Although the Franciscan breviary contains the feast of St. Charles, on November fourth, and indicates that he was Cardinal Protector of the Friars Minor, it fails to mention that he was also a Franciscan Tertiary. The fact is that he was a close follower of the Poverello, a prelate according to the heart of St. Francis; and he deserves to be recognized, honored, and imitated as one of the greatest saints of the Third Order. In his life of St. Charles Borromeo, Orsenigo says that “enrolled in the Third Order of St. Francis, he not only faithfully wore the habit … but above all … took the poverty of St. Francis of Assisi as the model for his life.”
St. Charles was born in the castle of Arona in 1538. His father was Count Gilbert Borromeo; his mother belonged to the Medici family; and his uncle was Pope Pius IV. It may seem strange to hear that he received the tonsure and was appointed a titular abbot, which entitled him to a big income, when he was only twelve years old; and that ten years later, before he was ordained a priest, his uncle called him to Rome and made him administrator of the Papal States as well as the archdiocese of Milan, and also a cardinal.
However, Cardinal Borromeo, who was then only twenty-two years old, was an exceptional young man, endowed with extraordinary gifts of mind and heart, deeply spiritual, and devoted wholeheartedly to the welfare of the Church. It was due to the young cardinal’s vigorous efforts and leadership that the Council of Trent was re-opened and carried to a successful conclusion three years later, in 1563. In that same year he was ordained a priest and consecrated a bishop.
The archdiocese of Milan was in a deplorable condition; and in 1565 Pope Pius IV yielded to Cardinal Borromeo’s request and permitted him to go to his see and personally to set things in order and to carry out the decrees of the Council of Trent. St. Charles remained there for the rest of his life; and the reform of the Milan archdiocese was his great life’s work. It is amazing how indefatigably he devoted himself to his work and how much he accomplished. In 1569 an attempt was made on his life. A bullet struck him as he was kneeling in prayer, but he was miraculously preserved from harm. Far from stopping him, the difficulties he encountered only made him so much more dogged in carrying out his program. He never tired visiting the parishes; he established the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine for the proper instruction of the children; he saw to it that the sacred liturgy was carried out in a worthy manner; he founded the Oblates of St. Ambrose in order to lead the priests to personal holiness; and he conducted five provincial and eleven diocesan synods.
But it was the example of his own saintly life that made the deepest impression on his flock and produced the best results. He was indeed an exemplary Tertiary, a true son of St. Francis. He avoided all personal finery, and his clothes were so shabby that even beggars thought they were unfit to be worn. He was ingeniously humble, and was careful to hide his merits, his penances, and his private devotions so that no praise might come to him. He did not hesitate to wash dishes, to enter the dirtiest hovels of the poor, and to instruct a poor man by sitting down with him on the roadside. When a pestilence broke out in 1576, he remained at his post in Milan, and personally ministered to the sick and dying. He succored the poor until his funds were depleted; and then he sold his possessions, including his bed, to procure means to help them. After that he no longer encountered any opposition.
Rich in merits, esteemed by all, he died in 1584, only forty-six years old. He was beatified in 1601 and canonized in 1610. His tomb occupies a place of honor on the altar of the chapel in the crypt of the great cathedral of Milan. St. Charles is venerated in a special manner as a patron against pestilences. (Cf. Biersack, p. 21-22; Forum, 1938, p. 548-549, and 1943, pp. 328-329, 349.)
ON THE VALUE OF THE THIRD ORDER
1. Consider how Divine Providence made use of St. Francis to renew the world. Sensuality and avarice had shaken the very foundations of Christian life. To counteract them, St. Francis founded his order on poverty and renunciation. The First Order of the Friars Minor and the Second Order of the Poor Clares were to practice these virtues by taking vows and living in religious communities. Those called to the religious life in either of these two orders were to be outstanding examples and incentives to the world. The Third Order was intended for Christians living in the world who were desirous of assuring their salvation, and supplied ways and means by which they, too, could counteract the dangers of sensuality and avarice. It was for this reason that St. Charles, though a prince of the Church, faithfully observed the rule of the Third Order and imitated the poverty of St. Francis. For this reason, too, the late Popes from Pius IX to Pius XII have declared that nothing could be more pleasing to them than that the Third Order be spread far and wide. — What does this mean for you?
2. Consider how the Third Order protects its members from the dangers of the world. Pope Leo XIII revised the rule to fit the present age, so that its practices of piety and mortification can be more easily observed by every Christian, also by those who belong to the working class. Twelve Our Fathers are said daily, holy Mass is attended daily if possible, the sacraments are received frequently, once a month being the minimum, and two extra fastdays are observed during the year. Wise precepts are laid down for the practice of virtues which will counteract sensuality and avarice, as well as promote submission to temporal and spiritual authority. Modern Christians who are really interested in their salvation do well to unite in Christian brotherhood to achieve these purposes. — If you are a member of the Third Order, ask yourself whether you are really living according to the rule.
3. Consider the powerful aids which are provided in the Third Order. In it people associate with others who have the same purpose in mind and publicly pledge themselves to that purpose. Their example encourages them mutually, their common association is a constant stimulus. The members say a common prayer, and God looks upon that common prayer of millions with favor. At the monthly meetings they receive useful instruction. They are joined in one spiritual family and in a certain communion of graces with all the children of St. Francis, even with their Seraphic Father and the numerous saints of his three orders who have already been glorified. With what confidence may the Tertiaries call upon their sainted forebears to assist them! — As a Tertiary, do not forget to recommend to their intercession also the souls of the departed members of the order.
PRAYER OF THE CHURCH
Keep Thy Church, O Lord, under the unfailing protection of Thy holy confessor and bishop, Charles; and as his shepherdlike vigilance has exalted him in glory, so may his intercession make us always fervent in Thy love. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.