charles borromeo and dishonest wealth


A long time ago I learned to be cautious about dividing the world into black and white, saints and sinners, sheep and goats according to my standards and prejudices. Jesus of course can do that all he wants (and he does for example in Mt 25,[1] the parable of the sheep and goats). But I am going to assume that Jesus has a right that I do not have. And it is Jesus himself who is always overturning the cart of my preconceived notions of who is good and bad: many of the self-styled righteous wind up being the sinners whereas those who are regarded as sinners walk away righteous, as in the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector.[2]

There’s something of that going on today too. I notice that Paul is sometimes a little narrower than Jesus himself, a little stricter, a little more willing to cast people out and exclude them. At any rate both of the readings today present us with two kinds of people: Paul describes those whose end is destruction, whose god is the belly; whose glory is in their shame; whose minds are set on earthly things; as opposed to his readers whose citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:17-4:1). Jesus instead refers to the two groups as children of this age as opposed to children of light (Lk 16:1-8). But the odd thing is, Jesus is offering a kind of backhanded compliment to the children of this age, almost praising them for being shrewd, and so urging his listeners to ‘make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.’ This may go along with being as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.[3]

I believe it was G. K. Chesterton, writing about St. Louis the King, who said that a saint would never want to be a king; but a king could want to be a saint. What are those so-called “worldly” virtues that have a seed of good in them––industriousness, discipline, creativity, inventiveness––that can be admired and put to good use in the spiritual life? Just as grace builds on but does not destroy nature, so grace can use these natural attributes of ours or, better to say, we can put these tools to work in the spiritual life, in the life of charity. And a good example of that is the saint we celebrate today.

St. Charles Borromeo was a towering figure in the church around the time of the Council of Trent and the Reformation, and his credentials go on and on. He was a relative of the Medicis, as a matter of fact his uncle was a Medici Pope. He was a commendam abbot by the time he was 12, and very well educated. He had rank, prestige, money; and he seems to have singlehandedly convened and pushed through the second half of the Council of Trent––and all this before he was even ordained! (In those days one could be a cleric, and a very powerful one, without being ordained a priest.) When his father died everyone thought Charles would resign his clerical rank and take up his position as head of this powerful family. Yet, to everyone’s surprise, he did go on to be ordained, thereby surrendering the prestige that could have been his. Of course, he was named bishop right away, then cardinal, of the prestddaa15dc7c1ce9f15617b8c31de32783igious see of Milan. He is mostly known for his reforming efforts, the convocation of synods, tightening up the morals of clergy and reforming the seminary system. But he also had a great love for the poor and this often gets overlooked.

The most moving aspect of his life to me is what he did after the plague hit Milan in the 1560s, decimating the population. This man of wealth, rank and power did not flee the city with the other officials of the city (as a matter of fact he chided them for doing so) but stayed to care for the sick. And not just as an administrator––he was actually hands-on caring for the sick himself. The story goes that he not only exhausted all his personal resources and went into debt on behalf of the plague victims of his city; he tore down the colored processional draperies from his house to make them into clothes for the poor. So not only did he make friends for himself with dishonest wealth, he found a way for dishonest wealth to be a friend. There’s nothing wrong with being rich, any more than there is anything wrong with being talented or good looking. It’s all about our use of these gifts.

That leads to one last point concerning Christian anthropology: just like our gifts and resources, our bodies too can be our friends or our bodies can be our enemies. There’s an astonishing promise buried in the end of this reading from the Letter to the Philippians, that I quote often: He will change––some translations say he will transfigure––our lowly bodies into glorious copies of his own. The Indian philosopher Aurobindo agreed with the patristic writers of Christianity in stating that the body is a means of fulfilling the dharma, just as Tertullian taught that the body is the hinge or instrument of salvation. But Aurobindo went a step farther in teaching that the body itself was what got transformed, that it was not just the instrument, not just the hinge of salvation, but the field of transformation. And our scriptures agree: if for some, their end is their belly or their end is earthly glory, according to Scripture this is the end we hope for, that our being will be transformed, transfigured, that our whole being will evolve into a glorious copy of Jesus’ own transfigured, resurrected glorified body.

Somehow I think embedded in there is also a promise that the Spirit will transform everything about us into a glorious means, instrument, a hinge, leading to the totality of our being being taken up into glorious transformation, a new heaven and a new earth, and we a new creation, ‘til God be all in all through, with, and in Christ.

[1] Mt 25:31-46.

[2] Lk 18:9-14.

[3] Mt 10:16.

Share Button

1 Comment

  1. Charles believed that abuses in the church arose from ignorant clergy. Among his most important actions, he established seminaries, colleges and communities for the education of candidates for holy orders.

    Post a Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *