Feast Day: November 4th
Much could be said about the saintly archbishop of Milan whose life we look to as an example of holiness and faithfulness this week. He was made shepherd of that important archdiocese shortly after the Council of Trent and worked his entire life to place its teachings, and directives, into the hearts of his flock. He worked to reform the clergy in his diocese, who were considered so corrupt that a common saying was “if you want to go to hell, become a priest”. And, if those sobering words do not convince us of the challenges that faced him, in 1576 a famine struck the city, and then the Bubonic Plague.
The wealthy and those in power fled the city as it was ravaged by the terrible disease, but the archbishop stayed. As food supplies dwindled, and the numbers of caretakers plummeted, the still-young Archbp. Borromeo spent his own fortune (and then went deep into debt) to procure food, and distribute it himself to the overflowing hospitals and leper houses. He was surrounded by the sick and dying, and with little help from his own fearful priests, who had abandoned the sick without natural or supernatural sustenance, Charles himself fed some 70,000 people during the coming months, and gave countless suffering persons absolution, anointing, and viaticum. Famously, he offered Mass on street corners so that the faithful could receive the sacraments with less risk of catching the dreaded plague.
This month, we have considered the saints as exemplars of those who have walked the path to heaven before us. As we consider how we are doing on that journey ourselves, and how strongly our own lives are directed towards eternity, there is a final lesson to be learned from Charles’ ministry during those terrible 16 months in Milan. Seeing that there were far too few priests to bring the sacraments to the dying (some 25,000 would die in his archdiocese during those days), the archbishop drafted a “Last Will and Testament of the Soul”, which were distributed widely so that anyone could sign it for themselves, committing their souls into God’s hands if their death came with no chance to receive absolution or Holy Communion. A few excerpts are sufficient to ask each of us if we are as courageous as they in choosing heaven in the midst of our own sufferings!
[I desire to] pass out of this life, armed with the last sacrament of extreme unction: the which if through any let or hindrance I should not then be able to have, I do now also for that time demand and crave the same; beseeching his divine majesty that he [God] will be pleased to anoint my senses both internal and external with the sacred oil of his infinite mercy, and to pardon me all my sins committed by seeing, speaking, feeling, smelling, hearing, touching, or by any other way whatsoever. [I repent from my sins of] murmuration against God, or the Catholic faith … any sign of bad example … [and] all the evil whatsoever, which I might have then done or said.
[I give] infinite thanks [to God, for all His gifts, especially my] Vocation to the holy knowledge of him and his true Catholic faith. [And] I am willing, yea, I do infinitely desire and humbly crave, that of this my last will and testament the glorious and ever Virgin Mary, mother of god, refuge and advocate of sinners, (whom I honour specially above all other saints,) may be the chief Executress, together with these other saints, my patrons, all whom I invoke and beseech to be present at the hour of my death, that she and they may comfort me with their desired presence, and crave of sweet Jesus that he will receive my soul into peace.
Amen!! May all of us have the courage to pray this prayer!
– Fr. Rankin will spend this week taking to heart Charles Borromeo’s words, at this same time, to the priests of his diocese: “We have only one life and we should spend it for Jesus Christ and souls, not as we wish, but at the time and in the way God wishes. It would show great presumption and neglect of our duty and God’s service to fail to do this, with the excuse that God could not replace us by others more capable of working for His glory. This does not mean you should neglect human means, such as preventatives, remedies, doctors, everything that you can use to keep off infection, for such means are in no way opposed to our doing our duty. … [but] Do not be so forgetful of your priesthood as to prefer a late death to a holy one.”