Charles Borromeo

Selected Orations, Homilies and Writins

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John R. Cihak
Ansgar Santogrossi
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


At this momentous quincentennial of the Protestant Reformation, much attention will rightly be focused upon the major figures of the movement: Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, and the like. However, it is also profitable to remember and study those figures who sought the reform of Medieval Catholicism from within the Church. This collection of primary texts introduces readers to one such figure, Charles Borromeo, whose writings provide a bounty of insights on “reform from within.”

In the opening chapter, the reader is introduced to this engaging and commendable figure. Born into an era of widespread moral decline and clerical abuse, Borromeo “should have been part of the problem” (1). He was a member of a wealthy Italian family, and he became a cardinal at the age of 22 due to the nepotistic intervention of his uncle, Pope Pius IV. The stage was set for Borromeo to follow in the footsteps of many before him, using his office for personal gain and ignoring the plight of the people. Instead however, he devoutly carried out his duties as the Archbishop of Milan by helping to organize the Council of Trent and diligently applying its reforms to the clergy and laymen under his care. This collection of Borromeo’s writings is demonstrative of the zeal for reform which animated Borromeo’s every action.

The collection itself is divided into four sections of writings directed to different groups within the Church, including twenty-two sermons and other writings on moral reform from various vantage points. Due to the difficulty of doing justice to such a vast quantity of writing, I endeavor to point to insights on reform from each section.

The first section contains three addresses given to the bishops gathered at the provincial councils he oversaw. In these orations, Borromeo tasked the bishops with implementing the Tridentine reforms. He cites their infrequent exercise of clerical discipline as a primary cause for the Church’s moral decline (28). Furthermore, says Borromeo, this failure of the bishops is what gives legitimacy to the Protestant critique of the Church as corrupt. Section 2 features exhortations for Christians to frequently receive the Eucharist. For Borromeo, the Eucharist was one of the greatest symbols of God’s love (52), and as the actual body and blood of Christ, it must be taken with zeal and love for God (66). The Eucharist mediated grace, which was efficacious for reforming the individual, and in turn the Church (59). The importance of the Eucharist is such that Borromeo blames its infrequent reception for the contemporary ills of the Church. The third and largest section deals with the reform of the lower clergy. Here Borromeo’s exhortations are deeply practical and pointed. There can be no discrepancy between the preacher’s message and the life he lives (82); the clergy are to be educated to make God their ultimate goal and reward (84, 114-15); and strive to be exemplars of virtue above the laity (128). The final section is directed at the laity and includes a book of practical advice, a sermon which encourages those who are to receive confirmation, and a final sermon exhorting the hearers to imitate the Holy Family in their daily lives.

The advantage of this collection is that it presents the broad scope of Borromeo’s reform agenda. It was directed it to all levels of the Church: the hierarchy, priests, and laity. His solutions to the problems he sees in the Church are always practical. He does not delve very deeply into theological nuances, but instead focuses the bulk of his message upon practical steps which can be taken to reform the Church. Some of these recommendations include bishops meeting for councils, clergy studying for sermons, and laypeople saying prayers when rising and going to bed. What’s more, Borromeo was an actual example of the moral reform which he advocated. In a touching letter to monastic leaders, Borromeo exhorts them to come and serve those dying of plague in Milan. Borromeo himself had remained in the city to do just that. In the end to the letter he promises, “if someone does contract the disease, and no others are there, then I myself, who will be going out among you every day on account of the sick, will be there. I will be charged with caring for your health in both body and soul. I will willingly come to your aid” (94-95). In an age where the decadence of bishops often kept them from even residing in their diocese, Borromeo exhibited Christ-like love and dedication to his flock. It is the discovery of gems like this that make Borromeo’s writings a rich resource for practical reform and godly living.

As for issues within the collection, Protestant sensibilities will likely be troubled by Borromeo’s view of the Eucharist and his frequent typological interpretations of Scripture. Aside from this potential stumbling block, a rather minor blemish on this splendid work has to do with the translations themselves. While Borromeo’s writings themselves are translated superbly, the Vulgate quotations are often clunky or archaic. The translator notes in the introduction that the Douay-Rheims was used to translate any Vulgate quotations, with minor changes or marginal notes being included only if the English was too archaic. However, the use of the Douay-Rheims results in several unintelligible English constructions such as this quotation from Ezekiel 13:18, “sew cushions under every elbow: and make pillows for the heads.” A more liberal use of footnotes, or original translations of the Latin text could have made for a smoother and more comprehensible text.

In summary, this collection of texts is a feast of practical exhortations and instructions for living a Christian life of piety and reform. As many in the Church will readily admit today, this kind of moral reform is still needed in the Universal Church today. In light of this need, readers will be hard pressed to find more a more practical guide and example for reform within the confines of an ecclesiastical institution than Borromeo’s writings.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brendon Norton is a graduate student in biblical and theology studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
November 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John R. Cihak studied philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and obtained his licentiate and doctorate in fundamental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome. He was appointed Papal Master of Ceremonies in 2010.

Ansgar Santogrossi is a Benedictine monk of Mount Angel Abbey and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon and at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Nebraska, USA.


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