Saint Charles Borromeo
Our current Hollywood culture seems to be obsessed with the power and decadence of the Medeci family and Renaissance Italy, creating a rather crude picture of life at the time. But decadence and debauchery are often the very things that lead a person to ultimately become a saint. For as St. Thomas Aquinas states, the only reason why a good God would allow evil to exist, is if he could bring great good even out of evil. And it would seem this setting was ideal for testing the mettle a young noble named Charles Borromeo.
Charles was born to a family where he had an older brother, this meant, as the younger of the two, he was a bit more free to pursue his own way in the world. He was a gifted student and when Chales’s uncle, a powerful Medici Cardinal, was later elected Pope Pius IV, this worked out very well for the young man. Upon his election, Pope Pius made the young Charles a Cardinal while he was still just a layman and a student. Eventually, he even rose to become Secretary of State of the Papal States which, at the time, gave him full responsibility for the entire country we now know as Italy. Charle’s dedicated himself to being a good steward of all his duties while eventually aspiring to the priesthood.
Unfortunately, this is where the culture began to press upon him. After his older brother died prematurely, there was tremendous pressure from his family to marry and carry the family name. He refused. He was ordained a priest in September of 1563 and the bishop of Milan later that same year.
But this was a tumultuous time for the Church, as his first duty was to take on the work of the Council of Trent. He is considered largely responsible for holding the council together and for many of its reforms. Once the council was concluded, he turned his attention to the Church in Milan.
Not far from what Hollywood portrays, many of the local bishops under his care had fallen into rather decadent lifestyles as had many of his priests. The new archbishop drew up a list of strict reforms and first and foremost subjected himself to them. He lived in poverty, gave most of his possessions to the poor, and avoided any activity that might have caused scandal. He did public penance for the decadence of the past. He dedicated himself to his people, even caring for them personally while they were suffering from plague and, using his families influence, placed himself in severe debt to feed the people of Milan during the famine that ensued during the plague. Being known to be an incredibly hard worker, it is thought this work eventually led to health problems and his death at the age of 46.
While he could have used his power and influence to continue his family name, he used them to lift up the poor. While he could have used all of his efforts to lay claim to this world, he gave it up to find something greater in the next. While all the pleasures of the world were open to him, he gave them all away, rejected their false promises and found himself a little piece of holiness in a world where hedonism seemed to reign supreme.