What today’s saint can tell us about true “reform”

Today is the feast of St. Charles of Borromeo, a saint I treasure so much that my first-born son bears his name. (Alas, I passed on Borromeo for a middle name.)

Then-Cardinal Ratzinger used the example of St. Charles of Borromeo when discussing the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. Ratzinger was very critical of many of the reforms that emerged in these first 20 years after the Council. He called for a “restoration” — and immediately people assumed that he wanted to “turn back the clock” or hit the rewind button.

What Cardinal Ratzinger said then stands the test of time as an example of what it means to treasure the permanent things while not reflexively saying no to any change:

“There is no return to the past. A restoration understood thus is not only impossible but also not even desirable. The Church moves forward to the consummation of history, she looks ahead to the Lord who is coming. If, however, the term ‘restoration’ is understood according to its semantic content, that is to say, as a recovery of lost values, within a new totality, then I would like to say that this is precisely the task that imposes itself today in the second phase of the post-conciliar period.

“Yet the word ‘restoration’ is linguistically laden in such a way for us moderns that it is difficult to attribute this meaning to it. In reality it literally means the same as the word ‘reform’, a term that has a wholly different sound to us today.

“Perhaps I can clarify the matter with an example taken from history. For me Charles Borromeo is the classic expression of a real reform, that is to say, of a renewal that leads forward precisely because it teaches how to live the permanent values in a new way, bearing in mind the totality of the Christian fact and the totality of man.

“It can certainly be said that Charles Borromeo rebuilt (‘restored’) the Catholic Church, which also in the area around Milan was at that time nearly destroyed for awhile, without making a return to the Middle Ages. On the contrary, he created a modern form of the Church. How little ‘restorative’ such a reform was is seen, for example, in the fact that Charles suppressed a religious order that was nearly in decline and assigned its goods to new, live communities.

“Who today possesses a similar courage to declare that which is interiorly dead (and continues to live only exteriorly) belongs definitively to the past and must be entrusted with clarity to the energies of the new era? Often new phenomena of Christian awakening are resisted precisely by the so-called reformers, who in their turn spasmodically defend institutions that continue to exist only in contradiction with themselves.

Who indeed has such courage? Imagine if a bishop today shut down an order (maybe the IHM sisters?) and assigned their resources to another, thriving order (like the Dominican Sisters of Mary). Wow. Would be a bold, Borromeo-ish move.

Saint Charles, pray for us!



  • Sean North

    What’s your point? Nothing was dead at the time of the Second Vatican Council.

    The fact that you’ve no understanding that the Council and its results were the culmination of a century of philosophical and theological battle in which the classic Thomism of the Church was the loser displays your youthful ignorance.

    The Pope is an anti-Thomist; you’d expect him to interpret an historical catastrophe in which he heavily contributed and shaped in a way which fits his version of history.



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