St. Charles Borromeo, Patron of Learning and the Arts

In our house, getting the right sleep temperature is a challenge.  We have baseboard heating, and the master bedroom is warmer than the rest of the house.  Adjusting for comfortable sleep requires at least an associate’s degree:  If sleeping alone, slide under sheet, down comforter, and quilted spread.  If toasty-warm husband is in room, turn down quilted spread.  If company is in the house and door is closed, turn down quilted spread and down comforter, sleep under top sheet only, and turn on ceiling fan to equalize room temperature.  If all else fails, open the window to let the snow fall onto the windowsill.

So I appreciate this tidbit of advice from St. Charles Borromeo:

“The best way not to find the bed too cold is to go to bed colder than the bed is.”

The saint comes to mind because today, November 4, is his feastday.  And while I smiled at his approach to climbing into a cold bed, his contributions to Catholic thought certainly exceed that humble advice.  Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), cardinal archbishop of the Archdiocese of Milan, was one of the leaders of the Counter-Reformation and is responsible for significant reforms in the Catholic Church, including the establishment of seminaries to prepare young men for the priesthood.

As Archbishop of Milan, Borromeo established an academy of scholars, the Academy of the Vatican Nights, and published their memoirs as the Noctes Vaticanae.  He also founded and funded a college at Pavia, which he dedicated to Saint Justina of Padua.  A number of his homilies, discourses and sermons, with a collection of letters, survive today and have been translated into many languages.

Borromeo believed that abuses in the church, such as the scandalous sale of indulgences which had led to the Protestant Reformation, arose from clergy ignorance. In an effort to overcome such abuses, he founded seminaries, colleges and religious communities to educate candidates for the  priesthood and prepare them for the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

In 1576, the city of Milan was struck by the bubonic plague; and St. Charles led the efforts to care for the sick and to bury the dead.  Fearless, he visited every afflicted parish in his archdiocese—providing needed funds, caring for the sick, and encouraging local pastors to become more directly involved in this mission of mercy.

St. Charles Borromeo died in 1584, and was laid to rest in the crypt chapel at Milan’s majestic Duomo (cathedral).  Our family, traveling in Europe in 2000, saw the mummified remains of the saint, encased in a glass coffin.

The American-born writer Henry James, father of 19th century literary realism, described the tomb thus:

 “This holy man lies at his eternal rest in a small but gorgeous sepulchral chapel … and for the modest sum of five francs you may have his shriveled mortality unveiled and gaze at it … The little sacristan … lighted a couple of extra candles and proceeded to remove from above the altar, by means of a crank, a sort of sliding shutter, just as you may see a shop-boy do of a morning at his master’s window. In this case too a large sheet of plate-glass was uncovered, and to form an idea of the étalage you must imagine that a jeweller, for reasons of his own, has struck an unnatural partnership with an undertaker. The black mummified corpse of the saint is stretched out in a glass coffin, clad in his mouldering canonicals, mitred, crosiered and gloved, glittering with votive jewels. It is an extraordinary mixture of death and life; the desiccated clay, the ashen rags, the hideous little black mask and skull, and the living, glowing, twinkling splendour of diamonds, emeralds and sapphires. The collection is really fine, and many great historic names are attached to the different offerings. Whatever may be the better opinion as to the future of the Church, I can’t help thinking she will make a figure in the world so long as she retains this great fund of precious “properties,” this prodigious capital decoratively invested and scintillating throughout Christendom at effectively-scattered points.”

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