The feast of St Charles Borromeo, the famous Archbishop of Milan from 1564 to 1584 as well as a cardinal, brought to my mind and heart his great passion for the reform and education of the Catholic clergy. The sermon which we read at the Office of Readings marking his feast is replete with holy teaching.
This sermon’s title is extremely telling. Its title goes: Practice what you preach. In a way it recalls in a powerful manner what Jesus says in the Matthean Gospel: Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matt 5:16).
This very precious sermon, which is wholly impregnated with wisdom, starts off by affirming a very important statement: I admit that we are all weak. Yes, we priests and consecrated people are weak. But it is just because we are weak that we need God’s help. And, as St Charles Borromeo said, we need to desire that help. He says: If we want help, the Lord God has given us the means to find it easily. Hence, for Charles Borromeo it boils down to real volition on the part of God’s minister to be chaste and to reflect heavenly virtues in the way he lives. If he does not resolve to use suitable means, such as penance, prayer, the avoidance of evil discussions and harmful and dangerous friendships how can he effectively grow in God’s holiness? On the last point the Prayer for deliverance by the worldwide famous Vatican exorcist Fr Gabriele Amorth, says: From every … harmful friendship, we beg You, Free us, O Lord.
Another sound advice which St Charles Borromeo gives is that before we priests and consecrated people start to pray we should be preparing ourselves appropriately for it. He writes: Another priest complains that as soon as he comes into church to pray the office or to celebrate Mass, a thousand thoughts fill his mind and distract him from God. But what was he doing in the sacristy before he came out for the office or for Mass? How did he prepare? What means did he use to collect his thoughts and to remain recollected? In order that the fervent flame of prayer keeps burning St Charles Borromeo counsels us to avoid distractions as well as you can. Stay quiet with God. Do not spend your time in useless chatter.
For those of us who have the beautiful, important and delicate mission of preaching and teaching, this great Milanese Cardinal is telling us to study diligently and apply yourself to whatever is necessary for doing the job well. But, the very first thing we need to be doing is not the academic work itself but its putting into practice. As a matter of fact, St Charles blatantly says: Be sure that you first preach by the way you live. As a caring pastor, St Charles opens our eyes at the consequence of not living what we teach when he says: If you do not, people will notice that you say one thing, but live otherwise, and your words will bring only cynical laughter and a derisive shake of the head.
For those who have been entrusted with the care of a parish St Charles Borromeo advised spiritual self-care. He carefully advises us: Are you in charge of a parish? If so, do not neglect the parish of your own soul, do not give yourself to others so completely that you have nothing left for yourself. You have to be mindful of your people without becoming forgetful of yourself.
Furthermore, St Charles mentions meditation as a means of being and acting pastorally. For him meditation is a resource of knowledge as well as pastoral discernment into what we as priests and consecrated people are doing. He says: My brothers, you must realise that for us churchmen nothing is more necessary than meditation. We must meditate before, during and after everything we do. The prophet says: I will pray, and then I will understand. When you administer the sacraments, meditate on what you are doing. When you celebrate Mass, reflect on the sacrifice you are offering. When you pray the office, think about the words you are saying and the Lord to whom you are speaking. When you take care of your people, meditate on how the Lord’s blood has washed them clean so that all that you do becomes a work of love.
Finally, St Charles Borromeo endows us with the insight that meditation makes Christ the Priest and Consecrated One to the Father live in us. He writes: This is the way we can easily overcome the countless difficulties we have to face day after day, which, after all, are part of our work: in meditation we find the strength to bring Christ to birth in ourselves and in other men.
After reading this priceless homily we need to be bold enough to do an examination of conscience. First, as a priest and consecrated person, do I want to be helped by God? Am I open to the means He provides to me in his mercy to be helped in my life and ministry? Second, as a priest and consecrated person, what role do penance, prayer, the avoidance of evil discussions and harmful and dangerous friendships play in my vocation? Second, do we prepare ourselves well before we pray the Liturgy of the Hours in community or on our own? Or do we just rush into the choir or the rectory and start praying straightaway? If we do not prepare ourselves adequately for prayer how can we expect that our mind be concentrated on God during our prayer time? Am I spending some time in silence before I pray so that I may have a better quality time with God?
Third, do I practice what I preach? Am I aware of the tragic consequences of not living what I preach? Fourth, do I prepare myself well before I teach others? Or do I just rely on what I have remotely prepared in the distant past? Fifth, how am I caring about the parish of my soul? How many retreats am I doing during the year? Am I going to spiritual direction? Do I read good spiritual books which build me up? Am I following courses of aggiornamento given by the diocese and the religious congregation I belong to? Am I resting by taking time off from the parish or the ministry entrusted to me by my congregation?
Sixth, do I meditate daily? Do I spend time meditating? Do I let meditation be part and parcel for my every pastoral action, before, during and after it is effected? How much am I letting meditation be the way I am and act as a priest and consecrated person? Am I aware that meditation can build in me the very important habit of pastoral discernment? How much am I realizing that by living meditatively I am fully living what St Paul wrote to the Galatians: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20).
St Charles Borromeo, reformer of the Catholic clergy, pray for us priests and consecrated people and for all God’s people!