Come, ring out our joy to the Lord; hail the God who saves us, alleluia.
Year: B(II). Psalm week: 3. Liturgical Colour: Green.
|In other years: St Charles Borromeo (1538 - 1584)|
Charles Borromeo was a leading figure of the Catholic Reformation.
He was born in a castle on the shores of Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, to a powerful family. He was related to the Medici through his mother. As the second son, he was destined for a career in the Church from an early age. He received a doctorate in civil and canon law at the University of Pavia, and when his uncle was elected Pope Pius IV in 1559 he was summoned to Rome and made a cardinal. Among many other responsibilties he was made administrator of the vacant diocese of Milan and protector of the Catholic cantons of Switzerland and of the Franciscans and the Carmelites.
He played a large part in the diplomatic efforts that led to the re-opening in 1562 of the reforming Council of Trent, which had been suspended since 1552. As long as the Church was in a weak and corrupt state, emperors and kings could control it and its assets – and they would not easily give up control.
In late 1562 Charles’s elder brother died, leaving him as head of the family. His relations wanted him to abandon his ecclesiastical career and marry, and even the Pope suggested it; but Charles saw his brother’s death as a sign of the vanity of human wishes. Eventually, in 1563, he settled the argument by secretly being ordained priest. He was soon consecrated as Archbishop of Milan, but the Pope would not let him leave Rome because he was needed there. He worked on the catechism, the Missal and the Breviary, and reformed his own diocese as well as he could from a distance through trusted deputies.
At length Pius IV died and in 1566 his successor permitted Charles to take up residence in his diocese. He began reform from the top, giving much of his property to the poor. He set up the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine to teach children the faith: it was the beginning and inspiration of the Sunday School movement. When famine struck the province, he fed 3,000 people at his own expense for three months and inspired others to do likewise. When plague came, he prepared himself for death, made his will, and went to the hospital where the worst cases were. After enormous amounts of nagging, preaching and persuasion the secular clergy at length followed his example.
As might be expected, Charles encountered determined opposition to his programme of reform. His aunts, in Dominican convents, treated the introduction of grilles as a personal insult. More seriously, the canons of one church slammed the door in his face to prevent him making a visitation and their servants fired at him, damaging the crucifix he was carrying; and the members of a rich and corrupt order of monks were so opposed to being reformed that one of them dressed as a layman, joined Charles’s household at evening prayer, and shot him. The assassin’s bullet did not penetrate Charles’s clothing. (Two years later the Pope had to suppress the order and distribute its assets: a sad end to an order that had done much good and produced many saints in its 350-year history).
The King of Spain, whose jurisdiction included Milan at the time, resisted any diminution of his power, and the next fifteen years are a complex tapestry of arrests, excommunications, denunciations, calumnies, and absolutions – ending at last in peace.
Charles’s final visitation was of the cantons of Switzerland in 1583, where as well as the usual corruptions and abuses he had to deal with senior priests who were practising witchcraft and sorcery, and enemies who claimed that his fight against heresy was a plot to extend Spanish domination into the region.
Charles died on 3 November 1584 at the age of 46.
Sometimes there is a message for us in some words of the Gospel that even the evangelists don’t notice. There is an example here, hidden in words so uninteresting that we can’t even be sure who said them. Matthew and Mark say Jesus, while Luke says the scribe.
Jesus (or the scribe) appears to be quoting from the Old Testament, but one phrase does not exist in any text of the Commandments: that we should love the Lord our God with all our mind.
It is easy not to notice this phrase, and indeed Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t notice it. We know this because normally when Jesus departs from the Old Testament it is noticed, and remarked upon, and made the subject of a whole “But I say to you…” discourse.
There are two aspects to this. One is what it says about the past, the other is what it says to us. The past is straightforward. The Jews have never been “people of the Book” in the sense of believing in the Bible and nothing but the Bible. They have, it is true, had a peculiar reverence for every sacred word, but they have lived not in unthinking obedience to those words alone but in a dialogue, you might even say in a relationship, with the sacred text. So the fact that “all your mind” appears here, without attracting notice or comment, must mean that it had become a part of the generally accepted interpretation of the words of Scripture. When, centuries after the Pentateuch, the Jews came across the new, Greek ways of thinking – as the Wisdom literature shows that they did – they immediately realised that this new thing called “mind” was included, no doubt about it, in the commandment to love.
What this says to us is more important than just a footnote in the history of ideas. It is the foundation and justification of all science. God does not command the impossible. If he is to be loved with the mind, that can only be because he is lovable with the mind, or, to detheologize the language, because Ultimate Being can be related to rationally. The Gospel phrase tells us that things make sense and that we have the equipment to make sense of them.
What does omnipotence mean? Does it mean that the Omnipotent can do anything at all? If that were true, all science would be at an end. If God willed that when I dropped a glass on the floor it would shatter, then even if God had willed the same whenever anyone in the past had ever dropped a glass, that would still not bind God. God would still be free to decide, if I dropped a glass on the floor now, that this particular glass, alone among all the glasses in history, should bounce and not break.
Which is to say: on this interpretation of divine omnipotence, science is impossible. We cannot predict the result of an experiment, because next time God may decide differently. We cannot even lay down laws of nature based on previous experience, because to call a law a “law” is to claim to be able to bind God, which is blasphemy.
This is not merely an academic quibble. When the 11th-century Muslim philosopher al-Ghazāli propounded this very idea, it captured the mainstream of Islamic thinking and led to the virtual suicide of science in Islam and the abandonment of rational thinking about the physical world, as being unnecessary, or sacrilegious, or both.
We are saved from this by this one little phrase in the Gospel, about loving God with all our mind. It is more than mere permission, it is a command to understand, to go out and do science, and it was followed whenever Christians had leisure to think. It led to the dazzling 13th-century renaissance and the birth of modern science, and we are still living through its consequences.
As for divine omnipotence, this is not the place to go into it in detail, but the answer to al-Ghazāli must surely be that God can indeed make the glass bounce, but God cannot make the glass bounce and still be God, since to break the laws and regularities of nature whimsically and without reason would be to abandon lovability-with-the-mind. This is exactly the argument that theologians use against pointless or frivolous miracles, but it applies to science as well, and to the possibility of doing science at all.
The theological virtue of hope is symbolized by the colour green, just as the burning fire of love is symbolized by red. Green is the colour of growing things, and hope, like them, is always new and always fresh. Liturgically, green is the colour of Ordinary Time, the season in which we are being neither especially penitent (in purple) nor overwhelmingly joyful (in white).
|Mid-morning reading (Terce)||Romans 8:15-16 ©|
The spirit you received is not the spirit of slaves bringing fear into your lives again; it is the spirit of sons, and it makes us cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Spirit himself and our spirit bear united witness that we are children of God.
|Noon reading (Sext)||Romans 8:22-23 ©|
From the beginning until now the entire creation, as we know, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth; and not only creation, but all of us who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free.
|Afternoon reading (None)||2 Timothy 1:9 ©|
God has saved us and called us to be holy, not because of anything we ourselves have done but for his own purpose and by his own grace. This grace had already been granted to us, in Christ Jesus, before the beginning of time.