The Catholic Counter-Reformation of the second-half of the sixteenth century had many important protagonists. One of the men who did the most to advance the cause of reform on the practical level was St. Charles Borromeo (1538-84). Saint Charles was from Arona, near Milan, and spent a great deal of his early adulthood in Rome. During a time of decadence in the social circles in which Charles moved, the saint spent his life practicing severe asceticism and achieved a remarkable degree of personal holiness. He was not an accomplished theologian, but was known for his intelligence and especially for his acute pastoral wisdom and straightforward, incisive preaching.
The personal strengths and experience of St. Charles aided him in the work of ecclesial reform. A man of severe personal discipline, culture, and administrative action, St. Charles served as an important leader of the Council of Trent and its implementation. He reformed the exercise of the episcopal ministry, insisting that bishops reside in their dioceses. He also reformed religious houses and dioceses, called provincial councils and local synods, established the modern Catholic seminary system of priestly formation, and served the poor and the sick with self-sacrificing pastoral charity.
Saint Charles was not heavily involved in the theological controversies of his time, such as those centered on grace and nature, the Sacrifice of the Mass, the sacraments, or ecclesiology. He thought and worked chiefly in the practical sphere, and was especially devoted to his city, Milan. Saint Charles worked diligently, even self-sacrificially, and expected his collaborators to work very hard and with the same focus on the salvation of souls.
Like his contemporary St. Philip Neri, St. Charles not only met the challenges posed by the Protestant Reformation, but also and perhaps even first and foremost worked to solve the internal problems that plagued the Catholic Church of the sixteenth century. Even the name ‘Counter-Reformation’ given to the larger project of ecclesial reform at work in the Catholic Church of the second half of the sixteenth century can be somewhat deceptive, when considering figures such as Philip and Charles. The Reformation posed a considerable challenge to them, as well as to the whole Tridentine-era Catholic Church. But many problems that were at least equally serious existed within the Catholic Church both before and after the drama of the Reformation began in earnest.
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