50 years ago last month, Pope Saint John XXIII prepared himself and the Church for the opening of the Second Vatican council by making a quick pilgrimage to the Roman Basilica of San Carlo al Corso, there to venerate the relic of the heart of Saint Charles Borromeo (1538-1584).
Pope John’s devotion to Milan’s famous counter-Reformation Cardinal Archbishop Saint Charles Borromeo is well known. He had joyfully scheduled his coronation as pope on Saint Charles’ feast day four years earlier, 64 years ago today. But, long before he could ever have imagined himself being crowned pope, Angelo Roncalli was extremely interested in church history, a subject which, as a newly ordained priest, he taught in the Bergamo diocesan seminary beginning in 1906. Later, he would call history « the greatest of teachers. » As a young priest, Roncalli was an enthusiastic student of the impact in northern Italy of the great 16th-century reforming Council of Trent, which probably contributed to his decision to call his own council. In particular, he was very interested in the activities of Saint Charles Borromeo.
Borromeo was archbishop of Milan for the 20 years that followed right after the completion of the Council of Trent. In that role, he was responsible for significant reforms in the Catholic Church, including the founding of seminaries for the education of priests, enforcing Trent’s reforms requiring that pastors reside near their churches, that they preach, and that they provide religious education for children. Borromeo visited parishes and, if they didn’t have one yet, ordered them to erect confessionals in their churches within 30 days.
When the plague caused churches to be closed, Borromeo celebrated Mass outdoors on the street corners, so that people could watch from their rooftops – the 16th-century version of pandemic live-streaming.
Borromeo was a major model for John XXIII and remains so today – for the same reason – as an exemplar of the powerful reawakening of evangelizing energy unleashed by the Council of Trent, which John XXIII fervently hoped would likewise be unleashed among us now by the Second Vatican Council.
Homily for the feast of Saint Charles Borromeo, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York, November 4, 2022.
Photo: Relic of Saint Charles Borromeo, Basilica di San Carlo al Corso (2012).