St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), Cardinal of the Holy Roman Catholic Church and Archbishop of Milan from 1565 to 1583, was described in the decree for his canonization, as “a man, even while the world smiles on him with the utmost flattery, he lives crucified to the world, spiritually, trampling earthly things, seeking continuously the things of heaven, emulating the life of the Angels on earth, in his thoughts and actions. (Paolo V, Bolla « Unigenitus » del 1 Nov. 1610).
Devotion to the angels accompanied St. Charles throughout his life. Count Enrique de Guzmán, Philip II’s Ambassador to Rome, described him as “more of an angel than a man” (Giovanni Pietro Giussano, Vita di San Carlo Borromeo, Stamperia della Camera Apostolica, Roma 1610, p. 441). Many artists, such as Teodoro Vallonio in Palermo and Sebastien Bourdon in Fabriano, depicted Charles Borromeo in their paintings while contemplating an angel re-sheathing his bloodied sword into its scabbard, signifying the cessation of the terrible plague of 1576.
Everything began in the month of August that year. Milan was celebrating joyfully the arrival of Don John of Austria, on his way to Flanders, where he had been appointed governor. The city authorities were abuzz with excitement in their desire to bestow the highest honours on the Spanish prince, but Charles, who had been Archbishop of the diocese for six years, was following with concern the news coming from Trento, Verona and Mantua, where the plague had begun claiming victims. The first cases exploded in Milan on August 11th, right at the moment when Don John of Austria arrived. The victor of Lepanto, followed by the governor, Antonio de Guzmán y Zuñiga, departed the city, while Charles, who was in Lodi for the Bishop’s funeral, returned in haste.
Confusion and fear reigned in Milan and the Archbishop dedicated himself completely to assisting the sick and ordering public and private prayers. Dom Prosper Guéranger sums up his infinite charity in this way: “In the absence of local authorities, he organized the health service, founded or renewed hospitals, sought money and provisions, decreed preventive measures. Most importantly though, he took steps to ensure spiritual help, assistance to the sick and the burial of the dead. Unafraid of being infected, he paid in person, by visiting hospitals, leading penitential processions, being everything to everyone, like a father and true shepherd” (L’anno liturgico – II. Tempo Pasquale e dopo la Pentecoste, Paoline, Alba 1959, pp. 1245-1248).
St. Charles was convinced that the epidemic was “a scourge sent by Heaven” as chastisement for the sins of the people and that recourse to spiritual measures was necessary to fight against it: prayer and penitence. He rebuked the civil authorities for having placed their trust in human measures rather than divine ones. “Hadn’t they prohibited all the pious gatherings and processions during the time of the Jubilee? For him, and he was convinced of it, these were the causes of the chastisement. (Chanoine Charles Sylvain, Histoire de Saint Charles Borromée, Desclée de Brouwer, Lille 1884, vol. II, p. 135). The magistrates who governed the city continued to oppose public ceremonies, out of fear that the large gathering of people would spread contagion, but Charles “who was guided by the Divine Spirit” – recounts another biographer – convinced them by citing various examples, among which was the one regarding St. Gregory the Great who had halted the plague devastating Rome in 590 (Giussano, op. cit. p. 266).
While the pestilence spread, the Archbishop then ordered three general processions to take place in Milan on the 3rd, 5th and 6th of October, “to placate the wrath of God”. On the first day, the Saint, despite it not being the Lenten season, placed ashes on the heads of the thousands gathered, exhorting them to penitence. Once the ceremony was over, the procession went to the Basilica of St. Ambrose. Charles put himself at the head of the people, dressed in a hooded purple robe, barefoot, penitential cord at his neck and large cross in his hand. In the church, he preached on the first lament of the prophet Jeremiah Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo, affirming that the sins of the people had provoked the just indignation of God.
The second procession led by the Cardinal headed towards the Basilica of San Lorenzo. In his sermon, he applied the dream of Nebuchadnezzar of which Daniel speaks, to the city of Milan , “indicating that the vengeance of God had come upon it” (Giussano, Vita di San Carlo Borromeo, p. 267). The third day the procession from the Duomo headed for the Basilica of Santa Maria at San Celso. St. Charles carried in his hands a relique of Our Lord’s Holy Nail, which had been given by the Emperor Theodosius to St. Ambrose in the 5th century and he concluded the ceremony with a sermon entitled: Peccatum peccavit Jerusalem (Jeremiah 1,8).
The plague didn’t show any signs of waning and Milan appeared depopulated, as a third of its citizens had lost their lives and the others were in quarantine or didn’t dare leave their homes. The Archbishop ordered about twenty stone columns with a cross at the top to be erected in the main squares and city crossroads, allowing the inhabitants from every quarter to take part in the Masses and public prayers – from the windows of their homes. One of Milan’s protectors was St. Sebastian, the martyr the Romans had recourse to during the plague in 672. St. Charles suggested that the magistrates of Milan reconstruct the sanctuary dedicated to him, which was falling into ruins, and to celebrate a solemn feast in his honour for ten years. Finally in July 1577, the plague ceased and in September the founding stone was laid in the civic temple of St. Sebastian, where on January 20th every year, even today a Mass is offered to recall the end of the scourge.
The Milan plague of 1576 was what the Sack of Rome by the Landsknechts was to the Romans fifty years before: a chastisement, but also an opportunity for purification and conversion. Charles Borromeo gathered his meditations in a Memorial, wherein, he writes among other things: “City of Milan, your greatness reached the heavens; your wealth extended to the confines of the universe world (…) Then, all of sudden, from Heaven comes the pestilence which is the Hand of God, and, all of a sudden, your pride was crushed” (Memoriale al suo diletto popolo della città e diocesi di Milano, Michele Tini, Roma 1579, pp. 28-29). The Saint was convinced that everything was due to the great mercy of God: “He wounded and healed; He scourged and cured; He placed his hand on the rod of chastisement and offered the staff of support” (Memoriale, p. 81).
St. Charles Borromeo died on November 3rd 1584 and was buried in the Duomo of Milan. His heart was solemnly translated to Rome, in the Basilica of Saints Ambrose and Charles in Via del Corso where it is still venerated. Countless churches have been dedicated to him, among which is the majestic Karlskirche of Vienna, built in the 18th century as a votive act to the Emperor Charles VI, who had entrusted the Saint with the protection of the city during the plague of 1713.
During his eighteen years of governing the diocese of Milan, Archbishop Borromeo, with the same vigour, was devoted to combating heresy which he considered the plague of the spirit. According to St. Charles, “there is no other fault that God is so greatly offended by, none provokes such indignation as the vice of heresy, and in turn, nothing can bring the provinces and kingdoms to ruin more than that horrid plague can.” (Conc. Prov. V, Pars I). St. Pius X, citing one of his phrases, describes him as “a model for the flock and the shepherds of modern times, unflagging advocate and counselor of authentic Catholic reform against those innovators of the time, whose intent was not reintegration but rather deformation and destruction of the faith and customs” (Encyclical Edita saepe del 26 May 1910).