Home > Archives > 07/08 - 2011 > ST CHARLES BORROMEO The house built on rock
from issue no. 07/08 - 2011


The house built on rock

“Everything that St Charles did and achieved, was built on the unshakable rock that is Christ, on the full integrity and loyalty to the Gospel, on unconditional love for the Church of the Lord”.

The discourse of the Archbishop Emeritus of Milan at the Rimini Meeting

by Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi

Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi [© Rimini Meeting Press Office]

Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi [© Rimini Meeting Press Office]


Everything is grace: Looking towards St Charles

Yes, “everything is grace”. Even this meeting of ours. I feel the hand of the providence of God on me. It was this providence that decided that my last year in the pastoral leadership of the diocese of Milan should coincide with the fourth centenary of the canonization of St Charles Borromeo, on 1 November 1610 by Pope Paul V. I feel I must thank the Lord for a very busy year, full of projects of great spiritual, pastoral and cultural significance for the Ambrosian Church.
Let me just mention a few points, recalling above all the opening of this centenary that had as important event the Apostolic Letter of Benedict XVI Lumen Caritatis, of 1 November 2010, the very day of the anniversary of the canonization; an important event and for me very joyful since I had the opportunity to read and present the Pope’s letter to the Ambrosian faithful on the feast of St Charles, 4 November last year. In the letter, the Holy Father briefly sets out some fundamental aspects of the sanctity of Borromeo.
I would like to recall them.
The first aspect refers to his work as reforming bishop. In implementing with wisdom and originality the decrees of the Council of Trent, St Charles reformed the Church that he loved deeply; indeed, precisely because he loved it with a sincere love, he wanted to renew it, helping to give back to it its most beautiful aspect, that of Bride of Christ, a bride without blemish or wrinkle.
A second aspect of the sanctity of Charles Borromeo: he was a man of prayer, intense, trusting, prolonged, robust and flourishing prayer in his life as a pastor. If St Charles was enamored of the Church, it was because he was enamored beforehand with the Lord Jesus, present and active in the Church in its doctrinal and spiritual tradition, present in the Eucharist, in the Word of God. He was especially enamored of Christ crucified, as the iconography that not by accident ­ has handed down to us the image of this saint in contemplation and in adoration of the Passion and Cross of the Lord.
Finally Charles Borromeo was a saint – the Pope reminds us – because he was able to embody the figure of the zealous and generous shepherd, who was ready to sacrifice his whole life for the flock entrusted to his care. St Charles was truly ‘ubiquitous’ in the diocese of Milan through pastoral visits, he was concerned in a prophetic and incisive way with the problems of his time; above all, like the great bishops of the Middle Ages, he was truly pater pauperum, father of the poor and weakest: just think of what he managed in terms of charity and welfare during the dramatic moments of the famines and the plague of 1576. The Pope’s letter is rightly titled Lumen Caritatis, because it makes explicit reference to the pastoral charity that daily and in heroic fashion St Charles knew how to live and practice.
Indeed, in imitation of Christ who gave His life for our salvation, St Charles literally ‘loosed’ his life into pastoral charity. From the moment he became bishop of Milan, in programmatic and systematic fashion, he put the cause of the Gospel and the good of the Church before everything: before his own convenience, before private and personal interests, before family interests or his circle of friends, before his free time, to the point of never having free time for himself, given that all the time at the disposition a bishop – St Charles said the same – must be spent for the salvation of souls.
The centenary from Milan to Rimini
It gives me great joy that the centenary of St Charles, which began with the words of the Pope, will in a sense end here in Rimini, with this event that presents itself in its twofold aspect: cultural and spiritual.
There is undoubtedly the cultural aspect: today in fact, an instructive exhibition on the life and pastoral work of Charles Borromeo opens, and there are panels, captions, multimedia supports; there is a catalogue with scholarly contributions. All this is important because it enables a better understanding, beyond the many simplifications and beyond the partial or even ideologically prejudiced interpretations, of the true face of this great bishop, authentic interpreter of the Tridentine reform of the Church.
But personally I would like to emphasize the spiritual aspect of the initiative, as clearly emerges from the title the organizers have chosen for this exhibition: ‘The house built on rock’. The reference is to the famous page that closes the Sermon on the Mount, the parable of two house-builders, the first builds on sand, the other on rock. And the outcome is entirely predictable: the house of the former, at the first trials of life and the storms of history, inevitably collapses, the house of the latter, despite the difficulties of life and the upheavals of history stands and resists. And the rock on which the house is built is Christ the Lord, it is His Gospel of truth and life (cf. Mt 7, 24-27).
This parable can truly and in particular fashion be applied to St Charles and his work: everything he did and achieved was built on the unshakeable rock that is Christ, on full consistency and fidelity to the Gospel, on unconditional love for the Church of the Lord. That is why what St Charles built withstood the storms of his time, and has also stood against the wear and tear of the passing centuries, as evidenced by the fact that even today many of his insights, many of the pastoral and institutional solutions he devised or prefigured remain valid, have their own incisive relevance, not just for the diocese of Milan, but also for the whole Western Latin Church.
<I>St Charles miraculously saved from attack</I>, Giovanni Battista della Rovere, known as il Fiammenghino, Milan Cathedral

St Charles miraculously saved from attack, Giovanni Battista della Rovere, known as il Fiammenghino, Milan Cathedral

A saint for now or outdated?
It’s no accident that I speak of ‘relevance’, because I have to confess that several times during this centenary I have wondered, when surveying the salient aspects of the sanctity of Charles Borromeo, if he is really a saint still ‘relevant’ today: that is whether he has something greatly significant to say to our times, if he is still for us today – as he was four hundred years ago – a model of evangelical life not only to admire, but also in various ways to imitate.
The question is perhaps a little obvious, to which we can certainly respond with a positive yes! Still today St Charles speaks to us, still today he is a valid model of holiness for us. And the Pope’s letter from which I began, the exhibition put on here in Rimini, the various initiatives that have studded this ‘Caroline’ year, prove it incontrovertibly.
Of course we can’t run the risk of falling into some anachronism, because we must openly acknowledge that more than a few things in the Church and in today’s world have changed from the situation of the Church and society in the late sixteenth century. And we must also recognize that certain aspects of St Charles’ pastoral action – as well as some aspects of his lifestyle (I am thinking above all of his strict penitential regime) – are not materially and automatically adoptable today without the necessary and adequate mediation. But, despite this obvious fact, which always applies whenever we refer to the figures from the past, there are a few salient points in the sanctity of Charles Borromeo which, in their deepest and evangelical meaning, have truly enduring value. And thus a value for our lives as Christians in the third millennium, to the extent that we today, like ‘wise men’, want to “build our house upon rock” as he did four hundred years ago.
And yet, from this point of view, the figure of St Charles is greatly challenging, because he puts into question many aspects of the way of thinking and living in the world today. That is why during the centenary, gathering some of my personal experiences and memories in my approach and relationship with the figure of Borromeo, I decided to write a book, giving it the suggestive and stimulating title of: San Carlo, un riformatore inattuale [St Charles, an outdated reformer].
Let me dwell a little on the adjective. ‘Outdated’ is in fact immediately opposed to ‘relevant’. They are two terms, however, that are only apparently in opposition, because one can easily flow into the other. So, if for example by ‘relevant’ one means ‘after the fashion of the moment’, ‘adapted to the mentality of our time’, ‘in the opinion shared by most’, it’s clear that St Charles is ‘outdated’. I’ve already said so and I want to emphasize it for a better understanding of relevance-outdated: Borromeo’s times are not ours, and his way of viewing problems and solving them is not ours; nor can we take some of his solutions mechanically and apply them to our world, ‘relevant’ to us.
Conversely, if by ‘outdated’ one means what is rooted in the fundamental values of Christian tradition, if by ‘outdated’ one means to remain anchored to the rock that is Jesus Christ and who gives true solidity to the whole construction of the house, if all that is considered outdated just because it doesn’t fit in with what is now considered ‘politically correct’, then we should ask ourselves whether the irrelevance of St Charles does not turn into a unique and urgent need to reconsider, to reassess our yardstick, to make it relevant to the way we live and live together.
<I>The miracle of Carlino Nava</I>, Giulio Cesare Procaccini, Milan Cathedral

The miracle of Carlino Nava, Giulio Cesare Procaccini, Milan Cathedral

A prophetic outdatedness and beneficial for our time
In line with this, taking them from the biography of St Charles, I present three examples, trying to apply them to our ‘present’ times.
The first is fidelity to the duty of loyalty to one’s state of life as a form itself of Christian identity. Borromeo was sharply aware of what it meant to be bishop of an important diocese in difficult times of transition, of reform and change: and precisely for that reason always sought to adapt his choices and his actions to a real ‘ethics’, to which he remained faithful in a heroic manner and to which he sacrificed everything else. St Charles asked this sense of duty also of his priests, in the offices that they would perform; and he asked it of the lay faithful, men and women, according to their situation. He did not accept, for himself first of all, half-measures and compromises, with a facile leveling down in the name of a colorless mediocrity. The historians remind us that when he was a cardinal in Rome, before his so-called ‘conversion’, he had lived a ‘Christianity without infamy and without praise’. That’s the risk we Christians run in every period, priests and bishops too: to settle for an insipid Christian life, in which one rightly avoids ‘macroscopic’ evil (which could bring infamy), but which shrinks to the minimum necessary to salve one’s conscience, quickly, without too many jolts.
Today, when we all feel already arrived and don’t want to feel too unsettled, to speak of ‘conversion’ might seem quite ‘outdated’, or at least inappropriate. Whereas the example of St Charles is most relevant and singularly urgent because always in the Church Christians, all Christians at every level, are called to ‘convert’ from a Christianity ‘without infamy and without praise’, a colorless and tasteless Christianity (that is, without the light and salt of the Gospel), to a convinced Christian life, shining and alert to the faithful exercise of one’s duty at all times and in any case, to the search for a path to perfection that shapes us more and more to the model of all perfection: Christ Jesus our Lord. That is exactly what St Charles did in systematic and programmatic fashion: his example does not allow us excuses or distractions. He is truly always timeless because he calls Christians of all periods, also us Christians of the third millennium, to the perennial and unrenounceable need to put ourselves in question. In particular, I must say that from reading the writings of St Charles and his pastoral guidelines I have gathered the clear impression that he lived with great disquiet the distance – that in any case always exists – between the lofty goal to which the Lord calls us (sanctity) and our concrete response. If St Charles felt himself lacking – and his disquiet came out of that, his unease with his conscience – what should we say and do? There is then a question which we can’t evade: where, in what areas of our lives, of our duty of estate, must we still ‘convert’, in imitation of St Charles, to emerge from a mediocre Christian life, ‘without infamy and without praise’?
Charles Borromeo is also relevant in another respect: his formidable ability to work out a balance between action and contemplation. We all know the many images of St Charles absorbed in prayer, especially before the Crucifix, immersed in real mystical experiences. But the emphatic contemplative dimension that he managed to give to his life never took him away from his duty as a pastor of souls. Indeed, we can say that he became one of the great models of bishop and pastor precisely because his pastoral work was deeply imbued with prayer and contemplation. St Charles ‘did’ much in his life, the projects achieved were many, and indeed we wonder in amazement where he found the time and strength to do everything he did. One is tempted to say that all he did had something miraculous about it: and so it did! Truly it has something miraculous about it because it was all steeped in prayer, conversation with God, imbued with the loving contemplation of the mysteries of salvation in Christ, starting from His passion, death and resurrection. This is the timeless message that comes from St Charles: communion with God, prayer, contemplation do not wrench us out of history but plunge us into it, giving us the strength even to work miracles in the world and for the world. Whereas ours is a period suffering from activism, hectic in its doings, busy producing goods and services if the aim is not to waste it. And so our period arrives at evaluating the person not for what they are, but for what they do and produce. In such a context should one perhaps not speak of contemplation, meditation, prayer, silence, as the most ‘outdated’ things our time could experience? The truth, however, is exactly the opposite. St Charles urges us not to be deceived by this kind of drug, but to restore order in our lives, restoring the primacy of God over all, in the certainty that the rest will follow. It is the Lord’s own admonition: “Seek instead, above all the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Mt 6, 33).
And if there is one aspect of the pastoral work of St Charles that impressed his contemporaries more than any other – so that they began to consider him exceptional precisely because of it – it was his charitable activity. Above all during the terrible plague of 1576 he stripped himself literally of everything, of family property, of personal property, not only of the superfluous, but of the absolutely necessary so as help the people of Milan stricken by the epidemic. And not only was he prodigious in times of emergency, he also decided that various charitable institutions should continue their work beyond the emergency of the plague, aware that poverty, want, marginalization, social and moral degradation are an everlasting emergency, in every moment. And in fact, in every moment St Charles shone as fatherly helper of the poor, of every poor person, of all who held out their hand asking for help. He was also – to use the terminology of our current culture – a ‘social saint’: that is he was able to interpret the social problems of his time in the light of the Gospel, pointing to various concrete solutions, fearless in denouncing the ills of society such as public corruption, the practice of usury, the unjust privileges of certain cliques, the lack of what we now call ‘social conscience’ or ‘concern for the common good’.
But there is yet another aspect to the sanctity of Borromeo that deserves mention: the ascetic dimension of his life. He was most strict on this point, something that lead to harsh criticism and misunderstandings in those who lived close to him. He was poor, chaste, humble, penitent; he practiced fasting very seriously, he prayed into the night so as to keep the day for his pastoral duties; he reduced his rest to a minimum, indeed he tended not to rest at all. We know that the doctors often reproached him with not taking sufficient care of himself, and he would reply that if one paid heed to doctors one couldn’t be a good bishop! His death at barely 46 put the seal on a life that was literally consumed in ascetic practices. This is an aspect which leaves us wondering, as did his contemporaries, who rightly wondered if St Charles was imitatable in those virtues given their heroic character. And we ourselves wonder today, but without falling into the trap of judging excessive the exercise of ascetic virtues as lived by St Charles, judging it ‘outdated’ according to the parameters of our contemporary sensibilities. Might not such a view be just a reassuring way of excusing ourselves from imitating him? We must have rather the honesty to find in this an aspect of great relevance. To speak today of ‘asceticism’, of ‘penitence’, of ‘renunciation’ exposes us to the risk of being ridiculed and judged as people out of time and out of this world, coming from the world of so many centuries ago. Whereas we are the people who need a firm reminder to purify our lifestyle, to make it more simple, to rediscover self-control and mastery of the senses, of the instincts and uncontrolled passions: as a path to an inner freedom that makes us masters of ourselves and of our true path toward the truth, the good, the just and the beautiful.
<I>St Charles prepares for death at the Sacro Monte di Varallo</I>, detail, Giovanni Battista della Rovere, known as il Fiammenghino, Milan Cathedral

St Charles prepares for death at the Sacro Monte di Varallo, detail, Giovanni Battista della Rovere, known as il Fiammenghino, Milan Cathedral

The ring, the crozier, the chalice
I conclude by returning to the exhibition that was inaugurated today to stress one of its original features. At the heart of the exhibition what is on display are not three works of art, but three authentic relics that in some way reveal the personality of St Charles: an epiphany of his heart, a manifestation of his spiritual secret.
First of all there is Borromeo’s ring. And a bishop’s ring speaks symbolically of his spousal relationship with the Church entrusted to him. It is thus the sign of pastoral love and faithfulness to the ministry, of total dedication.
Then we come upon his pastoral crozier: it is the symbol of authority and governance of a bishop. But, as we know, it is a matter of an authority that can never be implemented as a pure exercise of power. In imitation of Christ – the Good Shepherd par excellence – the exercise of the pastoral governance coincides with the offering of a life to the point of full consummation of self. So Christ did, so did the holy pastors, such as Charles Borromeo.
Finally, we may look at his chalice, the one he used to celebrate the Eucharistic Sacrifice. It stands as testimony to the life of prayer that a bishop must have, as a reminder that, ultimately, it is the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, it is His word and His sacraments – in which His work of salvation is present and efficacious – that build the Church, enlighten, enliven and guide it.
As I said at the beginning the fourth centenary of the canonization of St Charles sees the conclusion of my pastoral mandate to the Church of Milan. Well, I confess that these three ‘symbols’ on display (the ring, the crozier and the chalice of St Charles) kindle in me a deep spiritual joy at the thought that as I received them from my predecessors, so I shall soon pass them on to my successor .
It is the beautiful mystery of the ‘traditio’, the Church’s living tradition, that – as St Charles has taught us – in reality is “the house built on rock”! Yes, “rain came down, the rivers rose, gales blew and hurled themselves against that house, and it did not fall: it was founded on rock” (Mt 7, 25). This applies to the Church that preceded us in time, for the Church that we are now living, for the Church which is opening to the future: a Church always filled with the grace and love of her Spouse and Lord. It is then without any fear, but with the unalterable and overflowing trust that comes from Christ, that we are all together called to continue on our path to holiness, heeding His words and making them a daily experience of life: “Therefore everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on rock” (Mt 7, 24).
May St Charles help us!

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