The Feast of Saint Charles Borromeo follows election day. For parishioners of the faith community that honors him by name, his blessings can serve us as a holy hangover for all that led up to it the past year. There were debates a year ago and primary contests earlier in this calendar, a spring shut-down, summer protests, Covid-clashes, polarizing politics, an avalanche of yard signs and bumper stickers, commercials that demonized opponents, and a cliffhanger election that remains undecided. Though the voting is done and we attempt to find perspective over decisions made on earth and for our own nation, it is probably good to also contemplate things of heaven and look to those who’ve been elected to share in God’s eternal glory.
One of them is Charles Borromeo. He was born in the sixteenth century, during the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation. He had a privileged ecclesial birthright of nobility. His uncle was pope and made him a cardinal when he was just twenty-two years old. He was well educated and earned doctorates in both canon and civil law before he was ordained. Though his family urged him to leave the ecclesial state and marry, he chose to be a central figure in the church’s renewal, responding to the great reform that swept Europe. Though it seems out of order to us, he was ordained a priest after he was already a cardinal and administrator of the Archdiocese of Milan, the largest diocese in Italy at the time; he was named bishop just three months after becoming a priest. But unlike some who are born with status, he was humble and used his intellect and position to challenge the status quo. Though he achieved numerous reforms within the church, especially through education of multitudes, perhaps his greatest connection to us in 2020 is his self-sacrifice during the Plague of Milan, a pandemic that wiped out much of the population. He spent all his wealth and inheritance feeding up to 70,000 people each day and providing medical help to the sick and dying. He was a shepherd who knew the smell of his sheep and who understood the culture of encounter. He died when he was only forty-six, having served twenty years as archbishop and spiritual leader. From boy-bishop to spiritual-giant, he teaches us about self-sacrifice for the sake of what is greater than earthen realms, pointing us to the heavenly realm.
Father Ron Rolheiser suggests that people who are most disappointed in life are those who do not have solid foundations to stand upon or great hopes to inspire them. There are lots of disappointed Americans on this morning after the nearly evenly split election; half of the population will be devastated that their candidate comes out on the short end. As a priest, I know that there are times that I experience disappointment with my life as a churchman and its periodic vigorous campaigns for success in a parish or school, when my enthusiasm or the good energy of my vocation gets sucked away. It is then that I sense dark spirits putting out holy lights, like a morning hangover after a bad night. Fortunately, I have a solid foundation in priesthood itself—for when things go dark, it sustains me because of a higher commitment that gets ritualized through routines of prayer, spiritual exercises, and godly relationships. The same is true for married couples: when love does not sustain the marriage, marriage can still sustain the love because of its solid foundation and great hope. And it is especially true for earthly believers who are united with heavenly saints. On earth, we’re born into all kinds of circumstances—some good and some bad; on earth, we make decisions that drive our society in various directions—some good and some bad; on earth, we can settle for disappointment or we can look to higher realms where good energy and sacred spirits are restored and we are renewed because we know that our lives are directed to something greater. Let us look to spiritual examples like Charles Borromeo. They help us to keep it all in proper perspective.