Charles Borromeo, the bishop of Milan, came from a wealthy, aristocratic Italian family. He was born in the family castle, and lived a rather lavish life, entertaining sumptuously as befit a Renaissance court. He personally enjoyed athletics, music, art, and the fine dining that went along with lifestyles of the rich and famous of the sixteenth century. His maternal uncle, from the powerful Medici family, was pope. As was typical of the times, his uncle-pope made him a cardinal-deacon at age twenty-three and bestowed on him numerous offices. He was appointed papal legate to Bologna, the Low Countries, and the cantons of Switzerland, and to the religious orders of St. Francis, the Carmelites, the Knights of Malta, and others.
When Count Frederick Borromeo passed away, many people thought Charles would give up the clerical life and marry now that he had become head of the Borromeo family. But he did not. He deferred to another uncle and became a priest. Shortly thereafter he was appointed bishop of Milan, a city that had not had a resident bishop for over eighty years.
Although raised to the grand life, Borromeo spent much of his time dealing with hardship and suffering. The famine of 1570 required him to bring in food to feed three thousand people a day for three months. Six years later a two-year plague swept through the region. Borromeo mobilized priests, religious, and lay volunteers to feed and care for the sixty thousand to seventy thousand people living in the Alpine villages of his district. He personally cared for many who were sick and dying. In the process, Borromeo ran up huge debts, depleting his resources in order to feed, clothe, administer medical care, and build shelters for thousands of plague-stricken people.
As if the natural disasters facing Borromeo were not enough, a disgruntled priest from a religious order falling out of favor with Church authorities attempted to assassinate him. As Charles knelt in prayer before the altar, the would-be assassin pulled a gun and shot him. At first, Charles thought he was dying, but the bullet never passed through the thick vestments he was wearing. It only bruised him.
Borromeo combined the love of the good life with the self-sacrificing zeal one would expect of a Renaissance churchman. Once when he was playing billiards, someone asked what he would do if he knew he only had fifteen more minutes to live. "Keep playing billiards," he replied. He died at age forty-six, not at the billiard table but quietly in bed.
Excerpted from The Way of the Saints, Tom Cowan