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A Man of Rebirth


There's a scene from Alessandro Manzoni's novel The Betrothed that captures the splendor of my subject this month.

borromeofFederigo Borromeo

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Manzoni was a genuine historian, and though his scene is fictional, his portrait of Federigo Borromeo, Cardinal of Milan (1564-1631), is absolutely true to life.

The cardinal has come to visit the town of Monza, amid the ringing of church bells and parades of people who love and honor him.  Among the crowds, hanging back, ashamed of himself for being there and ashamed of himself for his violent life, is a man so feared that the people roundabout simply call him L'Innominato, "the Unnamed." He has spent the night in the grip of despair over his latest crime, the kidnapping of Manzoni's heroine, a sweet and pious maiden named Lucia.  All through the dark hours he sat, cocking and uncocking a loaded pistol, on the verge of putting a bullet through his head.  But when morning broke, he heard sounds of joy swelling from the valley beneath his mountain fastness, and he wondered at the joy he did not know, and at the devotion inspired by a single holy man.

He enters the house where the cardinal is staying, amid gasps of horror from the onlookers.  When he sees the cardinal in person, a man of dignity, intelligence, courage, and gentleness, he is abashed, he stutters, but the cardinal approaches him with open arms, and apologizes for not having come to him, for whom he had prayed so long.  He doesn't make light of the man's sins.  He doesn't tell the Unnamed that his ascent to blessedness will be easy.  The sinner will suffer, and must use his power now to do good instead of evil.  But God is with him.

Confess your sins one to another

Federigo Borromeo understood the rebirth we experience when we confess our sins in the Sacrament of Penance.  This sacrament too was one of the sore points of the Reformation.  Catholic authors all the way back to Dante, Boccaccio, and Chaucer had cast a stern eye upon the abuse of the confessional by priests who were lenient for a price, or who used what they heard for their own ends.  But the remedy was not to disavow the sacrament.  You don't cure a man's bad heart by cutting it out.

Fededgo's elder cousin, Saint Charles Borromeo, who was in the forefront of Catholic reform, said that without the Sacrament of Penance all manner of evils would enter the state.  Federigo followed in his cousin's steps.  It's hard for us to fathom how influential these men were.  Federigo commissioned reprints of The Acts of the Church of Milan, which became a guide for reform in every diocese throughout the Church.

Included in the text were Charles' directives to priests for the confessional, which inspired Federigo's own writing on the subject.  Charles said that the confessional was required for the common good.  Suppose you know you will have to utter to another man the evil thing you are tempted to do, and that to be forgiven by God you must wish you had never done it at all; even death would have been preferable.  Wouldn't that give you pause."  Charles said that the civil laws reach only to external actions, but the confessional reforms the heart and soul.  Civil laws can make you a compliant subject; the law of God, written afresh on your heart, can make you a citizen in truth. 

Federigo spoke in the same vein, telling his priests that they were "the fibers, arteries, and sinews of the body of the holy Church, for their function and their activities closely resemble the working of these parts of the body: through secret channels they make it move, and if they are ill-disposed, the other members cannot function and remain languid." They must, with sweet but firm persuasion, work to heal and to invigorate the members of the body.  Federigo recalled his great predecessor in Milan, Saint Ambrose.  When Theodosius the Great slew heretical rebels in a massacre at Thessalonika, Ambrose threatened him with excommunication, and brought him back to sorrow and penitence.

Ministering to the body

In those days the Spanish, resented as foreigners, held sway over northern Italy.  Federigo had always to use his tact and his reputation for wisdom and goodness to keep the peace, and to secure the rights of his people.  His powers were strained to the utmost during the terrible years of 1627-1628, when a famine struck, followed by something even worse.

Federigo fed 2,000 people every day with bread at the doors of his residence, provided at his personal expense.  Bread, not grain; for during the famine the shortages caused millers and bakers to charge higher prices for their services.  There were riots in the streets, and were it not for the prompt intervention of the cardinal, the famine might have degenerated into a bloodbath.

Then came the bubonic plague.

This too is hard for us to imagine.  You might see a healthy dog snuffing at a scrap of clothing in the street, and the animal would be dead by evening.  Once the swollen lymph glands turned black and blue, a terrible agony of death was nearly certain.  People go half mad in such straits.  They ditch their loved ones.  They take to strange and superstitious "remedies." They go on debauches.  Some of the survivors take filthy liberties; in Milan they drove big carts and squeezed money from ruined households for the privilege of hauling off their dead or near-dead to the burial pit, singing obscene songs and handling the women shamelessly.

At these times the Church shows that her Founder is divine indeed.  There is no example outside of the Church for what Federigo then did.

He saw the chaos, physical and moral, and built a great lazaretto, an indoor-outdoor hospital spanning several acres, where the sick would be tended and the dying given all the comforts that their bodies and souls could have.  They need not then be picked clean by vultures, human and otherwise.  The sexes could be kept separate for the sake of decency.  Priests were their nurses, their heroism inspired by the cardinal himself, who visited the sick in person, laying hands upon them, administering the sacraments.

Ninety-five priests died in the call of duty.  Federigo meanwhile prayed unceasingly for the intercession of his cousin Saint Charles, and one day, his biographer says, he turned from prayer with a peaceful countenance, as if he had received a merciful response directly from the divine Shepherd himself.  Shortly thereafter, on the Nativity of Mary, he announced to the people that the affliction would soon end.  And it did.

Feeding the mind

Yet for those who care about culture, I've saved Federigo Borromeo's most influential work for last.  In his youth at Rome he frequented the company of Saint Philip Neri and his Oratory — poets, composers, theologians, artists.  He followed his cousin Charles' advice and became a deeply learned man, a cardinal at the age of twenty-three.  Like his elders Saint Robert Bellarmine and Cardinal Baronius, he was interested in a broad range of human learning, from the classical pagans, to the Arabs, to the Church Fathers, to the Christians of his own time.  Nothing escaped his gaze; physics, music, painting, languages, theology, astronomy — all were in his purview.

So Federigo Borromeo built the first free library in continental Europe, modelled after the Bodleian, in Oxford.  Imagine a combination of the Smithsonian, the Vatican library, the National Gallery of Art, Harvard, and a school for the arts.  Nothing like it had ever existed.  Federigo himself donated 15,000 manuscripts, rare books, and priceless works of art, then sent agents out to purchase more, appealing also to fellow priests and bishops for donations.

You could go to the Ambrosian Library, named for Milan's patron saint, no matter who you were; you had only to be interested in learning.  You could read at leisure and take notes; that also was new.  Books weren't chained to the desk, but if you stole one, your sin could be forgiven only by the pope!

I'll conclude with Manzoni's words, inscribed on the monument that the grateful Milanese erected to their good shepherd:

He was one of those men rare in any age, who employed extraordinary intelligence, all the means of his great wealth, the advantages of privileged station, and an unflinching will in the search and practice of better things.


Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: A Man of Rebirth." Magnificat (August, 2018).

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image:  Giulio Cesare Procaccini: Museo diocesano di Milano, Public Domain.

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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