of the Catholic Church during the second half of the sixteenth century that no sane person could have felt completely confident in his own ability to effect substantial change for the good. But St. Charles had grown in stature as a man of God and as a churchman to such an extent that he was able to proceed on the path of reform with unwavering confidence. And only unwavering confidence matched with wisdom and holiness could have aided the Church in an age when she faced such seemingly intractable difficulties.

A second principle of reform Charles followed was that the Church exists as a hierarchical communion. Disorder had bred vice and disunity in the Renaissance Church, but the Council of Trent brought the hope of a restoration of ecclesial order. Knox writes:

Whatever be the rights and wrongs of all the controversies we hear about the medieval Church, this at least is clear, that in the days of the Council of Trent its organization needed reform. And reform needs more than mere legislation to decree it; it needs administration to execute it. That is St. Charles’s characteristic legacy to the Church: it was the influence of his example, in great measure, that moulded her organization on the new model which Trent had decreed. The bishop has got to be the centre of everything in his diocese, and the clergy of the diocese are to be his clergy—a family of which he is to be the father, a guild of which he is to be the master.

Knox’s words may seem to some contemporary readers to place too much emphasis on the role of the bishop, but when one considers the disorders of the sixteenth century Church, the need for a stronger hierarchy becomes clearer. In one sermon, given at a 1579 provincial council over which he presided, St. Charles identifies a great many of the evils of the day. His list is a sobering reminder of the Latin proverb corruptio optimi pessima (‘the corruption of the best is the worst’):

How miserable were these recent times when for so long and in many places provincial councils and diocesan synods were no longer held, but neglected and became entirely a thing of the past. As a result, a veritable forest of multiple evils came to be: basilicas left uncared for, the adornment of church furnishings reduced to nothing, the ritual and use of the ceremonies barely known, the correct celebration of the Divine Offices entirely disturbed, the discipline of choir rescinded, the duties of ecclesiastical functions disregarded and despised, sacerdotal and clerical residences deserted, all the duties of discipline at length thrown off and entirely laid aside, and furthermore the instruction and forming of the people was distorted. Corruption of morals appeared on all sides. The honor of feast days was violated by many sins. The upkeep of sacred places in many places suffered injury. The dignity of the sacerdotal order was treated as if it were nothing. In sum everything was reduced to such a state as to be worthy of tears, mourning and commiseration.

St. Charles was not a man known for his dramatic oratorical flair or penchant for invective. His list of the ecclesial evils of his day, then, is an accurate, sober-minded presentation of what he saw around him and felt compelled to remedy with all-due haste and vigor. And he recognized that a renewed emphasis on hierarchical authority was an important principle of such reform. It is well known that he pressed with special force for bishops to reside in their dioceses, so that the fatherly, hierarchical authority of the bishops would be manifest and effective among the flocks entrusted to their care.

A third and complementary principle of reform was an emphasis on the sanctification of the laity. Of all the reforming efforts Charles undertook, helping his people to grow in holiness was, according to one biographer, “the supreme purpose of all his pastoral work.” This emphasis on the sanctification of the laity fits well with the Church’s renewed understanding in our own day of the Universal Call to Holiness. St. Charles recognized the vital role that family life, work, and ordinary citizenship plays in the building up of God’s Kingdom on earth. According to one commentator on the reforming genius of Charles Borromeo, “St. Charles’ efforts at the internal reform of the Church could be summarized in the practical phrase: Be who you promised you would be. Every member of the Mystical Body of Christ must be intentional about pursuing a life of holiness, according to one’s particular state of life.”

Practical steps on the path of reform

In what practical ways did St. Charles implement his principles of ecclesial reform? A consummate leader and administrator, he developed a clear plan of action and spent himself executing his pastoral plan with heroic zeal and a great deal of focus.

Much of this plan of action centered on the ministry of the bishop, as has been noted. Despite his being highly valued as an advisor and assistant to the pope, St. Charles led by example and took up residence in his episcopal see, Milan, as soon as possible after he was made archbishop. He then pressed the Tridentine norm that all diocesan bishops should reside in their dioceses. Of course, his greatest influence was in his own province, among his suffragan bishops. But episcopal residency was not the only reform related to the office of the bishop that St. Charles pursued in his program of reform.

Pastoral visitations were also an important way St. Charles revitalized the episcopal ministry. Charles himself made countless visitations to parish churches, houses of religious communities, and other institutions under his pastoral care. He did so often at great personal cost, given the difficulties of travel and the mountainous terrain of much of northern Italy and Switzerland. But he saw the presence of the bishop to his people as an essential dimension of the bishop’s fatherly and shepherding role in his diocese. St. Charles asked a great deal of his priests and people—no one questions that he was an exacting cardinal-archbishop—but he was the first to live what he preached, and even to practice a more rigorous form of the Christian life than what he asked of others.

St. Charles also believed firmly in episcopal and presbyteral collegiality, as opposed to each bishop acting in radical independence from each other in the governance of their respective dioceses, or priests doing so in their own parishes. This collegiality often took shape in the form of provincial councils and local synods, of which Charles was a great champion. It was seen above that the lack of such instruments of collegiality was, in his mind, a cause of many of the Church’s ills, because of the disorder that resulted from weak ecclesial leadership.

There is an old joke that the priest is just the seminarian ordained, and then an extension which says that the bishop is the priest ordained once again. The joke is not an attempt to deny the grace of the Catholic Sacrament of Holy Orders, but it does highlight the truth that grace builds on nature, and that the sacraments, while powerfully efficacious, do not magically transform the personality. The joke also testifies to the essential role seminary formation plays in preparing clergyman for the holy work Christ calls them to undertake in his name.

Prior to the Council of Trent, however, the formation of future priests was a haphazard affair. Oftentimes, a man would train as an apprentice under the direction of an experienced parish priest. Those who could and wished to avail themselves of the opportunity would study at one of the universities attached to the diocesan cathedrals of the day. But there were few universal standards, and the results were correspondingly poor. Many disorders existed in clerical life, including gross neglect of their duties by many priests. The sins of priests even prompted a startling saying among the people of Lombardy, “If you want to go to hell, become a priest.” There is a mix of “weeds” and “wheat” among the clergy of every age, but the Renaissance Church does seem to have had more than its share of clerical weeds. The Council of Trent, therefore, laid down the strict directive that every diocese should establish its own seminary, in order to raise the standard of priestly formation.

Even larger dioceses, including Milan, faced practical obstacles to implementing this conciliar charge, but St. Charles nevertheless persevered and in 1564 established a seminary in Milan. He also founded smaller seminaries for more remote mountain districts under his pastoral care.

St. Charles also took many actions aimed at the sanctification of the laity. Of the utmost importance to him was divine worship, and so St. Charles promoted the dignified, disciplined, and reverent celebration of the sacred liturgy. He also promoted pilgrimages, the renewal of communities of religious sisters and brothers, and the creation or revitalization of other ecclesial institutions. According to one biographer, St. Charles was acutely aware of a “desacralizing current of Church life and society in general,” which existed at the time, and worked tirelessly to combat this current. He also dedicated himself to the corporal works of mercy, and served heroically during the plague that swept Milan in 1576, claiming 25,000 lives. Imploring his priests to remain steadfast in their duties to the sick and dying, he challenged them: “We have only one life and we should spend it for Jesus and souls—not as we wish, but at the time and in the way God wishes.”

This spiritual ferverino given to his priests could also encapsulate the pastoral guidance St. Charles gave to the laity. Though they lived in the world and performed many worldly tasks, their lives were to be entirely dedicated to Christ. St. Charles published a booklet for the lay faithful of Milan in 1577, outlining for them a plan of life that is broad in the scope of activities it addresses and detailed in its recommendations of prayer and good works. According to St. Charles, the Christian, in reading the booklet’s words of guidance, “is not only to know them but above all to practice them, because the well-being of our lives consists in the observance and not just in the thought of the will of God.” The booklet covers everything from praying at mealtime and other family activities, to employer-employee relations, to spiritual advice about guarding one’s heart and one’s language from all trace of evil influence.

A stereotype of the Tridentine-era Church suggests that the pursuit of holiness was the exclusive domain of the clergy and religious sisters and brothers. The evangelization efforts of St. Charles Borromeo make clear, however, that it was of paramount concern that the lay faithful also take up their share in the mission of Christ, becoming holy and encouraging a life of holiness in their families, communities, and places of business.


In all things, Charles Borromeo sought to increase the holiness of all the members of the Church, whether directly or through the renewal of the institutions under his pastoral care. St. Charles did as much as any Catholic clergymen in the second-half of the sixteenth century to advance the cause of ecclesial reform. He worked tirelessly to become holy himself, combining intense prayer, personal penitential disciplines, and vigorous apostolic labor. St. Charles saw clearly the evils and the opportunities of his time and place, and set out with focus and zeal to meet the most important pastoral challenges of the day. His specific approach to the apostolic ministry was effective in bringing about a renewal in the Church and the lives of her members. In so doing, he provides a model for ecclesial reform that is most apt today, at a time when the role of the Church in salvation, the Universal Call to Holiness, and the personal encounter with Christ are strong points of emphasis in Catholic pastoral theology.

In the wake of so many scandals that were an unfortunate part of the legacy of the Renaissance Church, and the challenge of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church desperately needed saints to encourage and equip the clergy and faithful alike so that they too might become more like Christ, who is the light of the world, a light shining in the darkness, which the darkness has not and will not overcome (cf. Jn 8:12 and 1:5).

(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted at CWR on November 4, 2020.)

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About Fr. Charles Fox 67 Articles
Rev. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome. He is also chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren, MI.


  1. This is a nice summary well worth reading and re-reading given it’s historical references as well as the impactful insight St Charles offers us for dealing with difficulties in today’s church. But it would seem a further study, a sort of translation if you will, must follow in understanding the application of these reform principles to the current church crisis which appears to be top heavy with corruption rather than regional as it seems was the case in the saint’s day.

  2. I agree. It is of the very first importance that the People of God live holy lives inspired by love and guided by the Church. Unfortunately, there is little agreement now on what, exactly, is holiness. Is it working against pollution? Perhaps ensuring that all of the people of the world have equal wealth(income inequality being frequently condemned)? Or maybe it is ending restrictions on immigration? Fighting clericalism (the authority of priests, not just its misuse)? Ending “rigid traditionalism?” Ordaining the married and women? Accepting homosexual marriages? Rejecting proselytism?

    For too many, perhaps the majority, of Catholics, becoming holy means becoming a social justice warrior.

  3. Thank you, Father, for this well-presented description of the life, times, and contributions of St. Charles. I appreciate how fully you describe the issues within the church and society at the times and relate these to “the key principles of Catholic reform”. Much food for thought, especially as it relates to today’s situations.
    One other thought, though, if you don’t mind. As I read the essay, I kept looking for, and expecting, some further, more explicit discussion of these “principles” as they related to our own times and today’s church life. I guess I could extrapolate and come to my own conclusions. But, it would have been nice to hear your thoughts more fully.
    Anyway, thanks again. (And thanks for your valuable homilies at St. Therese.)

  4. Very good article but one glaring error. Napoleon Bonaparte was French, not Italian. He was born in Corsica, a French island in the Mediterranean.

    • According to, “Napoleon’s family was more Italian than French”:

      Napoleone di Buonaparte was born on Corsica on August 15, 1769, just 15 months after France had purchased the island from the Italian city-state of Genoa. Like many Corsicans, his parents, Carlo Maria di Buonaparte and Letizia Ramolino, opposed both Genoese and French rule. But when the French quickly overwhelmed local resistance fighters, Carlo began collaborating with them. At age 9, Napoleone, nicknamed Nabulio, was sent to school in mainland France, where he learned to speak fluent French. He never lost his Corsican accent, however, and was purportedly mocked for it by his classmates and, later on, by the soldiers under his command.

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