St. Charles Borromeo was born in the year 1538 into a family of great privilege and wealth, but early in life he eschewed the benefits his family’s status afforded him and chose to live simply, even austerely.
The young Charles Borromeo was interested, not in the treasures of the world, but in the treasures of heaven.
His uncle, a cardinal of the Church, was elected pope and this brought Charles great opportunities for personal advancement. Pope Pius IV showered his nephew with all manner of rank and responsibility, none of which Charles accepted for the purposes of personal gain. Eventually Charles was consecrated as archbishop of Milan, at the time of the most influential and renowned dioceses in the world.
Charles did not take this appointment as a means towards self-aggrandizement, but gave himself over tirelessly to the mission of the Church. He did not seek to advance himself, but the cause of Christ.
He set about applying the reforms of the Council of Trent to his diocese and for this he was opposed and made many enemies. He was blocked by a corrupt clergy, harassed by indolent religious, and resisted by a hostile and indifferent laity. Factions even conspired, and almost succeeded in having him assassinated.
He learned through direct experience that most people would not only rather be ruined than changed, but also ruin the lives of others as well.
Yet he persevered, enduring his afflictions as a means towards his sanctification.
He died in the year 1584. The effect of his life on the Church remains impressive to this day. The reforms and renewal of the Council of Trent took hold, not only in Milan, but throughout the Church, large in part because of his tenacious insistence that the Council’s vision of renewal succeed.
Saint Charles Borromeo was effective in his mission, not just because he was a competent administrator, but because he was a saint.
And there is the lesson.
The Church is not reformed and renewed in her life and mission by acts of administration or by speeches or even by great assemblies like synods or councils. These things can assist reform and renewal, but in themselves they are not sufficient to make reform and renewal happen.
Further, the reform and renewal of the Church does not happen by commentary or opinion or the will of ideologues, or by pressure brought to bear on the Church by special interest groups.
How does reform and renewal happen?
Through the saints. Saints, like Charles Borromeo, provide the template by which we can understand how Christ acts to effect the reform and renewal of his Church. It is the saints who have the deepest and most enduring impact on the life of the Church.
You want to reform the Church. You want to renew the Church. Then set about, as St. Charles Borromeo did, to be a saint. There is no other way.
Reform and renewal of the Church is not simply a matter of policies or procedures or executive decisions. Instead, reform and renewal is a matter of being a disciple of the Lord Jesus and accepting that the Church is not a project of our own making. The Church is an act of fidelity to Christ.
The Church, indeed, the world, suffers more from a lack of saints than from anything else.