All Saints’ Day, November 4: today is San Carlo Borromeo

The “All Saints Days” column for November 4: San Carlo Borromeo.

November 4th marks the memory of San Carlo Borromeo. San Carlo Borromeo was born in Arona, on Lake Maggiore, in 1538, into a noble and wealthy family. His father, Gilberto, was known for his profound religiosity and generosity towards others poor; her mother, Margherita, was also very devout; she died when Charles was only nine years old. At 12, Carlo was appointed commendatory of a Benedictine abbey in Arona, with an income of 2000 scudi; as soon as he received the investiture, he decided to spend that money to help those most in need. He completed his studies first in Milan and then in Pavia, soon revealing great intelligence and a tenacious and thoughtful character. In 1559, at just 21 years old, he became a doctor “in utroque jure”. In the meantime, Pope Pius IV was elected in Rome, born Gianangelo de’ Medici, his maternal uncle, who called him to the city together with his brother Federico. From 1561 the latter held the position of captain general of the Church, while Charles was appointed Secretary of State. In the Roman court he lived in the typical splendor of those years, but the sudden death of his brother made him radically change his life: he reduced his worldly life, intensified his penance, fasting and renunciations. He also resumed, with more fervor, his theological and pastoral training. In 1563 he was ordained a priest and soon after consecrated bishop. He participated in the final stages of the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563), becoming one of the major promoters of the counter-reformation; he was part of the commission responsible for reviewing liturgical music; he collaborated largely in the drafting of the Tridentine Catechism. Shortly before his uncle’s death, on 9 December 1565, San Carlo asked to be able to return to the diocese of Milan, to implement the conciliar provisions, returning to Rome only for the election of the new pope, the Dominican Michele Ghislieri, whom he strongly supported. In Milan he immediately began the great work of reform according to the Council of Trent: he organized his diocese into 12 districts, oversaw the revision of the life of the parish by obliging the parish priests to keep archive registers, with the various parish activities and associations; he put a lot of effort into the training of the clergy by creating the major and minor seminary. But above all, Cardinal Borromeo was tireless in visiting the populations entrusted to his pastoral and spiritual care. However, although much loved, his reform also met with hostility: on 26 October 1569 he suffered a attack by four friars of the Order of the Humiliated, one of whom shot him while he was praying in his private chapel. The bullet pierced his spool, but he remained miraculously unharmed and the people read the event as a sign of the correctness of his reforms; the Humiliati were definitively suppressed. During the plague of 1576 he remained close to his fellow citizens, organizing the assistance work, personally visiting those affected by the terrible disease and helping everyone tirelessly. Saint Charles Borromeo had a particular devotion towards the Shroud and the desire to contemplate that linen where, according to tradition, the body of Jesus taken down from the Cross had been wrapped, had increased precisely in the tragic days of the plague; when the scourge ended, Saint Charles, as if to fulfill a vow for the grace received, decided to leave to pray personally in front of the Shroud. In September 1578, Duke Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, to facilitate the pilgrimage of the Archbishop of Milan, transferred the relic from the chapel of the castle of Chambery to Turin, then deciding to leave it permanently in the Piedmontese capital where it is still located in the Cathedral. Due to his non-stop pastoral activity, frequent travel and constant penance, his health rapidly deteriorated. His death overtook him on November 3, 1584; his cult spread among the faithful until his canonization in 1610 by Paul V.

From the point of view of Images, the Saint is generally depicted with excessively marked physical facial features, starting from the famous aquiline nose which makes him immediately recognisable. He is portrayed wearing the cardinal’s habit, while he meditates, shaking his hands in front of the Crucifix, his constant attribute in front of which is a skull. This theme symbolizes St. Charles’ reflection on suffering and death, on the memento mori, experienced not with absorbed gravity, but with serene awareness of future otherworldly happiness. Curiosity: Saint Charles Borromeo always wore a beard, even though the vast seventeenth-century iconography often depicts him as hairless. He only began to shave in 1576, at the time of the first great plague, and kept his face shaved as a sign of penance during the last eight years of his life.

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