for the St Barnabas Society
Today we celebrate the feast of one of the great saints of the Catholic Reformation: Charles Borromeo. His name immediately suggests a connection with one of the great Italian families, for centuries so closely involved in the Duchy of Milan. His artistic image quickly conveys a sense of authority and wealth, as he looks down at us with his confident aristocratic features, dressed in the scarlet robes of a cardinal.
In many ways, he enjoyed a life of privilege and power – born in a castle on the shores of Lake Maggiore in 1538, a nephew of Pope Pius IV, an abbot in commendam at the age of twelve, cardinal and archbishop of Milan at the age of twenty-two, a leading Father at the Council of Trent, a patron of artists and musicians (including the composer Palestrina).
Yet, his iconography tells a second, less predictable, narrative, for St Charles is also shown in art, still dressed as a cardinal but barefoot and carrying a wooden cross, with a rope round his neck. There might also be a reference to his famous motto – humilitas (humility). These motifs recall his penitential life and his works of mercy during the plague. Indeed, such were his apostolic labours that his health was affected and he died at the young age of forty-six.
St Charles was, on the one hand, a product of his times and his upbringing. He accepted the many titles and honours given to him; he lived in state as was expected of a sixteenth century cardinal. But he was also radically different from many other prelates of the time: he was focussed on his duty and desired only to reform and renew his whole diocese. Hence he was happy, despite his high birth, to spend time with the lowliest of priests, to visit the poorest of mountain villages, to rebuild and consecrate the smallest of chapels, taking as much care in the ceremonies as he would in his own cathedral. His manner of travelling to the peripheries was astonishing. According to one of his Victorian biographers:
Staff in hand he advanced like one of the poor mountaineers, the scorching summer sun pouring its unclouded rays upon his head; at times carrying some of his own luggage, both to relieve his servants and to perform an office of humility. Sometimes he had to pass along narrow ledges on the face of some precipice, where it was necessary, for security’s sake, to wear shoes shod with iron points; at other times, where all further progress seemed well-nigh impossible, from the frightful nature of the path, or, it may be, the absence of any, the archbishop would crawl upon hands and knees.
It is interesting to note that St Charles had a great love for our country, too. He kept a portrait of his fellow cardinal, St John Fisher, in his study, and several British exiles worked closely for him: Griffith Roberts, formerly of the diocese of Bangor, was his confessor, while both Owen Lewis and Thomas Goldwell (bishop of St Asaph under Mary I and last of the old Catholic hierarchy) were his vicars general. St Charles gave generously to the English College, Douay, and received groups of missionary priests as they passed Milan en route to England, including (in 1580) St Edmund Campion and St Ralph Sherwin. No wonder his image is proudly shown at the English College, Rome, while one of the great treasures of Douay was the saint’s biretta.
There is, of course, a further link with our country. Another well-known archbishop regarded him as his model and patron. Inspired by the community of priests founded by St Charles in Milan – the Oblates of St Ambrose – he established a similar congregation in Victorian London – the Oblates of St Charles. This great shepherd was, of course, Henry Edward Manning, who became Archbishop of Westminster exactly a hundred and fifty years ago – a mere fourteen years after he had become a Catholic.
As Diocesan Archivist, Manning has been much in my thoughts, especially since we recently acquired a major collection of his papers from an academic in France. Perhaps more than any of our archbishops, Manning has been largely misunderstood: the victim of harsh criticism and poor biographies. Even his image is largely negative: like St Charles, he can easily be caricatured – skeletal features, ascetic lifestyle and an apparent lack of humour.
Like St Charles, Manning was blessed with the circumstances in which he was born and the gifts granted him by God. As an undergraduate at Oxford he was considered one of the most handsome students and an eloquent debater at the Union. There was a sense that he could turn his hand to anything – such are the twists and turns of human life that it could easily have been his friend and contemporary Gladstone who entered the Church and Manning who became Prime Minister. As an Anglican Archdeacon many thought that he was guaranteed to sit on the Bench of Bishops. And on the domestic front, he was happily married to Caroline Sargent, sister-in-law of Bishop Wilberforce.
And yet, like St Charles, providence and the making of radical choices led Manning down a very different path. After four years of marriage, he was left a widower. As his beloved lay on her deathbed, he wrote to Newman: ‘No man knows what it is to watch the desire of his eyes fading away’; he later wrote ‘all the good I may have done, all the good I may have been, I owe to her.’ He threw himself into his pastoral duties, but became increasingly disillusioned by the Church of England. He became a Catholic on Passion Sunday 1851, during the aftermath of the Gorham Judgment. ‘So ended one life, and I thought life was over,’ he later reflected. ‘I fully believed I should never do more than become a priest; about which I never doubted, or even wavered. But I looked forward to live and die in a priest’s life, out of sight.’ It was, of course, as many of you know better than I, a painful decision to make. Indeed, he once said that if there been no Hereafter he could have happily spent his whole life at the village vicarage. But he felt bound to seek the truth and follow his conscience, despite the inevitable parting of friends.
As a Catholic Manning was hardly ever out of sight – as a zealous pastor in (what were then) the depressing slums of Bayswater and Notting Hill, an author, a spiritual guide and a friend to converts. As Archbishop, he showed the same zeal as St Charles and become known as the ‘Poor Man’s Cardinal’, especially after his decisive intervention in the London Dock Strike of 1889. When he died in 1892, tens of thousands, both rich and poor, paid their respects. Manning was surely Westminster’s Borromeo.
As we celebrate this Mass, we reflect on the lives of these two great prelates, we pray for the good work of the St Barnabas Society and we strive ourselves to keep on following the will of God, even if it means making radical choices and crawling across the narrow ledges on the face of life’s precipices, guided alone by the Light of the Lord.