St. Margaret of Cortona, the Second Magdalene

Cortona: Saint Margaret of Cortona

Santuario di Santa Margherita (Piazza Santa Margherita 2, Cortona; daily from 6:50am to 7pm;   

Le Celle (13th cent. Franciscan hermitage approx. 4 km north of Cortona; daily from 7am to 7pm; Le Celle

Le Celle hermitage

Cortona is a small  hilltop town in Tuscany, about 50 km from Perugia and 110 km from Florence. There are frequent trains from Perugia to Camucia-Cortona and to Terontola-Cortona (the direct ones take about 40 minutes). The direct trains from Florence (Santa Maria Novella station) take about 1h 20 min to Camucia-Cortona (and 10 min longer to Terontola-Cortona) and are also frequent throughout the day.

Le Celle hermitage (outside of Cortona)

The Camucia-Cortona train station lies about 3 km outside of the town of Cortona (if you don’t want to walk – it’s a steep climb uphill! – there are buses that stop outside the train station and take you to Cortona in 10 minutes). The Terontola-Cortona station is 10 km from Cortona (there are buses and taxis). You can also take a train from Rome (Termini or Tiburtina stations) to get to Cortona in approx. 2 hours.

A little over 4 km north of Cortona lies the hermitage Le Celle. It is the first convent built by St. Francis of Assisi (1211) who also lived there for several years. His cell can be seen there, as well as the small cave-like oratory used by his first companions. Since the 16th cent. the hermitage has belonged to the Capuchins. A 17th cent. church is part of the complex.

Basilica of St. Margaret, Cortona


Margaret was born in a village called Laviano, in the diocese of Chiusi, ‎in the year 1247. Her mother was a good and pious woman who taught the child the basics of religion, prayers, and a love of God. Unfortunately her mother died when Margaret was only 7, ‎and the woman her widowed father married two years later was cold and cruel towards her step daughter. To escape the unhappiness at home Margaret spent all the time she could in the company of other young people, enjoying in particular the attention and praise lavished on her by men bewitched by her great physical beauty.

St. Margaret of Cortona

When she was about 17 her path crossed with that of a nobleman from Montepulciano who, attracted by her beauty, promised to marry her if she went with him. Seeing it as a great opportunity to escape her circumstances, Margaret accompanied him to Montepulciano. There she lived for 9 years, in his palace, in opulence and luxury, having everything one’s heart might desire materially, as well as the care of countless servants and the admiration and adulation of the people.

Yet, once Margaret started listening to her conscience, her happiness evaporated. ‎As she would later say, “in Montepulciano I have lost honor, dignity and peace, everything except the faith.” She never lost the faith, received from her good mother. And thus she was aware of the terrible sins she was committing, the scandal she was giving with her life to the simple people of faith, ‎and the eternal destiny of her soul should she not repent and change. She tried to do penance by way of praying and giving alms with great generosity, but her will was too weak to cut the chains of carnal pleasures that bound her to her disordered life.

God, however, wanted to make her a great example of His boundless mercy with penitent sinners. Thus He cut off with a single painful cut the golden chains of the disordered passions.

Conversion from a life of sin  

In 1273 her lover went off to take care of some business, accompanied by his faithful dog. The next day the dog returned without his master. The animal led Margaret to the nearby woods where she found the dead body of her lover, presumably murdered by bandits. Seeing his corpse, Margaret understood at once the nothingness of life and the importance of life everlasting. She trembled at the thought of her lover’s eternal destiny, and her own guilt in the sins his soul was judged for at the moment of his death. It was then that the faith of her childhood came back alive, and Margaret decided at once to henceforth live to expiate her great sins.

She returned to his relatives all the jewels and property her lover had given her and left his palace. With her 7 year old son, born of the illicit union, she set out for her father’s house. She was then 26. Her father, whom she implored forgiveness, would have let her stay in his home if it was not for the stern refusal of his wife. He didn’t have the strength to oppose his wife, and Margaret, desolated and destitute, had to leave.

The devil then launched the strongest temptations at the young woman, telling her she was young and beautiful and would find someone to love her and lavish the pleasures and luxuries of the world on her. But Margaret fought the temptations vigorously. She was determined to expiate her sins, and understood it was better to beg for her bread than to return to a life of sin. Her earthly father abandoned her but her heavenly Father would forgive her and receive her with love – of that she was certain. At the moment she made this resolution she heard an inner voice telling her: “Go to Cortona and place yourself under direction of the Friars Minor.” ‎Margaret took her son and made the strenuous 20 km trek to Cortona. ‎

Saint Margaret of Cortona

(St. Francis of Assisi was preaching in Cortona around 1221 and, having attracted some followers, established with these new friars a hermitage near the town. This hermitage, called Le Celle, still exists and functions today. At the time Margaret came to Cortona the Friars Minor also had a convent in the town center.)

Margaret, upon entering Cortona, met two noblewomen who took pity on the poor mother and child and ‎offered her and her son housing, promising also to take care of the boy’s education. Then they directed Margaret to a priest who, after listening to her story, sent her to Fr. Giunta Bevegnati of the Franciscan friars, a venerable priest known for his doctrine and holiness. ‎After having confessed, with great remorse, all her sins to Fr. Giunta, she experienced for the first time in many years a profound peace. But Margaret wasn’t content with having her sins forgiven; she was determined to spend the rest of her life in penance and expiation for the great offenses against her Redeemer. (She took St. Mary Magdalene as a model, St. Francis of Assisi as a patron, and Fr. Giunta as a spiritual guide.)

From a great sinner to a great penitent  

Margaret, once converted, didn’t waste any time. She cut her beautiful long hair, disguised her beauty, and renounced all sensual and pleasurable things. She lived on bread and water with some vegetables and fruit, wore a harsh cilice, and chastised her body with bloody disciplines, among many other penances and austerities. ‎She saw her body – cause and accomplice of her crimes – as an irreconcilable adversary, and subjected it to more and more austerities and mortifications every day. Loathing her beauty which had led her and others into sin, she even wanted to cut her face but Fr. Giunta wouldn’t allow this, and she was always ready to sacrifice her wishes to the will of God manifested in the words of her spiritual director.

One Sunday she went to her native Laviano, where, in the church where everyone was assembled, dressed as a penitent with a rope around her neck, she begged on her knees the forgiveness of the people for her sins and the public scandal she had caused.

She spent her days in prayer and working, be it spinning wool, helping and assisting women who just gave birth, etc. The people of Cortona and later of all Tuscany marveled at seeing her heroic penances and virtues, and came to consider her a saint. Margaret’s big heart, once freed from the captivity of the false glow of worldly things and creatures, flew with all its strength toward God, the only One worthy of true love.

Margaret was from the beginning imploring the Friars to let her become a Franciscan tertiary. The Third Order of St. Francis had by then, less than 50 years after his death, spread to every part of Europe. ‎The Friars let her wait for 3 years and, once certain that her change of life was lasting and that she would persevere, they clothed her in the habit of the Third Order in 1276. It was Margaret’s happiest day.

From then on she lived in a small room she called her little cell, stopped eating even the vegetables and fresh figs as if they were a luxury, slept on the hard floor, and spent a large part of the nights (often all night) in prayer and meditation of the Passion of Our Lord. She would only leave her cell to go to Mass early morning (at the conventual church of St. Francis) and, when needed, to attend the sick and poor to whom she gave her services freely.

Crucifix that spoke to St. Margaret (Basilica of St. Margaret, Cortona)

Extraordinary graces and attacks by the enemy  

Her first supernatural communication from Jesus happened while she was contemplating the crucifix at the church of St. Francis. She heard these words clearly coming from the Crucified: “What do you want, my poor sinner?” She replied without hesitation: “My Jesus, I do not seek nor want anything but You.” Another day, when she was praying, she asked God why He gives so many favors to such a miserable creature. And the same voice (of Jesus) that spoke to her on other occasions responded thus: “Because I have disposed that you become like a net for sinners. I want you to be a light for those sitting in the darkness of vice; I want the example of your conversion to preach hope to desperate sinners and be for the repentant ones like the morning dew for the plants exhausted by the heat of the sun; I want, lastly, that coming centuries be convinced that I am always willing to open the arms of my mercy to the prodigal son who, sincerely and with all his heart, returns to me.” ‎

The following day Margaret experienced her first public ecstasy. While she was attending to a sick woman, she retired to a corner for a few moments to pray and, as the present witnesses testified, her face became illuminated, her eyes fixed to an invisible object in front of her, and her body rose from the ground and remained in the air while she was immersed in a loving communication with her Creator. ‎

As Margaret began receiving these extraordinary graces from God, the devil also began assaulting her with force, appearing to her at times as an angel of light and at others as either himself or a horrid animal or even a fire-breathing dragon. At times he tempted her by making her remember the lavish and pleasurable time at Montepulciano in stark contrast with the privations of her current life, and by insinuating that the life of extreme penance she took upon herself was going to be too difficult to bear and persevere in.

Margaret never hesitated a moment before rejecting the temptations, only for the devil to return later tormenting her with blasphemies, impure images, or by telling her she was condemned to eternal fire. ‎At other times he tried to tempt her to pride by telling her she was a saint, venerated and admired by everyone. In response to this Margaret, from the window of her cell, started loudly and publicly confessing her past sins by which she had so offended God and caused so much scandal to the people. At this the devil fled, not being able to suffer an act of such humility. Finally he tried to convince her that all the graces and favors she thought being of God were in fact his [the devil’s] work, that she was all his, and her life a lie and deceit. This left painful doubts in her mind but they were soon dispelled first by Fr. Bevegnati and then by Jesus Himself. These assaults of the devil lasted for the remainder of her life; the greater the graces God lavished on her, the stronger and more vicious was the hatred and persecution of Satan. ‎‎

In 1286 Margaret founded, with the generous donations of noble families of Cortona, a home and hospital for the sick and elderly poor. Shortly thereafter she founded an institute of Franciscan Tertiary Sisters who would help her attend the sick and the poor. It was the first charitable institution of this kind in the Middle Ages.

Her only son became a Franciscan priest, as Jesus had foretold her some years before.

S. Margherita da Cortona (by Guercino)

Spiritual nuptials, visions, mystic crucifixion 

One of the extraordinary graces God gave to Margaret was that of the spiritual nuptials. Jesus took her, whom He at first only called “my poor sinner” and later “my daughter”, for His spouse. He also gave her the gift of discernment of souls, of prophecy, and of miracles. Her biographers, including Fr. Bevegnati, narrate many of these miracles. Perhaps the most famous of them was her bringing back to life a dead child of Cortona at the pleading of his desperate mother. The saint was also known to free people ‎from demonic possession, and to miraculously cure the sick.

On the early morning of the Holy Friday, 1287, ‎Margaret was in the church of St. Francis, having received the previous day a revelation from Jesus that she would experience a mystic crucifixion. After Mass she fell into an ecstasy during which she witnessed the entire course of the Passion and shared Jesus’ pain. This was witnessed, until 3pm when she seemed to expire along with the Redeemer, by many inhabitants of Cortona who were present at the church.

Margaret’s fame soon spread from Cortona and Tuscany to all parts of Italy and even to France and Spain. People from all these lands came to see her, ask her advice, beg her intercession, or seek consolation. She could read the souls of men, seeing both the hidden sins of the guilty ones and the fears and preoccupations of the just.‎ Many sinners were converted and changed their life by seeing her holy example and hearing her exhortations. Included among them was an infamous chief of the Ghibellines, who, converted by Margaret, spent the rest of his life in austerity and penance in a Franciscan convent. ‎She also exhorted the people of Cortona to make peace among themselves, and managed, for a time, to calm the strife between the various factions.

During Lent of 1288 Margaret was shown, in a vision, the horrible state of the sinful world, the unfaithful Christians, the evil of the Jews, the desecration of the Holy Land by the Mohammedans, and the offenses and outrages against Jesus. Seeing this, heartbroken, she offered herself to God as a victim of expiation. Her offer was accepted; a few days later, on March 25, she saw, after Communion, a luminous cross coming down from Heaven, on which she was to be crucified. Her Crucified Spouse appeared to her, telling her she would be crucified with Him, not in her flesh but in her heart. At that very moment a fiery arrow pierced her heart. The Redeemer also showed her a remote and miserable hermitage on a hill outside of Cortona where she was to retire and live in solitude.


Margaret did not hesitate to fulfill God’s will, despite objections from everyone in Cortona. It was difficult for her to leave her poor and the hospital, as well as the Friars who had been directing her spiritually, and the church of St. Francis where she daily attended to religious services. But, she was Jesus’ victim, and so on May 1, 1288, she left Cortona to live in the hermitage shown to her in the vision. There she would spend the last 9 years of her life, living as a recluse.

St. Margaret of Cortona, penitent

Next to the hermitage was the ruined oratory of St. Basil which Margaret, with the material help of the town of Cortona, brought back to life. Once she began her hermit existence the divine favors and special gifts were withdrawn by God, and she was deprived not only of the presence of people but also of all supernatural consolations, feeling abandoned and rejected by God (Who was thus purifying her soul). This spiritual desolation lasted for more than a year, with the next 8 years being a mixture of loving contemplation and sufferings.

The people of Cortona, who before had admired and esteemed her, now turned against her, seeing her at best as useless and lacking constancy, and at worst as a charlatan and crazy.‎ Margaret suffered it with patience and in peace, for the love of God, praying for her detractors and asking God that He may forgive them and let the hand of His justice fall on her instead. A cross harder for the saint to bear was the separation from her spiritual director Fr. Bevegnati who was, in 1290, transferred to Siena.

‎Margaret had a special devotion to St. Mary Magdalene, and animated sinners to do likewise. And, in these last 9 years of her life, she even imitated the Biblical penitent’s life as a recluse, spent in prayer, contemplation, adoration and love. In these years the penances and mortifications to which she subjected her body became even more severe, and she fasted almost permanently. With her incessant prayer and sacrifices she not only helped save countless souls but also averted God’s punishment from Cortona by expiating for the sins of her inhabitants.

Jesus, in several visions, promised Margaret that she would obtain everything she asked the Heavenly Father in His name. He also promised her “I will listen to and bless those who invoke you” – a promise not only given with respect to her contemporaries but even more so to future generations, including those of our own sinful times. ‎Margaret, her dark night having passed, ‎was frequently favored with visions of Our Lord, and on occasion of saints and angels. In many of these Jesus revealed to her the mysteries of His Sacred Heart, telling her that it was not yet time to make these known to the people [this task, to spread the devotion to the Heart of Jesus, would be given by Him to a Franciscan virgin of‎ the 17th century]. Under obedience the saint was informing her Franciscan spiritual directors about the supernatural graces and divine conversations God had granted her.

Our Lord told her that she would die in Cortona and that He would grant the town a special privilege that would make it famous in all corners of the world (referring, most likely, to her incorrupt body).

Margaret also received from Jesus many prophecies regarding the Franciscan Order to which she was so closely linked. He told her that He would always give her a friar of the Order to direct her spiritually; He foretold the impending troubles to hit the Order and that they would serve to purify and strengthen it, and He called the Order His “garden of predilection”. ‎

St. Margaret of Cortona

Jesus also told her in a vision: “If Francis was the first luminary of the Seraphic Order and Clare the second, you will be the third.” Thus Margaret is the model of penitent love, like the saint of Assisi is a model of apostolic life and St. Clare of virginity. St. Margaret is a model and helper of all sinners who should invoke her and ask her intercession that they may follow her path of repentance, penitence and burning love of God.

Source of Margaret’s strength and perseverance  

Margaret had a great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. Once she became a Franciscan tertiary Fr. Bevegnati authorized her to receive Holy Communion daily. In order to receive Jesus into as pure and loving a heart as possible, she was preparing for Communion from midnight with meditations. Before 6am she went to the church of St. Francis‎ where she spent 2-3 hours in prayer and contemplation, preparing to receive Her Lord and King. After Communion she would remain for a long time, in a sort of ecstasy, contemplating, adoring and loving Him.

What was Margaret’s secret? The secret of the prodigious abnegation, sacrifice and charity that marked her life from the time of her conversion until her death was the Holy Communion. The Eucharist gave her the strength, constancy and light she needed to support her life of penance and sacrifice; it was the source of her fast progress in virtue and love. She told Fr. Bevegnati: “With the strength I receive from here [the Tabernacle] there is nothing that could detain me, and I see as nothing the most atrocious torments. What would I not do for the love of my Jesus?”

Margaret never tired of proclaiming to everyone the marvelous effects of Holy Communion, and the importance of receiving it worthily. She points to us the Tabernacle and invites us to go to Him Who is love and life Himself, in all our sufferings, difficulties and battles, to become strengthened by the source of all grace and virtue, the very heaven on earth.

Fr. Bevegnati came back to Cortona by the end of 1296. (Years earlier when he was sent to Siena God revealed to Margaret that he would come back and be present at her death.) ‎Margaret was by then close to the end of her earthly life, plagued by rheumatism and neuralgia, and consumed by fever. On January 3, 1297, her guardian angel announced to her that she would, on February 22, change her exile for the triumphal joy of her heavenly homeland.

Death of St. Margaret of Cortona

From February 5 to 22 she didn’t eat any food, living solely on the Eucharist which Fr. Bevegnati brought her daily in these last days of her life. Completely detached from all earthly things she now lived solely for Heaven. The whole town desired to see her in these last moments of her life, and she directed to each of them words of counsel and heavenly wisdom. To all she repeated “the way of salvation is easy: it’s enough to love.”

Death and miracles 

On February 21 she received the extreme unction before passing the entire night in contemplation. The next morning she received the holy Viaticum ‎and, as the angel had foretold, gave her soul to God. She was 50 years old. At the very moment she died a holy contemplative saw her soul in the form of a fiery globe flying to Heaven accompanied by a multitude of souls freed from Purgatory by her prayers and sacrifices.

The news of her death spread instantly and the inhabitants of Cortona rushed to see and venerate the body of their saint. And what a marvel – her face had, at death, recovered the freshness and angelical beauty of her youth, and from her body emanated a perfume similar to that of alabaster. All the present took these prodigies for a sign of Margaret’s eminent sanctity.

Acclaimed by the people as a saint, her body was translated to the church in a triumphal procession. After a solemn Mass the body was taken to the oratory of St. Basil (the one adjacent to her hermitage, which she had restored) and placed, inside an iron coffin, into a niche in the wall. There it remained, exposed for public veneration, even before her official canonization. The unanimous voice of the people called Margaret the new Mary Magdalene, title later ratified by Papal authority.

From the moment Margaret died her tomb became the scene of the most spectacular miracles. The dead brought back to life, the sick cured instantly, the maimed and paralyzed made whole, those in peril of life escaping miraculously, not to mention the countless spiritual favors. These were carefully recorded and examined by church authorities, as well as, among others, medical doctors. ‎The miracles were so astonishing that in a short time Margaret’s tomb became the place of pilgrimage of all the sick, crippled and desperate. Rich and poor, young and old, noble and peasants… the records of all the instant cures of incurable and terminal illnesses would fill entire volumes.

Incorrupt body of St. Margaret (Basilica di S. Margherita, Cortona)

Perhaps the most extraordinary miracles were those where dead were brought back to life by the intercession of‎ the saint, such as a young man who, having been already laid in the coffin, was revived miraculously after his desperate mother begged God that he may, by the intercession of the holy penitent, repeat the miracle He did for the widow of Naim. The man thus brought back to life declared immediately that he owed his resurrection to the intercession of Margaret.

The saint has continued to intercede for those who have invoked her over the course of centuries. For instance, in 1745, a missionary who had worked in Peru‎ declared and swore to the following miraculous appearance of Margaret to his fellow missionary priest who, devoted to the penitent of Cortona, was just praying a novena to her. One day before the novena was finished, Margaret appeared, radiant and dressed in her habit of the Third Order, to the priest and all the assembled Indians, promising to give a recompense for his zeal in promoting her glory. This left such an impression on the Indians that they too became devoted to her, invoking her in all their needs.

‎One could not omit mentioning the miraculous preservation of Margaret’s body, which, purified by penance and sacrifice, remains incorrupt to this day – more than seven centuries later. ‎Not only that; her body has been, at times, known to exhale the most exquisite perfumes which have no equal among even the most aromatic substances of this earth.

Veneration and canonization of the “new Mary Magdalene” 

Her remains have been honored with a public cult‎us from the very moment of her death. The oratory of St. Basil immediately became the center of pilgrimage not only for the people of Italy but other parts of Europe as well. The church soon became too small to accommodate the pilgrims, and Cortona decided to build a new sanctuary in her honor, to house her precious relics. Meanwhile the bishops of Arezzo and Chiusi started to catalog Margaret’s virtues and miracles ‎for a process of canonization. They described her as “the miracle worker who gave back the sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and life to the dead.” Bishops from all parts of the Christian world recommended the faithful to make pilgrimage to Cortona, granting indulgences to those who visited the tomb of the holy penitent.

Basilica di S. Margherita, Cortona

The Oratory of St. Basil came, in 1392, into the care of the Observant Franciscans. Thus came true the prophecy of Margaret that, as it had taken care of her soul, the Seraphic Order would later, after some time had passed, take care of her mortal remains.

In 1515 Pope Leo X came to visit Margaret’s tomb and, kneeling before the urn, felt the perfume her body was exhaling. He approved her cultus, authorized the celebration of her feast in the diocese of Cortona, and issued new indulgences to those who made the pilgrimage to her tomb. Cortona made her a patron of the city around the same time. In 1580 Margaret’s body was translated to the high altar where it rests until this day. In the 17th century it was placed in a crystal urn that allows people to contemplate her face.

Her sanctuary has been enlarged several times over the centuries. The current church owes its origins to a vote done by the inhabitants of Cortona in 1855 when Italy was being devastated by a cholera epidemic. Cortona lost, in a matter of a few months, a third of its population. The people went to Margaret’s tomb to implore her intercession and help, promising to build a new and larger sanctuary in her honor. Their prayers were heard and accepted, for from that day not a single more person fell victim to the epidemic. The people kept their promise and in 1877 the new sanctuary was opened. The flow of pilgrims received new life as people from all corners of Europe came to the tomb of the Magdalene of the Seraphic Order.

Light of repentant sinners 

St. Margaret continues to correspond to the ‎appeals of those who invoke her. Graces obtained by her intercession are particularly abundant when it comes to the cure of bodies and souls, as well as to women giving birth, and the conversion of sinners. Thus has been fulfilled the promise Jesus made to her: “I will bless in a special way all those who love and invoke you, and in many regions ‎you will be the light of the sinners.”

St. Margaret, like Mary Magdalene, ‎has loved so much that her sins were not only forgiven her but her ardent and selfless love and her tears, penances and sacrifices have given her, along with dignity and honor, a second innocence, not more beautiful but more moving than the first, for it was born of the clear tears of contrition. ‎

On May 16, 1728 Margaret was canonized by Benedict XIII. He called her a new Mary Magdalene.

Her feast day is February 22.

Saint Margaret of Cortona

Sancta Margarita, ora pro nobis!  

St. Margaret of Cortona:

Life and Revelations of St. Margaret of Cortona (Fr. Giunta Bevegnati) – pdf, text, epub, kindle format

A Tuscan Penitent: The Life and Legend of St. Margaret of Cortona (Fr. Cuthbert) – pdf, text, kindle format

St. Margaret of Cortona: The Magdalen of the Seraphic Order (Fr. L. de Cherance) – pdf, text, kindle format

The Life of St. Margaret of Cortona (A. F. Giovagnoli) – pdf, text, epub, kindle format

Margaret of Cortona (F. Mauriac) – pdf, text, epub, kindle format




St. Leonard of Port Maurice, the Greatest Missionary of the 18th Century

Imperia (Porto Maurizio) and Rome: Saint Leonard of Port Maurice

St. Leonard of Port Maurice


During my travels and visits to the sanctuaries and shrines of Italy I was especially looking forward to seeing the places connected with St. Leonard of Port Maurice. This saint, whom St. Alphonsus de Liguori rightly called the greatest missionary of the 18th century, was one of the most famous mission preachers in the history of European Christendom.

St. Leonard converted innumerable souls to God during his life – and he continues to do so even today. I owe a special gratitude to this holy Franciscan whose famous sermon was instrumental in my own conversion nearly a decade ago. Today, when so many souls are in desperate need of conversion, St. Leonard’s name is barely known, even among practicing Catholics. If this post can help to remedy this neglect in some small way, it will have fulfilled its purpose.



Native home: Chiesetta e Casa Natale di San Leonardo (Via Achille Vianelli, Imperia; Casa Natale di San Leonardo da Porto Maurizio)    

Convent: San Bonaventura al Palatino (Via di San Bonaventura 7, Rome; Convento di San Bonaventura al Palatino)    

San Bonaventura al Palatino, Rome

Paul Jerome Casanova was born on December 20, 1676, in Porto Maurizio (today’s Imperia), then part of the Republic of Genoa. His father, a ship captain, was a man of faith; five of his six children went on to become religious. When the boy who would become St. Leonard was 13 he went to study at the Roman College in Rome, the city where his uncle lived. He thought of entering the medical profession but God had other plans for him, wanting to make him a doctor of souls.

One day he happened to visit the church connected with the Franciscan convent of St. Bonaventure on the Palatine hill just as the friars were chanting Compline. At the words “converte nos Deus, salutaris noster” (convert us, oh God, our salvation) the young man was converted from his worldly aspirations to supernatural ones. Listening to God’s call, he entered the reform branch of the Franciscan Order.

Convent church of San Bonaventura al Palatino, Rome

He took his habit in 1697, taking the name of Leonard. After making his novitiate at Ponticelli he completed his studies at the principal house of the reform branch at San Bonaventura al Palatino in Rome. ‎After his ordination (1703) he remained there as a professor. Leonard longed to go to China as a missionary, for it was his great desire to convert souls for Christ and to shed his blood for the Faith. However, he was soon seized with a severe gastric hemorrhage, becoming so ill that he was sent to his native Porto Maurizio in the hope that he might recover his health.

St. Leonard did indeed recover, and he attributed his restoration to health to Our Lady’s intercession. During his illness he had promised that, should his prayers for recovery be granted, he would devote his life to the conversion of sinners. And he kept his promise, spending 44 years preaching popular missions, covering every section of Italy and the island of Corsica.

St. Leonard’s native home (now an oratory), Imperia – Porto Maurizio

Leonard at one time felt certain distaste for mission work but, after his superiors laid this duty upon him, he understood it to be the Will of God, and he consecrated himself whole-heartedly to it, becoming one of the greatest missionaries and apostles in the history of the Church. He chose as the patron of his missions the great Dominican saint, preacher and miracle worker St. Vincent Ferrer (whose picture he also used to bless the sick).

‎Around the age of 30 he began to preach in Port Maurice and its vicinity. Leonard’s preaching was marked by many extraordinary conversions. The power of his words coupled with his holiness and extraordinarily austere and penitential life made a deep impression on even the most hardened sinners. 

St. Leonard used to preach to many thousands in open squares in every town where he went; the churches were too small to contain the multitudes. Entire towns flocked to hear his sermons so that it was not uncommon to see crowds of 15 to 20 thousand gathering to listen to the saint. Miraculous conversions followed his preaching everywhere.

St. Leonard preaching

St. Leonard preached several times a day, heard confessions for countless hours, gave advice, established peace between warring factions – all without neglecting his prayers (including three hours of mental prayer each day), celebrating daily Mass with great devotion and precision, and saying the Divine Office on his knees.

The saint stressed the importance of the practice of maintaining oneself in the presence of God at all times. He recommended people to exclaim many times throughout the day, and especially at the beginning of every action, “my Jesus, mercy.” That way they can pray always, even amidst their daily occupations, and do everything with pure intention, looking to God alone in every action they perform.

In 1716 he founded the Solitude of St. Mary of Incontro near Florence, a House of Retreat where the friars could ‎retire from time to time to renew their spiritual strength, applying themselves seriously, in silence and great austerities, to the work of their own sanctification. The religious would withdraw there in turn, to then return to their convents and missionary labors filled with renewed zeal to work for the glory of God and salvation of souls.

Crucifix St. Leonard used to take on missions (S. Bonaventura al Palatino)

Leonard was the superior in Florence and Prato for over 20 years before returning to Rome in 1736 to become Guardian of the convent of St. Bonaventure. He was an austere, reserved and silent man, but also kind and patient in his treatment of others.

The devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary (and in particular the Immaculate Conception), perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, ‎and devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus were some of the topics he promoted. It was St. Leonard who composed, especially as a reparation for the sin of blasphemy, the Divine Praises we say at the end of every Benediction (“blessed be God, blessed be His Holy Name…”). ‎

It is to St. Leonard we owe the devotion of the Stations of the Cross. Wherever he went he promoted the Via Crucis. Not a mission went by without him leading the people in this pious meditation ‎on the Passion of our Lord. St. Leonard erected 571 Stations of the Cross throughout Italy, including the famous Stations at the Colosseum in Rome.

St. Leonard’s discipline

While St. Leonard’s great life-work were the missions, he also preached many retreats both to religious and lay people. The theme was most often the Passion of Christ. ‎He wrote that one of the cures for the ills of men and of society was a daily meditation on the Passion. It would bring people back in touch with reality, rearrange their priorities, and put everything into proper perspective, causing them to grow in love for Christ.

St. Leonard’s love for Our Lady led him to ardently desire to see – and do his utmost to procure – the dogmatic definition of her Immaculate Conception. He called this the most important cause in the world, because every other good depended on it: peace, happiness, triumph over heresies, triumph of the Church. He urged prelates to petition Rome for this. [The dogma of the Immaculate Conception would be solemnly proclaimed a century later, in 1854, by Pope Pius IX.]

Saint Leonard of Port Maurice

The strains of his missionary labors and severe mortifications completely exhausted St. Leonard’s body. After his missions in Lucca and Bologna he was stricken by fever but nevertheless journeyed back to Rome in obedience to the wishes of Pope Benedict XIV who made him promise he would not die in any other city but Rome. Even in his last days, half-dead, the saint insisted on saying Mass, though with the greatest difficulty, for, “a single Mass is worth more than all the wealth of the world.”

On Nov 26, 1751, St. Leonard arrived at his beloved monastery of St. Bonaventure in Rome, dying that same evening at 11pm, at the age of 75. Great crowds came to see and venerate his body. God glorified him in life but still more after his death by numerous miracles. His (still partially incorrupt) body was kept at the high altar of the church of San Bonaventura at Palatino until 1997 when it was transferred to his native town. There it can be seen, in a glass urn, at the cathedral of Imperia Porto Maurizio. Only a relic of one of his ribs remains at the church of St. Bonaventure in Rome. At the adjacent convent one can visit the saint’s former cell (transformed into a little museum).

St. Leonard’s body, cathedral of Imperia

St. Leonard was beatified by Pius VI in 1796. Blessed Pius IX, a Franciscan tertiary, canonized him in 1867. He was named the patron saint of parish missionaries by Pius XI.

St. Leonard left us many writings, the most well known of which is his beautiful book about “the most precious treasure we have on earth” – the Mass (“The Hidden Treasure”). His sermons, letters, ascetic and devotional writings have been preserved but only a small part has been translated to English. His most famous sermon, “The Little Number of Those Who Are Saved”, was the one he relied on for the conversion of great sinners.

His feast day is November 26.

Sancte Leonarde, ora pro nobis!  

St. Leonard’s crucifix (S. Bonaventura, Rome)

St. Leonard of Port Maurice:

Life of St. Leonard of Port Maurice (Fr. D. Devas) – pdf, text, epub, kindle format

The Life of Blessed Leonard of Port Maurice (G. Alapont) – pdf, text, epub, kindle format

The Hidden Treasure of the Immense Excellence of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (St. Leonard) – pdf, text, kindle format

The Little Number of Those Who Are Saved (St. Leonard’s sermon) – pdf; or read online here; or audio here

St. Leonard’s Via Crucis – read online


Cathedral of St. Maurice, Imperia




Siena: Home of St. Catherine of Siena and an Ongoing Eucharistic Miracle

Siena: Saint Catherine of Siena; Ongoing Eucharistic Miracle

About 70 km south of Florence, in central Italy’s Tuscany region, lies Siena, one of the country’s most visited medieval cities. It is easily accessible by bus and train (from Florence as well as Rome and other Italian cities).

Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico, Siena


St. Catherine of Siena (by Tiepolo)

Siena, famous for being the birthplace of the 14th century mystic Caterina Benincasa, or Saint Catherine of Siena, is also one of a dozen or so places where one can, to this day, see a continuous Eucharistic miracle.

To learn more about the life, mystical gifts, visions and miracles of St. Catherine of Siena, as well as her role in bringing to end the Great Western Schism, have a look at this wonderful article:

There are a number of places in Siena connected to the saint.

Home-Sanctuary of St. Catherine (Via Costa di Sant’Antonio 6; daily 9:30am-7pm; Church of the Crucifix daily 9:30am-12:30pm/3pm-7pm;

Casa Santuario di S. Caterina (native home)

The Benincasa family home, where Catherine (one of 25 children) was born and raised, was converted into a sanctuary not long after her death. Part of the sanctuary is the church of the Sacred Crucifix, built in the 16th century in the place of the former garden to house the miraculous crucifix from which St. Catherine received the stigmata in 1375. Visitors can view numerous paintings related to the saint’s life as well as the cell where she slept, the stone she used for a pillow, and several other objects she used during her life. Various rooms of the original Benincasa house have been converted into small oratories.

St. Catherine’s head

                        Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico (Piazza San Domenico 1; March-October: daily 7am-6:30pm, November-February: 9am-6pm;

The Basilica of St. Dominic is an imposing Dominican Order church dating back to the 13th century. (St. Catherine herself was a Dominican tertiary.) The basilica houses her relics – most notably her incorrupt head and right thumb, as well as artworks depicting her life.

Crucifix of the stigmata (Casa Santuario di S. Caterina)

St. Catherine died in Rome in 1380, at the age of 33. When her body was – after reports of numerous miracles – transferred from the cemetery to the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Blessed Raymond of Capua, St. Catherine’s spiritual director and Master General of the Dominican Order, with permission of Pope Urban VI, separated the head from the body so that the head could be sent to Siena, to be exposed publicly after her canonization.

The rest of her incorrupt body lies beneath the main altar in the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome (except for her left hand which is in the monastery church of Madonna del Rosario in Rome, and her right foot which can be seen in the Basilica of Saints John and Paul in Venice).

St. Catherine’s feast day is April 29.


Eucharistic miracle of Siena (Basilica di S. Francesco, Siena)

Basilica di San Francesco (Piazza San Francesco 6; daily 7:30am-12pm/3:30-7pm;

Siena is also home to a Eucharistic miracle which is one of the longest ongoing miracles in the world. Like the other permanent (continuous) Eucharistic miracles preserved to this day (most famous of which are in Lanciano, Italy, and Santarem, Portugal), it is a gift of God’s love meant to strengthen our faith in the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist.

On August 14, 1730, thieves broke into the Church of St. Francis and stole a ciborium containing consecrated hosts. The theft was discovered the next day by Franciscan priests, and the town’s festivities celebrating the Feast of the Assumption were immediately halted. The bishop asked for prayers and reparations as civil authorities searched for the missing ciborium and hosts.

On August 17, a parishioner in the Church of St. Mary noticed a bright light coming from a collection box. When the box was opened a large number of hosts was discovered covered by dust and cobwebs. Counted and examined, these were determined to be the same hosts (348 whole hosts and 6 halves) that were stolen.

Basilica di San Francesco, Siena

On August 18, the archbishop of Siena, in a magnificent procession, carried the hosts (placed in a ciborium) back to the Church of St. Francis. A huge crowd of people from all walks of life and social classes followed the archbishop and the clergy of Siena along streets which had been decorated for the joyous occasion.

Normally the priests would have consumed these hosts but since the dust and dirt could not be entirely removed from them it was decided to let them decompose naturally, something that should have taken a few weeks. But the hosts did not decompose. They have remained as fresh and as pleasant smelling as on the day they were first baked.

Basilica di San Francesco, Siena

Over the years various examinations and tests have been performed that authenticate this miracle. The first official investigation took place in 1780. The hosts were examined and tasted, and confirmed to be fresh and incorrupt. Further investigations by special commissions were done in 1789, 1815 and 1850. During the 1789 examination the archbishop had several unconsecrated hosts placed in a sealed box which was then kept under lock in the chancery office. When it was opened, several years later, the hosts were found disfigured and extremely deteriorated.

The sacred hosts (sacre particole) of Siena

The most significant investigation took place in 1914 by a special commission composed of various Italian scientists and professors, as well as several theologians and Church officials. An acid and starch test was performed, and particles of the hosts were again tasted. It was determined that he hosts had been made of roughly sifted wheat flour and that they were perfectly preserved. The commission agreed that unleavened bread, prepared and kept under ordinary conditions (as was the case with these hosts) could not have remained intact for such a long time, and that no natural explanation could be found to explain the remarkable preservation of bread since 1730.

Eucharistic miracle of Siena

In 1922 cardinal Tacci, accompanied by the archbishop of Siena and four bishops, again examined the miraculous hosts. As in all previous examinations, they were found to be perfectly preserved and fresh tasting. Yet another investigation took place in 1950 when the hosts were transferred to a more elaborate container. By this time there were 223 hosts, the others having been distributed in communion on a few occasions and used in tasting during the various examinations.

On August 5, 1951, another sacrilegious theft took place in the Church of St. Francis involving the miraculous hosts. This time, however, the thief took only the precious container, leaving the hosts on the altar. The archbishop then placed the hosts in a silver ciborium, and sealed it. The following year the archbishop, in the presence of a number of witnesses, took the hosts out of the ciborium, counted and examined them, and had them photographed. They were then transferred into an elaborate monstrance specially constructed for this purpose.

The most recent examination of the sacred hosts was carried out in 2014. It included surface investigation under digital microscope, determination of the nucleotide adenosine triphosphate (ATP), culture tests, etc. It confirmed the hosts remain unchanged and free from any abnormalities or decay, contrary to the laws of nature.

Duomo (cathedral) of Siena

The 223 miraculous hosts are preserved to this day in the church (now Basilica) of Saint Francis. They are publicly displayed several times a year, including on the 17th day of each month (which was the day of the month that they were discovered by the parishioner). On the Feast of Corpus Christi the hosts are taken in procession through the streets of Siena.

While in Siena, make sure to also visit the beautiful cathedral (Duomo). For a handy list – with contacts, opening hours and main attractions – of all the churches and sanctuaries in Siena, see the link here.


St. Catherine of Siena

Sancta Catharina, ora pro nobis!

St. Catherine of Siena:

Life of Saint Catherine of Siena (Bl. Raymond of Capua) – pdf, text, epub, kindle format

Saint Catherine of Siena (A. Masseron) – pdf, text, epub, kindle format

St. Catherine of Siena and Her Times (M. Roberts) – pdf, text, epub, kindle format

The History of St. Catherine of Siena (A. T. Drane) – volume I, volume II

The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena – pdf, text, epub, kindle format; or audiobook here

St. Catherine’s tomb, S. Maria sopra Minerva, Rome


Letters of St. Catherine of Siena – pdf, text, epub, kindle format

Eucharistic Miracles:

The Eucharistic Miracles around the World (with photos) – pdf

Ancient Miracles of the Blessed Sacrament – audio





St. Bernardine of Siena, Apostle of Italy

L’Aquila: Saint Bernardine of Siena and Saint Celestine V

Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio (Piazzale di Collemaggio, L’Aquila; daily 9:30am-12:30pm/3:30pm-6pm)

Basilica di San Bernardino (Via San Bernardino, L’Aquila; for current opening hours see    

Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio, L’Aquila

The town of L’Aquila, in the heart of the Abruzzo region in central Italy, can easily be reached by bus (leaving every hour or so from Rome’s Tiburtina station; the journey takes approx. 90 minutes).

Body of Pope St. Celestine V

L’Aquila was heavily damaged in the 2009 earthquake which destroyed large parts of the historic center. The damage can be seen to this day, with many homes and precious historic buildings in ruin, entire areas cordoned off, covered in dust and left to their fate. L’Aquila’s most famous historic landmarks have, however, now been repaired and reopened, including the two basilicas housing the relics of St. Bernardine of Siena and Pope St. Celestine V.

Pope Celestine V‘s tomb can be visited in the 13th century Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio. Pietro da Morrone, taking the name of Celestine V, was crowned Pope in this basilica in 1294, and was later buried there as well.

L’Aquila is also the resting place of St. Bernardine of Siena, the famous Apostle of Italy and promoter of the devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. The Basilica of San Bernardino, built in the 15th century in honor of the great saint, and gravely damaged by the 2009 earthquake, was restored and reopened in 2015. Saint Bernardine’s incorrupt body, exposed for several years in a glass urn at a side altar, has recently been placed back in the newly repaired mausoleum.

Basilica di San Bernardino, L’Aquila


There is an extraordinary connection between St. Bernardine and the great saint, apostle and miracle worker St. Vincent Ferrer. When St. Vincent was preaching in Alessandria in Lombardy in 1408, he foretold the crowd that there was one among them, a young religious of St. Francis, to whom he would bequeath the evangelization of parts of Italy that he himself could not undertake. He also predicted that this successor of his would become famous throughout Italy and that his doctrine and example would produce great fruit in the people. Bernardine was then a young Franciscan friar, having made his profession in 1404.

Saint Bernardine of Siena (by El Greco)

From pious young man to Franciscan friar 

Bernardino Albizzeschi was born in Massa Marittima, some 30 miles (50km) from Siena, on September 8, 1380, to noble parents. His father held the post of the governor of Massa. Both his parents died within a few years and at the age of 6 Bernardine became an orphan. He was raised by his aunt and later, after her death, by other equally pious family members.

Young Bernardine excelled in learning. He was modest, humble, devout, and took great delight in prayer, visiting churches, serving at Mass, and hearing sermons, which he would repeat again to other boys. His mere presence was enough to inspire good behavior in others; the announcement “here comes Bernardine” would act as a complete check upon any unguarded conversation among his companions. He fasted rigorously from early age, and had a great love and devotion to Our Lady, whom he regarded as his Mother and special Patroness.

In 1397, after a course of civil and canon law, he joined the Confraternity of Our Lady in the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in order to serve the sick. Here he began with new vigor to tame his flesh by severe fasts, watchings, hair-shirts, disciplines, and other austerities; but he applied himself even more to the interior mortification of his will, which rendered him always sweet, patient and affable to everyone. He had served this hospital for four years when, in 1400, Siena was visited by the plague. 80,000 of its inhabitants died within four months, including almost all the priests, doctors, and servants in the hospital.

Palazzo Albizzeschi – St. Bernardine’s native home, Massa Maritima

Though this service meant an almost certain death, Bernardine’s example attracted other pious young men who joined him to tend to the sick and dying: “What is greater or more beautiful than in time of peace to attain to the martyr’s crown?”, were Bernardine’s words of encouragement to his companions. God preserved him from the contagion during these four months, at the end of which the pestilence ceased. Upon returning home Bernardine was so exhausted he became ill with fever. He was scarcely recovered when he returned to the works of charity, and with incredible patience and devotion attended, during fourteen months, a dying aunt.

After her death Bernardine decided to abandon the world and serve God alone. He took the habit of the Order of St. Francis (Order of Friars Minor) among the Fathers of the Strict Observance at Colombiere, a solitary convent near Siena. He made his profession on September 8, 1404. Having been born on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, out of devotion to her, he chose the same day for all the principal actions of his life: on it he took the religious habit, made his vows, said his first Mass, and preached his first sermon.

The young friar was noted by his rigorous austerity to himself and his meekness and charity to others. His superiors, perhaps foreseeing his future fame, allotted to him the humiliating office of begging for alms in his paternal city of Siena.

Saint Bernardine of Siena

This was a time when passions ruled, and sensuality and love of money had perverted men’s hearts. Bernardine and his companion were often disrespected and mocked as they went around soliciting alms. Many of his own family members were hostile, considering, in their worldly spirit, that he had spoiled the hopes of the family and dishonored them by choosing an “idle life” of a monk. Bernardine took the insults, contempt and humiliations in a true spirit of humility and self-denial, finding in them a joy and satisfaction.

These and all other virtues he learned in the living book of Christ crucified, which he studied night and day, often prostrate before a crucifix, from which he one day heard our Lord speak to him thus: “My son, behold me hanging upon a cross. If you love me, or desire to imitate me, be also fastened naked to your cross and follow me. Thus you will assuredly find me.” In the same school he learned an insatiable zeal for the salvation of souls, redeemed by the blood of Christ.

After Bernardine was ordained priest, his superiors commissioned him to preach as a missionary to the Italians who were falling away from their faith. Bernardine’s talent for preaching was hindered by a natural impediment: he suffered from hoarseness and could not make his voice heard. He asked God, by the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, that, should it be His will that he become a preacher, He may deliver him from this infirmity. As he thus prayed he saw a fiery globe descend from Heaven and touch his throat, which was instantly cured. From then on Bernardine’s voice was powerful and clear.

St. Bernardine preaching

The Apostle of Italy

His fame as a preacher started to spread in 1418, ten years after St. Vincent’s prediction and one year before the death of the great Spanish saint. Bernardine, who was to become famous as the Apostle of Italy, emulated St. Vincent in his mode of life – going from place to place to preach and convert sinners. Every day, after devoutly celebrating Mass, he preached to the crowds who gathered from neighboring towns and villages to hear him.

In his sermons, which often lasted three or four hours, he exhorted people to return to God and the practice of the faith, abandon their vices, and do penance in order that Divine anger might be appeased.

The people at the time had strayed from the faith; magic and sacrileges abounded, Mass on Sundays and feast days was rarely attended, confession became a once-a-year and often only a death-bed issue. Bernardine labored to inculcate in souls a sincere contempt for the vanity of the world and an ardent love of our blessed Redeemer. He attacked immorality, blasphemy, usury, gambling, luxury in women’s dress, as well as the enmity produced by political factions.

Saint Bernardine

When other priests consulted him for advice, Bernardine gave them a simple rule: “In all your actions, seek in the first place the kingdom of God and His glory. Direct all you do purely to His honor. Persevere in brotherly charity, and practice first all that you desire to teach others. By this means the Holy Spirit will be your master, and will give you such wisdom and such a tongue that no adversary will be able to stand against you.”

St. Bernardine, the greatest preacher of his time, played a great part in the religious revival of the early fifteenth century. For more than 30 years he preached all over Italy, journeying on foot, attracting crowds of 30,000, following St. Francis of Assisi’s admonition to preach about “vice and virtue, punishment and glory.” Nothing was more spoken of in Italy than the wonderful fruits of his sermons: miraculous conversions, restitutions of ill-gotten goods, reparations of injuries, and heroic examples of virtue.

Fight against sin and moral corruption

Bernardine’s uncompromising stance against vice couldn’t fail to make enemies. When he was preaching in Milan, the Duke Visconti, taking offense at certain things he had said in his sermons, threatened the saint with death if he should speak any more on such subjects. Bernardine replied that no greater happiness could befall him than to die for the truth.

St. Bernardine of Siena (by Jacopo Bellini)

The Duke then tried to entrap Bernardine by sending him 500 florins with the request that he spend them on himself. The saint refused but the Duke’s servant kept insisting; thus Bernardine took the money and went, in the presence of said servant, to the prison where he used the money to rescue those detained for debt owed to usurers. Two prisoners were left, for the money did not suffice to rescue them. Bernardine promised them to obtain sufficient money to release them, or else to offer himself as a prisoner that they may be freed. The Duke, hearing how the saint spent his money, changed his attitude toward Bernardine and willingly paid the debt of the remaining prisoners.

St. Bernardine frequently preached against the evil of usury which, practiced mostly by Jews, was destroying the lives of many Christians (as well as concentrating all the money of a city into a few hands). He urged rulers and city executives to take stringent steps against everyone involved in the business of usury. [St. Bernardine was one of the first theologians to write an entire work devoted to Scholastic economics. His book, On Contracts and Usury, dealt with the justification of private property, the function of the business entrepreneur, the ethics of trade, the determination of value and price, and the issue of usury.] The saint was equally fearless and unapologetic at speaking out and condemning others who were responsible for the moral corruption of his time (including sodomites, whom he called to be isolated or eliminated from the community).

St. Bernardine preaching

Most Italian cities at the time were split between rival and warring political factions – most notably the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Bernardine’s efforts to make peace were often crowned with success. Preaching in Perugia – one of the cities most divided by the hatred – he exhorted people to keep peace among themselves. All who were present promised to do so except one young nobleman with his followers. The saint admonished him publicly, warning him that if he didn’t promise to keep peace he would not enter his house alive. The nobleman, having mocked the prophetic words, fell dead just as he was about to enter his house.

St. Bernardine always spoke plainly, without regard for human respect, in order to produce fear of God in the hearts of wicked and depraved men. At one occasion he announced to inhabitants of a town that he would show them the devil. When the multitude gathered in expectant awe, he said, “Whereas I promised to show you one devil I will show you many. Look you one at another, and thus you will see devils, for you yourself are devils, doing his work.”

St. Bernardine (Duomo, Siena)

The holy friar often preached against vanity, excess of luxury, and immodesty in women’s dress, and more generally against the fatal desire to shine in the world. He attacked the blindness of parents who in their worldliness seek brilliant marriages for their daughters at all cost; mothers who dress and paint their daughters so that all may look upon them, fathers who only care to marry their daughters to rich men instead of honest and pious ones. He warned parents that they are thus hastening to eternal damnation and taking their daughters with them.

He also denounced the deceit performed by women who resort to artificial means to make themselves appear something they aren’t. Elsewhere he condemned the excessive finery as unfitting a Christian woman, contrasting the adornments and jewels with which she graces her head to the crown of thorns that covered Christ’s Head, the paint (make-up) on her face to the spittle and blood that disfigured His Divine Face, and her eyes on fire with luxury and concupiscence to His Eyes obscured by a most bitter death.

As a result of the saint’s sermons and exhortations, in town after town such adornments and articles of finery were brought to the “bonfire of vanities” by their repentant owners. Although vanity and vice were ripe, people in Bernardine’s times were still rather ashamed of their sins than of penance.

Devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus 

St. Bernardine had a great devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. He devised a symbol – IHS, the first three letters of the name of Jesus in Greek, written on a blazing sun. He had it engraved, in letters of gold, on a wooden tablet, and used to hold it up to the people after his sermons. Bernardine promoted the devotion to the Name of Jesus as a simple and effective means of recalling God’s love at all times. The devotion spread, and the symbol began to appear in churches, homes and public buildings all across the country.

St. Bernardine’s monogram (Basilica di S. Bernardino, L’Aquila)

Gambling, a widespread vice, was another target of the saint’s sermons. In Bologna, where the passion for card-playing was rife, Bernardine persuaded the ringleaders to bring him their cards so that he may burn them. As a result a young man who was supporting his large family by painting cards was deprived of his livelihood. When he came to expose his distress to Bernardine, the saint, telling him he would give him a more fitting subject to paint, taught him to draw a sun bearing in its center the Holy Name of Jesus. Bernardine’s promise, that he would not lose by this new trade, came true: so great was the devotion to the Holy Name enkindled by his preaching, that everyone wished to possess a tablet with the life-giving name, and the former card-painter became a prosperous man.

Saint Bernardine of Siena

In 1427 St. Bernardine was denounced (by a Dominican friar critical of the saint and his following) as an innovator and heretic encouraging idolatry by exposing the Holy Name for adoration. As a result he was summoned to Rome to answer the accusation. Pope Martin V forbade him to use the tablets with the Holy Name, and the saint submitted in perfect obedience. That hasn’t stopped the persecution, and Bernardine, who had spent twenty years tirelessly evangelizing Italy, was to be submitted to a rigorous trial and punished unless the charge against him could be fully disproved. Amidst all this contempt, calumny and threats, St. Bernardine remained perfectly calm. “Leave God to act” and “God has a care of these things” were his words while he patiently awaited the decision on whether he would be permitted to resume his ministry or be branded as a dangerous innovator or even heretic.

Another great saint, like Bernardine a friar of the Observant Franciscans, upon learning of the impending trial, set out speedily from Naples to Rome to defend Bernardine. It was St. John Capistran, who became famous throughout Europe for his eloquence and preaching. St. John entered Rome carrying the banner of the Holy Name through its streets and preaching it to the multitudes. When, a few days later, Bernardine’s trial took place, it was satisfactorily proved that the spirit of jealousy and revenge, rather than zeal for the truth, were behind the denunciation. The Pope approved the veneration of the Holy Name, and Bernardine’s banner with the initials IHS written on a sun was solemnly carried through the streets. St. Bernardine was also invited to preach in Rome, which he did with great success during eighty days.

Miracle of St. Bernardine

The attempt to defame the preacher of the Holy Name was renewed once more in 1432, under the pontificate of Eugene IV. The saint was again cited to Rome, but the Pope understood the machinations of the accusers and in a Papal Bull not only cleared St. Bernardine from their calumnies but extolled him as God’s faithful servant.

Despite his fame and the honors with which he was received in every city he entered, St. Bernardine remained humble in his heart. On several occasions he was offered a bishopric, including those of Siena, Ferrara and Urbino, but refused each time saying he’d rather live only five days and escape such honor. In his wisdom and humility he said that the most eminent positions were also the most perilous (for one’s salvation) and the most to be despised, and that for his part he would not exchange the simple habit of St. Francis for any high place whatsoever, not even for the Papacy.


St. Bernardine was reputed to have worked many miracles even during his life.

Funeral of St. Bernardine (by Pinturicchio)

In 1419, on his way to Mantua where he was to preach, Bernardine had to traverse a river. Lacking money to pay the ferryman, the saint and his companion promised to offer prayers for the man in return for free passage. Upon the ferryman’s refusal, Bernardine asked his companion whether he had confidence in God and sufficient faith to do as he shall see him to. Receiving an affirmative answer, the saint, exclaiming “then, in the virtue of the most sweet Name of Jesus, Whom the elements obey, follow me”, stretched his cloak over the waters, and they both walked across the river as if they had been on dry land. Seeing this great miracle, the ferryman, with a contrite heart, begged the saint’s forgiveness.

In the course of the same journey Bernardine, invoking the Holy Name of Jesus, raised to life a slayed man. This was one of four recorded cases of him raising dead persons to life.

One day a leper begged Bernardine for some shoes to ease his tormented feet. Not having anything else to give as alms, the saint took off his own sandals and gave them to the man. The leper put them on and went his way but the sandals, consecrated by so many steps in the work of saving souls for God, proved stronger than the disease, and the man found himself perfectly cured.

In Spoleto a woman who had been paralyzed for six years was cured by St. Bernardine at the invocation of the Holy Name. In Rieti he instantly cured a young girl whose disease doctors had declared to be absolutely hopeless.

St. Bernardine’s mausoleum, Basilica di S. Bernardino, L’Aquila

Death and canonization

In 1438 St. Bernardine was appointed vicar-general for the Strict Observance (one of the two branches of the Franciscans). Himself and St. John Capistran (who succeeded him as vicar) were the two olive trees of the Reform which repaired the falling house of St. Francis. At the time of Bernardine’s admission to the Order there were only 130 Observant friars in Italy; at his death they numbered over 4000. He also founded, or reformed, at least three hundred convents.

After five years he obtained a discharge from his office, and returned to preaching in northern and central Italy. In 1444, towards the end of his life, he preached in his native Massa. While he was on the way to Aquila, overcome with fatigue and fever, Bernardine had a vision of St. Peter Celestine (Pope Celestine V), who foretold him that they should share the patronage of the city [L’Aquila]. When he reached the city he was dying. The Fathers of the Observance had no house in Aquila, so the saint was received in the monastery of the Conventuals.

Aquila was in the midst of a popular insurrection against the nobility, and St. Bernardine, no longer able to physically labor for the peace, offered up his life to God for peace, for the prevention of scandals and sins resulting from civil strife, and for the greater glory of God. He then called his confessor, received the last sacraments, and asked to be placed upon ashes on the floor, where he expired on May 20, 1444.

Incorrupt body of St. Bernardine exposed at the Basilica, L’Aquila

Countless miracles are recorded occurring after the saint’s death. His body was exposed uncovered in the Franciscan church for 26 days, and remained untouched by any corruption, diffusing a sweet fragrance.

Yet peace had not come upon Aquila yet. Indeed the conflict escalated and the different factions had recourse to arms. Suddenly a voice was heard in the air, saying: “Put down your arms: if you wish for blood, you will find wherewith to quench your thirst in the convent of St. Francis.” The Bishop, mindful of the many miracles recently worked by St. Bernardine, led the warring parties to the church, and there indeed they found streams of blood flowing from the dead saint’s nostrils. At the sight of this miracle the combatants forgot their enmity and made peace. Bernardine’s last offering and prayer were accepted by God.

Miracles attributed to Bernardine continued multiplying. He was canonized by Pope Nicholas V in 1450, only six years after his death.

St. Bernardine’s body, preserved incorrupt to this very day, is kept in the Basilica di San Bernardino in L’Aquila.

His feast day is May 20.

Sancte Bernardine, ora pro nobis!

Basilica di San Bernardino, L’Aquila


St. Bernardine of Siena:

Three Catholic Reformers of the Fifteenth Century: St. Vincent Ferrer, St. Bernardine of Siena, St. John Capistran (M. H. Allies) – pdf, text, kindle format

The Life of St. Bernardine of Siena (Fr. Amadio M. da Venezia) – pdf, text, kindle format

St. Bernardine of Siena (P. Thureau-Dangin) – pdf, text, kindle format

Saint Bernardine of Siena: Sermons – pdf, text, epub, kindle format

St. Peter Celestine (Pope Celestine V):

Saint Celestine V: The Hermit Who Became Pope – audiobook; or also here





St. Pius V – The Glory of the Church and Defender of Europe against the Turks


Bosco Marengo and Rome: Saint Pius V

Casa Natale di S. Pio V (Bosco Marengo; for guided visits;

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (Piazza S. Maria Maggiore 42, Rome; Mon-Sat 7am-7pm, Sun 9:30am-12:30pm; website)

Native home of St. Pius V,  Bosco

Bosco Marengo, the native village of St. Pius V, is situated approximately 10 km from the town of Alessandria, and 82 km from Milan. There are several daily trains from the Milano Centrale station to Bosco Marengo via Alessandria. (The journey from Milan to Alessandria takes about 1h 20min; the second train, leaving from Alessandria, reaches Frugarolo-Bosco Marengo in about 7 minutes.) You could even fit in Pavia, the final resting place of St. Augustine, in the same day trip. Bosco can also easily be reached by train from Turin or Genoa.

The native home of the great Pope can still be seen in Bosco Marengo. If you are interested in visiting, contact the very friendly locals from the Association of the Friends of Santa Croce (email: or tel:(+39) 0131-299342, cell: (+39) 331-4434961).

Having scheduled my visit by emailing them, they’ve picked me up at the local train station of Frugarolo-Bosco Marengo, and graciously showed me all the places of interest in Bosco: the native home of St. Pius V; the church San Pietro al Bosco where one can still see the original baptismal font where Antonio Ghislieri, future Pope Pius V, was baptized in 1504; the former Dominican convent of Santa Croce which he built, etc.

Native home of St. Pius V, Bosco Marengo

There are many other locations in Italy connected to St. Pius V. The most important is the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome which houses his tomb (in the Sistine chapel, in the right transept). See photos towards the end of this post. (The Basilica is also home to the Holy Crib relic and the famous icon of the Blessed Virgin known as Salus Populi Romani.)

In the Dominican convent and Basilica of Santa Sabina, on the Aventine Hill in Rome (Piazza Pietro D’Illiria 1, Rome; 7:30am-12:30pm, 3:30-5:30pm) one can see the former cell of St. Pius V, with a number of paintings showing famous scenes from his life, as well as the convent museum preserving several relics of the saint. Also in Rome, in the Dominican convent and Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva (Piazza della Minerva 42, Rome; is a chapel of St. Pius V with paintings of various episodes from his life. (The same basilica also houses the tombs of St. Catherine of Siena, Fra Angelico, and Pope Paul IV.)


The Church was in deplorable condition when Pope St. Pius V was elected to the throne of Peter in 1566. It was a time of moral laxity and spiritual confusion. Concessions to heretics and lukewarmness of the Catholic authorities had allowed Protestantism to spread in Europe. At the same time Christendom was in imminent and deadly danger from the Ottoman Turks who were already dominating the Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Balkans.

The Church was in desperate need of a holy, zealous, uncompromising and fearless Pope. It got him in St. Pius V – one of the greatest Pontiffs of all times – who in his short but glorious six year reign reformed discipline and morality of the Catholics, wiped out heresy in Italy, implemented the decrees of the Council of Trent, issued the Catechism, promulgated the Roman Missal, excommunicated Elizabeth I, and saved Europe from the Mohammedan menace.

Pope Saint Pius V

From shepherd boy to Dominican friar

Antonio Michele Ghislieri was born and baptized on January 17, 1504, in the little village of Bosco, near Alessandria. He was baptized with the name Anthony but later took the name of Michael in honor of the Archangel St. Michael whom he chose as his patron. His pious parents, though poor, were of ancient and noble family.

Little Anthony loved to be alone. His greatest delight was to be in church, praying the Rosary and hearing Mass daily. His desire was to become a religious but his parents were too poor to afford him the studies. One day, as he was tending sheep, he saw two Dominican friars passing by. A conversation ensued and the friars, touched by the boy’s simplicity, candor, intelligence, and his angelic aspect, offered to take him with them to their convent, if he could get his parents’ consent. Thus it was that 14 year old Anthony entered the Dominican monastery at Voghera. [Other sources state that a well-off neighbor paid for him to study with the Dominicans.] He made remarkable progress in his studies and after two years was allowed to take the habit of St. Dominic. The following year (1521) he made his solemn profession in the convent of Vigevano. It was on this occasion that he assumed the name Michael, becoming Brother Michael of Alessandria.

San Pietro al Bosco church, Bosco Marengo

His superiors sent him to the University of Bologna to take his degree in theology and philosophy. At just 20 years old he was appointed professor of philosophy, and then theology, which he continued to teach for 16 years. Ordained to the priesthood in 1528, he went to his native Bosco to celebrate his first Mass. Upon arrival he found the village burnt down, his home half destroyed and the parish church desecrated by the French imperial troops. His parents took refuge in nearby Sezze, which is where he said his first Mass.

Fr. Michael spent the next 15 years in various monasteries of his Order, and was elected prior four times. His rule was severe but his strictness was coupled with kindness. To his religious he preached rather by example than by word, by his great piety, his scrupulous and most exact observance of the Rule, his severe mortifications and rigorous fasting. His days were spent working for souls, and the greater part of the nights in prayer. Reading and study were his favorite recreations. Daily he read the lives of the saints, and was fond of studying the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, to whom he was devoted, as well as those of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.

Baptismal font of St. Pius V, S. Pietro church

The saintly prior never used dispensations from the Rule usually granted to those preaching and teaching, nor did he easily grant them to others. No one would be allowed to absent himself from the Divine Office, or to go out of the convent without some urgent necessity. For, as he explained: “As salt dissolves when it is thrown into water and becomes indistinguishable from it, thus the religious (by the grace of God the salt of the earth) assimilates with fatal eagerness the maxims and spirit of the world, when he begins to spend his time in a number of unnecessary visits.” When he did have to leave the monastery on some priestly duty, he always journeyed on foot, even when he went to preach in distant towns.

Inquisitor, defender of the Faith

At that time war and discord were everywhere, and false teachings were spreading throughout many parts of Europe. The Calvinist and Lutheran heresy was gradually seeping from Switzerland and Germany into northern Italy. The Turkish invasion was also a constant danger, especially in southern Europe.

In 1542 Pope Paul III reconstituted the Roman Inquisition in order to stop the influx of heresy. When the Holy Office requested that the Dominicans provide the best man they had to serve as Inquisitor at the important outpost of Como, the Provincial nominated Father Michael Ghislieri who by then was already known for his holiness, firm doctrine, and great zeal for the salvation of souls.

Santa Croce, Bosco Marengo

Thus in 1543 the future Pope Pius V became Inquisitor at Como and in the heresy-infected Swiss Grisons. One of his main concerns was to stop the traffic of heretical books from Switzerland to Italy. For six years he spent days and nights traveling through each town and village, often in danger of assassination (he escaped many ambushes that were laid for him), combating the sale and publication of heretical and immoral texts, doing his best to lead heretics back to the Faith, and warning the simple folk against the danger to their souls. Fr. Ghislieri, having before his eyes only the honor of God and the good of souls, was fearless; indeed he was fully prepared to lay down his life for the Faith, as St. Peter Martyr (another Dominican Inquisitor, murdered by heretics) had done. Neither flattery, nor threats, nor bribes had any influence on him.

[Modern critics of the Inquisition, aside of not believing in what the Faith teaches us about the salvation and damnation of souls – for if they believed, they would recognize and understand the need to combat heresy which leads souls to hell – completely disregard the customs and laws of the 16th century.

What is today called “religious liberty” – i.e. the supposed right of everyone not only to privately believe but also to preach and teach his own opinions about Revealed Truth, however false or repugnant those opinions may be to the doctrines of the Church – was utterly unknown in the 16th century. There was only one Church throughout Christendom, with the Pope at its head. The Church was acknowledged by all as a spiritual kingdom founded by Christ, teaching and ruling by His authority; all men considered it the duty, not only of the Church but also of the secular government, to prevent heresy from being preached or disseminated by books. As only one Church and one revealed doctrine was accepted and recognized, it was considered high treason against God and the authority of the State to teach and spread false doctrine. (So too everyone knew the inevitable consequences of certain acts, such as the penalties for heresy. And not just heresy; for instance, the civil penalty for blasphemy in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, England, etc, was death.)

The Inquisition was governed by men of great learning, justice and prudence, even saints in many cases. It was perhaps the first judicial institution to provide ample safeguards for the rights of the accused. Those accused of heresy were given an extensive trial, with every chance to repent. If they continued recalcitrant they were handed over to the State which imposed the penalty for violation of the civil laws. It’s also important to note that while the Inquisition only used torture in relatively rare cases and with strictly regulated precautions, all civil governments throughout the world used it, ever since the pagan times, and without precautions. In those times, free from the sentimental humanitarianism of our age, it was understood by all what the consequences of certain crimes were.]

St. Pius V performing an exorcism

Fr. Ghislieri was uncompromising with those involved in spreading heresy, and didn’t hesitate to punish and excommunicate them, even when they were wealthy, noble or holding prominent positions and offices – whether civil or ecclesiastical (as was the case of the bishop of Bergamo who had secretly become a Lutheran). He was threatened with death on many occasions, and was even stoned in the streets of Como after disrupting the commerce of heretical books run by a wealthy and influential local merchant.

Always resigned to the will of God, the Inquisitor was traveling on foot, alone and armed only with his staff and breviary. On one of his missions in the Swiss Grisons, when he had to pass through a district where he was particularly disliked, he was advised to lay aside his habit and travel in disguise. He refused, saying: “When I accepted the office of Inquisitor I also accepted almost certain death. For what more glorious reason could I die than because I wear the white habit of St. Dominic?” Many were won over by his humility, simplicity and purity of motive – his ardent love of God and zeal for the salvation of souls.

In 1551 Michael Ghislieri was appointed by Pope Julius III Commissionary-General of the Inquisition. Based in Rome, one of his daily duties was to visit in prison those accused of heresy. He went among them as a true father, and never spared any effort to gain them for the Faith. Thanks to his charity, patience and holiness he succeeded in making many – though not all – renounce their error and return to the Faith.

One of his most famous cases was that of Sixtus of Siena – a young Jew who had become a Catholic and a Franciscan friar. He became a popular preacher but was soon influenced by heretical doctrines. Arrested and imprisoned, he abjured his heresy, was released and returned to his Order. After beginning to preach again he relapsed into heresy, and was convicted. The penalty for a relapsed heretic was death by fire, so there was no hope. Father Michael visited him in prison every day and spoke to him kindly as a friend, while also praying, fasting and offering daily Mass for his conversion. Eventually Sixtus became conscious of the enormity of his sin and, knowing he had disgraced his Order, wanted to expiate his shame by death. The Inquisitor, deeply touched by his repentance and misery, suggested that he might better expiate his guilt by living a life of penance. Ghislieri then went to the Pope and begged and obtained pardon for the young friar. Sixtus made abjuration of his heresy, was pardoned and released, and admitted (by the Inquisitor himself) into the Dominican Order. Sixtus of Siena went on to become one of the greatest Scripture scholars of his century, and was never tired of saying that he owed both his temporal and eternal salvation to Michael Ghislieri.

Cardinal of God

In 1555 Cardinal Carafa, who had a deep affection and admiration for the saintly Dominican, was elected Pope under the name Paul IV. The new Pope, knowing Fr. Michael’s desire to remain a simple religious, commanded him, by holy obedience, to accept whatever office or dignity might be laid upon him, for the good of the Church. The following year Michael Ghislieri was consecrated Bishop of Nepi and Sutri, near Rome. In 1557 Paul IV made him Cardinal, under the title of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. (He would be known as Cardinal Alessandrino, after the city nearest to his place of birth.)

Paul IV had great esteem for his friend who was not only holy, wise and learned but also utterly free from ambition, inspired solely by the desire to serve God and His Church. Cardinal Alessandrino’s advice, never given unasked, was always accepted by the Pope. In 1558 Paul IV conferred upon him a unique office which he would be the first and last to hold. He became the Grand Inquisitor of all Christendom; his authority was final and without appeal. (After his resignation no one else was trusted with so important an office, and the authority reverted again to the cardinals of the Holy Office, for “there were not two Cardinal Alessandrinos.”)

The saint’s life continued as austere as it had ever been. Except on state occasions, when obliged to put on his cardinal’s robes, he wore the rough white habit of a simple Dominican friar. His meals (never more than two daily), his rule of life, his fasts, penances and prayers – all remained unaltered. His usual food was bread and boiled herbs (chicory). About this time he started to be plagued by a serious internal complaint causing him severe and often excruciating pain, which was to last as long as he lived.

He employed as few servants as possible, and chose them scrupulously, admitting only those of most exemplary piety. He gave them a rule of life and treated them as his children rather than servants. The simple and austere life of Cardinal Alessandrino was in sharp contrast to the princely style in which most cardinals then lived. Yet his simplicity and humility won the respect and even affection of his fellow cardinals, many of whom would come to imitate his example. He never allowed any abuse of his new dignity. To requests for advancement coming from relatives he turned a deaf ear, saying that he would never enrich his kinsfolk with the goods of the Church, and advising them to care about increasing in virtue rather than wealth.

In 1559 Paul IV died and Giovanni Angelo Medici was elected Pope, taking the name of Pius IV. The friends and favorites of the late Pontiff fell in disfavor, and Cardinal Alessandrino was appointed bishop of the distant diocese of Mondovi. He found his new diocese in a deplorable state, owing to lax and non-resident bishops, and set to restore purity of faith and discipline, exhorting priests and religious to live holy and blameless lives. He also paid a visit to Bosco, his native village, where he laid the foundation for a large Dominican convent (Santa Croce).

Pope Saint Pius V

In 1560 he was summoned back to Rome where Pius IV was anxious to complete and put in practice the decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Yet Cardinal Alessandrino, with his unflinching zeal and disregard for human respect, soon came into collision with Pius IV when the latter announced his intention to promote a 13 year old relative to the dignity of cardinal. When the German Emperor Maximilian II requested the Pope to allow priests to marry, under the pretext that this might facilitate the return of heretics to the Faith, it was Cardinal Ghislieri who spoke most vigorously against the abolition of the holy and ancient canon of celibacy. The saint’s permanence in Rome finally became untenable when he once again opposed the Pope, pointing out that Pius IV’s plan to settle a pension upon his favorite nephew out of the funds of the Sacred College would be a misuse of Church property. However, before the good Cardinal could return to Mondovi Pius IV fell ill and died.

Shepherd of Christendom

The ensuing conclave had dragged on for over three weeks when Cardinal Borromeo, having despite his young age the most influence in the Sacred College, convinced the other cardinals to choose Cardinal Alessandrino who, in his view, “would govern the Church gloriously.” His election came as a great surprise for he had not campaigned for it, had neither court nor wealth, entered into no pacts, made no promises, and had no Catholic nation behind him (in fact when the Emperor Maximilian heard that a monk had been elected he made fun of him). The new Pope, instead of taking the name Paul, after his friend and protector Paul IV, out of regard for Charles Cardinal Borromeo chose the name of the latter’s uncle, Pius – his first act of self-abnegation as Pontiff. He was crowned in St. Peter’s Basilica on January 17, 1566, on his 62nd birthday.

Many Romans – especially the lax, the sinful, and the adherents of the new heretical sects – were worried that such a strict and austere man had been elected. Thus it was that the saint remarked that he hoped to govern in such a way that the grief felt at his death would be greater than the grief felt at his election.

Pius V had a three-fold labor to perform: to fight for the purification of the Church, to keep Europe Catholic and united against the Turks, and to help save men’s souls. To these ends he devoted all his strength, daily crucifying his frail body.

The reforms began from the very day of his coronation. Instead of spending money on the habitual celebrations and banquets he distributed it among the poorest families and poor convents. One of his first acts was to dismiss the Papal court jester. St. Pius V started with a reform at home, first in his own household, making it a model of virtue, then among his cardinals whom he exhorted to moderation and holiness, making it clear that the luxurious habits of princely living which had been encouraged by the Renaissance Popes would find no favor with him: “You are the light of the world, the salt of the earth! Enlighten the people by the purity of’ your lives, by the brilliance of your holiness! God does not ask from you merely ordinary virtue, but downright perfection!”

Santa Sabina, Rome

Soon after his election Pius V set out to restore order and beauty to Rome. He repaired sacred buildings, aqueducts and the city’s fortifications, set up free schools, provided housing for beggars and assigned priests to instruct them in Christian faith and morals. He supervised the appointment of magistrates and ensured they administered justice fairly. Imprisonment for debt was forbidden. Seeing the number of unemployed in Rome, the saint started public works for their benefit. Nor did he spare any effort and expense to ransom Christian slaves from the Turks. (Well over a million of European Christians were captured and taken as slaves by the Mohammedans in the 16-17th cent.)

While the Pope himself continued to live the austere and penitential life of a poor Dominican friar, his generosity to the poor and suffering was legendary, whether they be impoverished priests, the poor families of Rome, or the exiled English Catholics who were flocking to the Eternal City. In 1566, when Rome was ravaged by plague and famine, Pius V organized a distribution of money, food (having bought wheat from Sicily at his own expense), medicine and clothing, and paid for a large staff of doctors to attend the sick. He appointed priests to hear confessions of the dying and to bury the dead, and often went himself to comfort the sick and prepare them for death.

From the very beginning of his Pontificate St. Pius V strove to improve public morals, banishing from Rome men and women of bad character, as well as Jewish usurers. Moral offenses were punished severely. Prostitutes were expelled from Rome and the Papal States, unless they agreed to marry or enter a convent. Sodomy was punished with death. (Note also St. Pius’ Constitution Horrendum Illud Scelus on priests guilty of this crime.)

Santa Sabina (former cell of Pius V)

The holy Pope zealously watched over the sanctity of family life. He acted against adulterers who, without distinction of status and rank, were publicly whipped, imprisoned and, if not corrected, banished from the city. He also forbade the employment of young girls as servants, to safeguard their virtue and purity. Strict regulations were imposed upon taverns and similar establishments. The Papal States were also swiftly freed from the plague of bandits and robbers who were executed whenever they were seized.

A Bull was issued against irreverence in churches, demanding piety, silence, and modesty in dress. Strolling, chatting, laughing and whispering in church were forbidden as offending God in the Blessed Sacrament. Disturbance of divine worship, blasphemy, and profanation of Sundays and Holy Days carried drastic penalties.

In less than a year the city changed so completely that it was remarked that the Pope, with his strict regime, had turned Rome into a monastery. A German nobleman, writing of the astonishing piety and penitence witnessed among the Roman population, concluded: “…But nothing can astonish me under such a Pope. His fasts, his humility, his innocence, his holiness, his zeal for the faith, shine so brilliantly that he seems a second St. Leo, or St. Gregory the Great… I do not hesitate to say that had Calvin himself been raised from the tomb on Easter Day, and seen this holy Pope… in spite of himself he would have recognized and venerated the true representative of Jesus Christ!” The people of Rome, impressed by his goodness and holiness, soon began to love him as a father. The Spanish ambassador stated that for three hundred years the Church had not had a better head, adding: “This Pope is a saint.”

Perhaps most importantly, St. Pius V set out to reform the discipline among the clergy. All bishops were ordered to return to their sees, to live there, and to become true fathers of their people. He trained young and deserving priests for the office of bishop, and appointed them all over the world. Seminaries were established everywhere. To all clergy he upheld the standard of perfection. All priests who heard confessions were examined to ensure their doctrinal and moral soundness. The decrees of Trent were to be rigorously observed by all priests and religious. Simony was punished severely. Strict regulations were made for all religious houses and enclosure was imposed upon convents (in accordance with the Council of Trent). Divine Office had to be recited in every church.

Bull Quo Primum Tempore, 1570

Pius V’s chief concern was the salvation of souls, and to this he subordinated all other considerations, both at home and abroad. He was a great supporter of the missions, especially in South America and the Indies. Knowing that the lack of instruction in the Faith was the principal cause of the disorders afflicting the Church, he ordered catechism classes to be taught to children on Sundays, and exhorted all bishops to do likewise in their dioceses. He made all Jews listen to sermons preached by Dominican priests, and converted many to the Faith. Whenever possible he liked to baptize them by his own hand. One of them was the distinguished rabbi of Rome, Elias, who, along with his three sons, was baptized by the Pope in the presence of a great multitude. His conversion was followed by that of many others.

In 1566 the Catechism of the Council of Trent (the Roman Catechism) was published under St. Pius’ direction. He also had it translated into French, Italian, German and Polish. Two years later came the new edition of the Breviary, and in 1570 the revised Roman Missal.

In 1570 St. Pius V, in the Bull Quo Primum Tempore, promulgated the Roman Rite (Tridentine Mass) to be celebrated throughout the Latin Rite of the Church in perpetuity. Pius V did not introduce a new rite of Mass. Rather, in accordance with the decree of the Council of Trent calling for a uniform Missal to be used by all Latin Rite Catholics, he took the Missal that had been in use in Rome and many other places – i.e. the rite of Mass that all the Popes had used and that dates back to the Apostolic Tradition – and, cleaning it of certain innovations that had crept in over the centuries, extended it to the whole Church (of the Latin Rite). An exception from the obligatory use of the Roman Missal was permitted for rites which, approved by the Apostolic See, had been in continual use for at least 200 years. (Thus the Benedictines, Carthusians, Cistercians, Carmelites, and Dominicans were allowed to keep their ancient rites and breviary, and the Ambrosian rite of Milan and the Mozarabic rite of Toledo were also retained.)

St. Pius V celebrating Mass

In a reform of Church music, which had become almost operatic in its extravagantly secular character, the old Gregorian plain-chant was restored to its splendid simplicity. (St. Pius V appointed Palestrina master of the Papal chapel and choir.)

For Pius V questions of Faith took precedence over any other business. Knowing that heresy kills the soul, the saint, who had spent a good part of his life as a Dominican friar and Inquisitor trying to extirpate it, continued the good fight as the Father of Christendom, in particular against the Lutherans, Calvinists and Huguenots. England, Scandinavia, Switzerland and parts of Germany had already collapsed to heresy. When France was plagued by continual rebellion, violence, outrages and sacrileges committed by the Protestant Huguenots, it was St. Pius V who sent both money and soldiers to defend the eldest daughter of the Church, thus safeguarding her from falling to the heretics.

In 1570 St. Pius V issued a Bull of Excommunication and Deposition against Elizabeth I of England. Both his predecessors and St. Pius V had tried every means in their power to convince Elizabeth to return to the Faith and Church, yet all the appeals, entreaties, arguments and prayers had been in vain. In the end the only course of action left was for the Pope to excommunicate the apostate Queen – i.e. to formally declare her to be outside of the Catholic Church, thus absolving her subjects from their allegiance (her commands could not bound in conscience those over whom she no longer had any right to rule). [This was an ancient and universally recognized principle of medieval Christian States.]

[Elizabeth had been crowned by a Catholic prelate, with Catholic rites, and had taken the oath of Catholic sovereigns, pledging to govern as a Catholic Queen and to protect and defend the Church, the bishops, and their canonical privileges. Shortly thereafter she repudiated Papal authority, made herself head of the Church of England, prohibited the Mass, imprisoned and exiled Catholic prelates. Catholics were persecuted and killed, priests were drawn, hanged and quartered. Protestantism became the state religion of England, and was forced upon the population by the rope and knife. After the Northern rising in defense of the true Faith (and for the release of Mary Stuart, the Catholic Queen of Scotland imprisoned by Elizabeth) was defeated, and thousands of Catholics were tortured and butchered, St. Pius V hesitated no longer and signed the Bull of Excommunication.]

Battle of Lepanto (October 7, 1571)

Defender of Christendom

The Ottoman Turks had been the scourge of Europe for four long centuries. Under Suleiman II, the Magnificent (1520-66), Turkish dominions in Asia, Africa and Europe had increased alarmingly. Belgrade fell to the Turks in 1521, Rhodes the next year. Then the heart of Hungary became a Turkish province, and Vienna was besieged. Countless Christian slaves had been captured. Hundreds of thousands of Christians had been tortured and slain.

Suleiman’s first check was in 1565 at Malta. The Grand Master of the Knights of St. John, Jean de Valette, courageously defended the besieged island with his 500 knights and a few thousand Maltese men against an Ottoman army of over 40,000. The Turks were temporarily driven away but the defenders of Malta, having neither money nor men to repair the ruined defenses, decided to abandon the island. St. Pius V commanded them to remain at this outpost of Christendom, and sent Valette the money necessary for the rebuilding of the fortifications, thus saving Malta.

Suleiman then attacked the commercially important island of Chios, sacked the city and massacred the entire population. He also organized an army of some 100,000 men to march through Hungary toward Vienna, though the campaign ended at the Siege of Szigetvár. (Szigetvár eventually fell after heroic defense by Count Miklós Zrínyi and his men, outnumbered by the Turks fifty to one. To the last man the Hungarian knights died defending Christian Europe; all civilians who had survived the siege were slaughtered by the Turks.) St. Pius V ordered the Forty Hours devotion in Rome, public prayers, and three great processions in which he himself took part. On the day of the third procession Suleiman II (who was said to fear the prayers of the Pope more than his armies) died.

Our Lady of Victory

Suleiman II was succeeded by his son Selim II, nicknamed “the Sot”, who inherited his father’s ambition to conquer Rome and destroy Christianity. He demanded that the Venetians, who had a commercial treaty with the Turks, give him Cyprus. (Cyprus, the most important island of the Mediterranean, belonged to Venice.) The capital Nicosia was besieged by the Turks and upon surrendering was sacked. 20,000 inhabitants, including their bishop, were massacred (total annihilation being the usual method employed by the Mohammedans). Cyprus had fallen to the Turks, with the exception of Famagusta which, under its governor Bragadino, was heroically resisting a long siege and numerous Turkish attacks. For ten long months the besieged city had withstood the Turkish forces but the inhabitants were dying of starvation as there was no food left in the city. Thus in August 1571 Bragadino accepted the Turkish offer that all population would be spared if the city capitulated. As soon as the deal was made the Turks broke the terms and massacred the entire population. Bragadino’s ears and nose were cut off, his nails torn out, his teeth broken; he was stripped, flogged and, after eight days of barbaric torture, flayed alive.

St. Pius V had been trying ceaselessly, ever since his accession, to unite Europe against the Mohammedan enemy threatening the extinction of Christianity. Yet political rivalry, jealousy and commercial interests prevented most nations from joining the defense League against the Turks proposed by the Pope. (England made an alliance with the Turks, while France had an extensive commercial treaty with them and was willing to jeopardize Christendom for her own immediate advantage. Emperor Maximilian, rather than heeding the Pope’s call for a new crusade, was more interested in ending the disputes in his own states by trying to please both Catholics and Protestants.)

The Heroes of Lepanto: Don Juan, M.A. Colonna, S. Venier

Finally, after five years of Pius’ pleading with the Christian kings and princes, the Spanish and the Venetians agreed to join in. On May 24, 1571, the Holy League was signed and sworn to by the Pope, the King of Spain and the Venetian Republic. Don Juan of Austria, the illegitimate son of Charles V and half-brother of Philip II, King of Spain, was chosen to lead the League. While only 24 years old, he had already distinguished himself in war with the Moors. Spain’s fleet was under the command of the Genovese Gianandrea Doria. Marcantonio Colonna commanded the Pope’s fleet; Sebastian Venier and Agostin Barbarigo the Venetian one. The Pope was to pay one sixth of the cost of the crusade (but in the end actually paid almost 60%), Spain three sixths, and Venice two sixths. St. Pius V emptied the Papal treasury; his subjects, rich and poor, followed his example and donated generously. (All offerings were voluntary; the Pope rejected the suggestion of the imposition of a special tax on the people.)

St. Pius placed the expedition under the protection of the Queen of the Holy Rosary. The Rosary was to be daily recited on each ship; those left at home were also to pray it each day to storm Heaven for the success of the League. The Pope extended the devotion of the Forty Hours and ordered public prayers and processions in which he himself took part.

St. Pius’ vision of victory

The saint knew that God would only defend the Christian forces if they proved themselves worthy by uniting for His greater glory and for the preservation of Christendom. He therefore ordered that any men who were either living scandalous lives or were only interested in plunder be removed from the Christian ships, for God’s assistance was of infinitely greater value than that of a few additional men. No women were allowed aboard the vessels. Blasphemy was to be punished by death.

Don Juan and his men fasted for three days. The entire crew confessed and received Holy Communion. St. Pius V granted a plenary indulgence to the soldiers and crews of the Holy League. Priests of the great Orders, Franciscans, Capuchins, Dominicans, Theatines and Jesuits, were stationed on the decks of all the Holy League’s galleys, offering Mass and hearing confessions. Don Juan gave every man in his fleet a weapon more powerful than anything the Turks could muster: a Rosary.

The Turks had just ravaged Dalmatia (then belonging to Venice) and several islands, taking over 15,000 Catholic slaves. On September 20 Don Juan, heading the fleet composed of Spanish, Venetian, Papal and Genovese galleys, along with those of the Knights of Malta who generously sent all their men, sailed from Messina (Sicily). Moments earlier the Papal Legate gave the Apostolic benediction to the 60,000 kneeling men.

Tomb of Don Juan, El Escorial

Back in Rome, and up and down the Italian Peninsula, at the behest of Pius V the churches were filled with the faithful praying the Rosary. In Heaven, the Blessed Mother was listening. Though the Turks outnumbered the Christians, were more experienced, and had never been defeated by sea, St. Pius had perfect confidence in Divine Providence.

On October 6 the Christian fleet received the news of the fall and destruction of Famagusta and the sadistic torture and murder of its heroic governor Bragadino. On October 7 the two fleets finally came face to face in the Bay of Lepanto, off the coast of Greece. On each Christian ship the Rosary was recited for the last time, and priests gave the men general absolution. At the same time in the Vatican the aged Pope, worn out by fasting and austerities and broken by illness, was kneeling in prayer as he had done almost uninterruptedly since the fleet had sailed.

The wind, initially favoring the Muslim fleet, suddenly stopped and reversed. Don Juan threw himself upon his knees and prayed. All the soldiers and sailors did likewise, while the priests held up the crucifixes. Then the young commander stood up and, unfurling the Holy League’s blue banner bearing the image of Christ Crucified (a gift of St. Pius V), gave the order to attack. The battle lasted less than five hours. By 4:30 pm the League had secured a victory. The Turks lost 240 ships and some 33,000 men – including admiral Ali Pasha (out of a fleet of 330 ships and over 85,000 men); the Catholics lost about 10,000 men and 12 (of 212) vessels. 15,000 Christian slaves were set free.

At the moment the battle was won St. Pius V, who was with his Pontifical treasurer, suddenly rose, opened the window to the east, and stood for a few moments gazing into the sky. Then he cried out: “Let us set aside business and fall on our knees in thanksgiving to God, for he has given our fleet a great victory!” These words of the holy Pope, immediately written down, repeated to the cardinals, signed and sealed but not yet published, were only confirmed two weeks later when the messenger, delayed by storms, arrived at last with the news of the victory.

Vision of the victory at Lepanto

Masses of thanksgiving were celebrated, solemn Te Deums and processions took place; the people acknowledged that the victory was of God, through His Blessed Mother and His Vicar on earth. St. Pius V made October 7 the Feast of Our Lady of Victory, in honor of Her who had saved Christendom. Gregory XIII changed the title to Feast of the Holy Rosary (in 1573). Pius V also added to the Litany of Our Lady of Loreto the title “Help of Christians.” [Let us remember Lepanto when we pray “Auxillium Christianorum, ora pro nobis!”]

St. Pius V placed the flagship banner of the Ottoman admiral Ali Pasha – the famed “Banner of the Caliphs” treasured by Ottoman sultans – in the Lateran Basilica for all to see. (The wretched Paul VI gave it back to the Turks in 1965, thus renouncing not only a crucial Christian victory but also the prayers and sacrifices of the great Pope and saint.)

Lepanto – the most important naval battle in history – was a turning point for Christendom. It saved Christian Europe and ended the Ottoman Empire’s dominance of the Mediterranean. Never again did the Muslim fleet pose a real danger to Europe (although the Mohammedans did keep expanding their bases on the African coast and harassing European ships and territories across the Mediterranean).

St. Pius V urged the Christian powers to follow up this great victory by joining the Holy League, not only to free Europe for all time from the Muslim menace but to liberate Constantinople and Jerusalem as well. The indefatigable old warrior-saint had the crusading spirit burning within him until his last moment. (Unfortunately, after his death the Holy League fell apart. The rivalries among the Catholic powers and their preoccupation with domestic concerns prevailed. Venice made a truce with the Turks; France proposed an alliance with the sultan.)

Pius V credits Our Lady of the Rosary for the victory at Lepanto (by Grazio Cossali)

The Christian victory at Lepanto, by arresting the danger of Mohammedan invasion, made possible the survival of the greatest civilization mankind has ever seen. Our forefathers fought heroically and laid down their lives in defense of God, the Faith, the Church and their homeland. In our own ignominious days Europe, having rejected her Christian faith and heritage and become seeped in depravity, insanity and self-hatred, is herself inviting and welcoming the invaders who once again come to butcher, rape, and subdue her.

Spiritual life and virtues

The virtues St. Pius had displayed as a monk and bishop he continued to practice after his election to the Seat of St. Peter. He held in great balance his life of prayer and life of action. His love of true doctrine was matched by his fervent devotion. A Crucifix stood always before him on his desk, at the foot of which were inscribed the words of St. Paul: “God forbid that I should glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

St. Pius V said his daily Mass very early in the morning, preceded by an hour’s meditation and followed by at least an hour’s thanksgiving. He had a great love for the Blessed Mother. He promoted the recitation of the Holy Rosary and attached many indulgences to it, as well as to the recital of the Little Office of Our Lady. He was very devoted to his patron St. Michael the Archangel, and to St. Thomas Aquinas whom he proclaimed Doctor of the Church. (He also published all the works of he Angelic Doctor, in 18 volumes.)

Pope St. Pius V

Above all other devotions was his love for the Blessed Sacrament. So great was his reverence that he would never allow himself to be carried in the procession of Corpus Christi but always went on foot, bearing himself the monstrance with the Body of Our Lord. An English Protestant watching the procession was so impressed by the angelic and saintly aspect of the Pope that he became a Catholic shortly thereafter.

St. Pius V continued to practice his fasts and severe mortifications throughout his life. Till his death he slept on a hard straw mattress in his Dominican habit of coarse white serge, beneath which he always wore a hair-shirt. Over the course of his religious life he mastered his passions to such a degree that he seemed entirely free from them, more angelic in nature than human.

In Pius V we see a wonderful balance between charity and justice. He was severe towards heretics and public sinners but exceedingly merciful towards the repentant. He had the courage of his convictions, and never hesitated to call good good and evil evil. Consumed with the zeal for God and for the salvation of souls, he was fearless and uncompromising when it came to condemning and combating sin and evil. Cardinal Newman wrote: “I do not deny that St. Pius was stern and severe, as far as a heart burning within and melted with the fullness of Divine love could be so; but such energy was necessary for his times. He was emphatically called to be a soldier of Christ in a time of insurrection and rebellion, when, in a spiritual sense, martial law was proclaimed.”

Saint Pius V (by El Greco)

St. Pius V expected much of others but even more of himself – he strove to be perfect as his Father in Heaven was perfect. Above all, he insisted on absolute truthfulness. A man who had once told him a lie lost his favor forever. Loving and prizing truth above all else, he had a horror of insincerity and flattery, and often sought adverse criticism of himself from his intimates. Nothing could make him change his mind once convinced of what had to be done. But he gave way on occasion to what he realized was another’s better judgment; nor did he shrink from simply beginning over again and making due rectification if by its results a course of action proved defective.

He forgave his enemies, and did good to them. It was said that his kindest acts were directed at those who had injured him. A nobleman who had threatened his life when he was Inquisitor was recognized by the Pope during an audience granted to a diplomatic mission. “I am the poor Dominican you once wanted to throw down a well,” he quietly said to him. “You see, my son, God protects the weak and innocent.” Then quickly putting an end to the man’s embarrassment, with one of his rare, enchanting smiles he embraced him and promised special consideration for his mission. A writer, condemned to death by the magistrates for having published slanders against the Pope, was brought before Pius V and not only pardoned but told that if in the future he had any fault to find with the Pope he should come and tell him personally.

Santa Sabina, museum (crucifix of Pius V)

Pius V, who always remained a simple monk at heart, used the rare moments when he could take a rest from the manifold responsibilities and anxieties of the office to retire to the Dominican monastery of Santa Sabina on the Aventine hill. There, in the silence and peace of the cloister, he would live again, sometimes for a few days, as a simple religious, regaining his spiritual and physical strength.

Back when Paul IV made Michael Ghislieri a Bishop, saying he had done so to “chain his feet and prevent his ever returning to live in monastic seclusion,” he replied that the Pope was “taking him from Purgatory to Hell.” After being himself elevated to the Pontificate, St. Pius told an ambassador that the trials and labors of the papacy were far greater causes of suffering than monastic discipline and poverty, or any other trial and hardship; and that the dignity of the Papal office could come near to being a hindrance to the soul’s salvation.

Christ adored by St. Pius V (by Michele Parrasio, Museo del Prado, Madrid)

He had a horror of nepotism and would not allow any of his nearest relations to come to Rome unless charged with some special office, lest anyone should imagine that he was enriching them with the goods of the Church. And when they did come he was very severe. His very able and worthy nephew and fellow Dominican friar Michael Bonelli was made Cardinal but St. Pius forbade him to hold any benefice and required him to live a very simple and austere life. One of his other nephews, who had fought at Lepanto, later became involved in an scandal. The saint sent for him, lit a candle as he entered the room, and said: “You will leave Rome before this candle is burnt out!”

St. Pius’ holy severity and relentless opposition to evil-doers could not fail to produce enemies. The attempt of one of them to take the Pope’s life resulted in a famous miracle, confirmed by many witnesses. Pius V had a great devotion to the Passion of our Lord, and prayed for hours each night, with his crucifix in hand, devoutly kissing the Five Sacred Wounds. One night, as he knelt in his oratory, he was about to kiss the Feet of the Crucified, when, to his horror, the carved Feet were moved sharply aside. The Pope cried aloud, thinking in his humility that for some secret sin the Divine Savior refused his embrace. His servants thought otherwise, suspecting foul play. They wiped the Feet with bread and gave it to an animal which died after eating it. (The miraculous crucifix can be seen in the museum at the Santa Sabina monastery in Rome.)


St. Pius’ later life was one long martyrdom of pain. In January 1572 the malady (stones) from which he had suffered for many years increased to such an extent that he knew death was near. Even as the pain became unbearable he refused to be operated and have other people’s hands touch his body. A servant, seeing how weak he had grown in Lent from fasting, tried to get him to take a little more nourishment by secretly adding some meat sauce to his usual diet of wild chicory. The Pope detected it and reprimanded him thus: “My friend, do you wish me during the last few days of my life to break the rule of abstinence I have observed these fifty years?” His cook was forbidden, under pain of severest sanctions, to put any unlawful ingredients in his soup on days of fasting and abstinence, and during Lent.

Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

After the Holy Week ceremonies, on Good Friday 1572, St. Pius V was obliged to take to his bed. Yet, ordering the crucifix to be carried into his room, he got up and prostrated himself several times before it in adoration. The rumor spread that the Pope was dying. Informed of the people’s great sorrow at his illness, he summoned up all remaining strength to give them the customary Easter Blessing for the last time. A vast crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square; when the saint appeared on the balcony of the Basilica in his pontifical vestments and chanted the Blessing in a feeble but sweet voice, the silence was so intense his voice could be clearly heard even by those farthest off. The people wept, hoping and praying the Pope’s life would be prolonged.

This being the seventh year of his reign, he insisted on blessing the Agnus Dei, as was customary. (The Agnus Dei blessed by St. Pius V wrought many extraordinary and well attested miracles. Ferdinand II wrote to Pope Urban VIII that in a great fire which broke out in his chapel everything on the altar, including silver candlesticks, was destroyed, except an Agnus Dei of St. Pius V which was unharmed by the fire.)

Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Having regained a bit of strength the Pope determined to make his regular visit, on foot, to Rome’s seven Basilicas. To his physicians, household and Cardinals who tried to dissuade him for fear that he would die on the way, he replied “God Who began the work will see it to the end.” At the Lateran he wanted to climb the Holy Stairs but was unable to, and instead kissed the bottom step in tears. The crowds thronged about the saint as he gave them his last blessing. It was his final mingling with the Roman people who had learned to revere and love him so much. On the way back to the Vatican he spoke to a group of English Catholics exiled by Elizabeth. Before recommending them to the care of a Cardinal he exclaimed: “Lord, Thou knowest I have always been ready to shed my blood for their nation.”

Returning to the Vatican St. Pius took to bed from which he was not to rise again. In the last days he continuously made Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity, Thanksgiving, and Contrition. He had the Penitential Psalms and the Passion read aloud. Four days before death, no longer able to say Mass, he received Holy Communion offering himself as a holocaust to God.

Statue and tomb of St. Pius V (Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, Sistine chapel)

On April 30 the Pope received Extreme Unction. He was clothed in his Dominican habit in which he wished to die. After receiving the Viaticum he spoke to the group of Cardinals who scarcely left his bedside, telling them that he had, from the first day of his Pontificate, vowed to spend himself utterly for the Church, and that he now recommended the Church to them. “Give me a successor,” he exclaimed, “full of zeal for the glory of God, who will seek the honor of the Church and the Apostolic See!” He stated that, although his sins and failings had not allowed him to see the final achievement of all he had endeavored to do, he adored God’s holy will and accepted His judgments. Among his final utterances were repeated incitations to continue the allied crusade against the Turks.

Henceforth, lying in agony, he only spoke to God, constantly kissing the Five Wounds of the Crucifix which was never out of his hands. Those nearest him made out the words, alternated with the prayers he was offering for his people: “Lord increase my pain, but may it please Thee also to increase my patience!” With this heroic act of love the perhaps greatest son of St. Dominic gave up his soul to God, at 5pm on May 1, 1572. He was 68 years old.

Upon opening his body the doctors found stones of such size they wondered in amazement how he had been able to live with the pain they must have caused him. After his death St. Pius’s body remained fresh, supple and fragrant as that of a child. It was laid out in St. Peter’s Basilica, which for four days could scarcely contain the crowds. Numerous miracles of healing were reported.

Body of St. Pius V (Santa Maria Maggiore)

St. Pius V wished to be buried at Bosco, for he considered himself unworthy of being amongst so many holy Popes in Rome. But in 1588 Sixtus V had his relics translated to the tomb in Santa Maria Maggiore which he had prepared for his dear friend and benefactor.

Clement X beatified Pius V in 1672. The miracles chosen for the beatification were an instantaneous cure of a sick man by a fragment of the habit of the saint, and the miraculous preservation of two paintings of St. Pius V in a great fire which destroyed everything else in the palace of the Duke of Sezze. Clement XI canonized him in 1711.      May 5 was appointed as his feast day.

All for the glory of God and salvation of souls

The incredible work this frail old monk accomplished in his short 6-year Pontificate is truly a sign that he was aided by God in a special manner. Guided by the decrees of the Council of Trent (and with the help of St. Charles Borromeo) he reformed Church discipline, stamping out the remnants of Renaissance worldliness and laxity. He issued the Roman Catechism, promulgated the Roman Missal and Breviary, and published the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. A zealous defender of the rights of God and the Holy Mother Church, he never allowed the power and prestige of any person to sway his determination to do what was right in the eyes of God – the most famous example being his excommunication of Queen Elizabeth I.

St. Pius V (Collegio Ghislieri, Pavia)

St. Pius V would be forever remembered as a glorious defender of Christendom, for it was his holy zeal and indomitable will in the face of a mountain of opposition from European sovereigns that broke the power of the Ottoman Empire and saved Europe from an Islamic conquest.

But above all he was a true father and pastor of souls, and like all good fathers was not afraid to use firm measures when necessary. Knowing that there was only one true path to salvation, St. Pius V was an uncompromising champion of doctrinal orthodoxy. He fought heresy tooth and nail and never gave an inch when anyone, no matter how powerful they might be, promoted erroneous teachings. In doing so, he was often as much of an annoyance to Catholic clerics and monarchs as he was to Protestant ones. Made utterly fearless by his great love of God and zeal for the salvation of souls, he succeeded in completely wiping out heresy in Italy.

Let us pray that the good God, in his infinite mercy, may have pity on us and send us – undeserving though we are of such a grace – a new St. Pius V. A Pope holy and fearless, full of ardent and heroic zeal for God, intransigent in his Faith and convictions, ready to rid the Church of the heretics, apostates and enemies of God who have taken over; to awaken Europe from her suicidal apathy and apostasy; and to restore all things in Christ.


Sancte Pie Quinte, ora pro nobis!

Liturgical vestments used by St. Pius V

The Sword of Saint Michael: Saint Pius V (L. Browne-Olf) – pdf

The Life of St. Pius V (Fr. T. A. Dyson) – pdf, text, kindle format

Saint Pius V: Pope of the Holy Rosary (C. M. Antony) – pdf, text, kindle format

St. Pius V, the Father of Christendom – pdf







Saint Augustine, Pillar of Christendom


Pavia: Saint Augustine

Basilica di San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro (Piazza S. Pietro in Ciel d’Oro; 7.15am-12 / 3-7pm;


San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, Pavia

Pavia, the last repose of St. Augustine of Hippo, can easily be reached from Milan. I’ve managed to comfortably fit both Pavia and Bosco Marengo (the birth place of St. Pius V) into a day trip, returning to Milan in the evening.

(In case someone else sets out to do this without a car, here’s how… The short 30 minute journey on a regional train from Milan’s Central station to Pavia allowed me to spend several hours at St. Augustine’s church and explore the centre of Pavia. At noon I hopped on another train taking me, in a total of 1h 40min, from Pavia via Alessandria to Frugarolo-Bosco Marengo. The trip back, from Frugarolo-BM, again via Alessandria, to Milano Centrale lasted in total about two hours.)

Speaking of St. Pius V, Pavia is also home of the Ghislieri College he had founded. See information and photos at the very end of this post.


San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, Pavia


But now back to St. Augustine…

The first mention of the basilica San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro (St. Peter in the Golden Sky) dates back to the year 602, though the present Romanesque church is from the 12th century. It is the resting place of St. Augustine, whose relics are deposited in a silver urn at the foot of the marble Ark. The Ark, a masterpiece by 14th century Lombard sculptors, is carved with scenes from the saint’s life.

In the sacristy there is a little shop with many interesting items related to the bishop of Hippo.



Tomb (Ark) of St. Augustine, S. Pietro in Ciel d’Oro


“A philosophical and theological genius of the first order, dominating, like a pyramid, antiquity and the succeeding ages. Compared with the great philosophers of past centuries and modern times, he is the equal of them all; among theologians he is undeniably the first, and such has been his influence that none of the Fathers, Scholastics, or Reformers has surpassed it.” Thus describes Philip Schaff, Church historian and Protestant, St. Augustine of Hippo.

More than just a theological giant towering above the other Church Fathers, St. Augustine was a fearless and uncompromising defender of the Faith against heresies, a tireless pastor of his flock, and a perfect model of a true penitent; an inspiration to Christians throughout the ages.

Augustine and Monica

Augustine and his mother Monica

Augustine’s life: From sinner to saint

Augustine was born on November 13, AD 354 in Thagaste, in the Roman province of Africa (present-day Algeria) to an aristocratic, though not very wealthy, family. His mother St. Monica was a devout Christian; it was thanks to her virtues, prayers and holiness that her pagan husband and Augustine’s father Patricius finally converted, on his death bed, to Christianity.

Reading Cicero and other philosophers left a deep impact on young Augustine, fomenting his interest in philosophy and a love of wisdom. At 17 he went to Carthage to study rhetoric and, lauded for his powerful intellect even at such early age, soon became filled with vanity, ambition and pride.

A brilliant mind blinded by sin

Despite his brilliant mind and Christian upbringing, Augustine, ceding to the seductions of the half-pagan city and the licentiousness of his fellow students, embraced a life of hedonism, immorality, and false beliefs. For nearly 15 years he kept a concubine with whom he had a son, Adeodatus. Worldly ambitions, intellectual pride and a life of sin and impurity darkened Augustine’s mind, making him seek the truth in all the wrong places. So blinded became his understanding that he abandoned the faith of his mother and (by AD 373) enthusiastically embraced the dreadful Manichaean heresy. (Rather than a Christian heresy Manichaeism was actually a pagan religion, based on dualism, which borrowed elements from Christianity, Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, etc.)

Augustine was restless in his search for the Truth. His pride – cause of his displeasure with the Sacred Scriptures, the humility and simplicity of which he found offensive to his intellect – was flattered by the Manichaeans who promised knowledge of nature and its laws, and answers to all the philosophical and spiritual questions, in particular to the “problem of evil” that Augustine had been troubled by.

The Manichaeans believed that the world was in perfect tension between two equal powers, a good and an evil one, an inevitable struggle between the spiritual world of light and the material world of darkness. Their doctrine, which ultimately denied liberty and attributed the commission of evil to an outside force, was convenient for Augustine who was living a life of lust and sin.

He would later admit in his Confessions: “I still thought that it is not we who sin but some other nature that sins within us. It flattered my pride to think that I incurred no guilt and, when I did wrong, not to confess it… I preferred to excuse myself and blame this unknown thing which was in me but was not part of me. The truth, of course, was that it was all my own self, and my own impiety had divided me against myself. My sin was all the more incurable because I did not think myself a sinner.”

Search for the Truth

For nine years Augustine taught rhetoric in Carthage, earning recognition and applause. In AD 383 he moved to Rome to open a school of rhetoric but, growing disgusted with students defrauding him on tuition fees, left for Milan the following year to become a professor of rhetoric at the imperial court. St. Monica joined her son in Milan and at last convinced him to abandon his concubine and to let her arrange a marriage for him. However, during the two years Augustine had to wait for his fiancée to come of age, he took another concubine. (Augustine famously prayed, “grant me chastity and continence, but not yet”.) He would later break off the engagement to embrace a life of Christian chastity.

St.AugustineAugustine started becoming disillusioned with Manichaeism even before he left Carthage, put off by the feebleness of the arguments in defense of their doctrine, lack of the knowledge they had promised him, as well as by his disappointing debate with the celebrated Manichaean bishop Faustus of Mileve. In Rome he turned away from the Manichaeans only to spend three more years in spiritual wandering, attracted to a number of philosophies (the skepticism of the New Academy movement, the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus, etc). At last, thanks to his mother’s constant prayers and the sermons of Milan’s holy bishop St. Ambrose, Augustine found the long-sought truth in Jesus Christ and His Church. Yet, unable to imagine living a pure life, he did not immediately convert to what he now recognized as the only true religion.


In AD 386, after hearing of a sudden conversion of certain men, Augustine, full of anguish, shame and anger at himself, cried out to a friend: “What are we doing? Unlearned people are taking Heaven by force, while we, with all our knowledge, are so cowardly that we keep rolling around in the mud of our sins!”

Storming out to the garden, he heard a child-like voice singing tolle, lege, tolle, lege (take and read, take and read). Opening his Bible Augustine read the first thing his sight fell on, and it applied perfectly to his disordered life. It was St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, chapter 13, verse 13-14: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ: and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences.” He didn’t need to read any further. It was at that very moment Augustine determined to put away all impurity – which was, as he now recognized, what had kept him away from the Truth all those years – and live his life in imitation of Christ.

Shortly thereafter he resigned his professorship and went with Monica, Adeodatus and a few friends to the country estate Cassisiacum to study Christian doctrine and philosophy. (Augustine continued to be influenced by neo-Platonism so long as it agreed with Christian doctrine; wherever it contradicted, he subordinated philosophy to religion, reason to faith.) At Cassisiacum he wrote his Dialogues, revealing the details of his conversion, the arguments that convinced him (particularly the life and conquests of the Apostles), his progress in the Faith at the school of St. Paul, the delightful conferences with his friends on the Divinity of Jesus Christ, the wonderful transformations worked in his soul by grace, his victory over intellectual pride and the calming of his passions.


St. Ambrose baptizes Augustine

To the great joy of his mother and his friend (priest and later bishop of Milan) Simplicianus, Augustine was baptized – along with his son Adeodatus – at Easter of AD 387, in Milan, by St. Ambrose. It was through the influence, preaching and example of this holy bishop and Doctor of the Church that the light of the Truth finally entered Augustine’s soul. He was 33 when he became a Catholic – the age of Jesus at His death and resurrection. [My own conversion also happened at the age of 33. Having not only equaled but far outdone Augustine in the life of sin, I pray to at some point reach a fraction of his virtues and holiness.]

Thus Ambrose’s promise to Augustine’s mother (who never stopped praying and sacrificing for her son’s conversion) – that “a son of so many tears could not perish” – became fulfilled. The following year Augustine wrote his first book, On the Holiness of the Catholic Church. Augustine, Monica and Adeodatus then left Milan to return to North Africa; it was during this journey that his mother Monica died, in Ostia (AD 388). She was followed not long after by Adeodatus. Augustine then sold his patrimony and distributed the money to the poor, keeping only his family villa where he and a group of friends withdrew to lead a life of poverty, prayer and the study of sacred texts.


The Consecration of Saint Augustine (by Jaime Huguet)

Augustine, priest and bishop

In AD 391, yielding at last to the wishes of the people and of bishop Valerius, Augustine was ordained priest in Hippo. He became well known for his preaching and his combat of the Manichaean heresy. Four years later he was made bishop of Hippo, to remain in that position until his death. Bishop Augustine continued to lead an austere and penitential life, shunning all temptations of the world and the flesh. His episcopal residence became a quasi-monastery where the bishop lived a community life with his clergy who bound themselves to observe religious poverty. Ten of his disciples and friends became bishops; others founded monasteries that soon spread all over Africa. (St. Augustine’s monastic community and rule would later become the model for the Augustinian Order.)

More than anything else, St. Augustine was a firm defender of the Truth and a zealous pastor of souls. He preached up to five times a day on topics relating to Catholic doctrine and moral teachings, and their practical application to the lives of his flock, personal holiness, life of prayer, etc. His sermons, letters and books, as well as his presence at several councils defending Catholic doctrine against errors, have had an immense influence on the Church and on Catholic life. (Augustine also played a prominent role at the third Council of Carthage, AD 397, which affirmed the canon of Sacred Scripture.)

Defender of the Faith against the heretics

Using his untiring zeal, powerful intellect and brilliant oratory skills to defend the true Faith, St. Augustine became God’s instrument in fighting and overthrowing heresies – Manichaeism, Priscillianism, Donatism, Pelagianism and Arianism.

At the time he became a priest and bishop large numbers of the Christians in Africa were infected by the Donatist heresy. The Donatists were against the Church’s readmission of those who, during the Roman persecutions, denied or renounced their faith (traditores). They held that even after lengthy public penance such people could not be received back into the Church. Thus the Donatists refused sacraments and spiritual authority of clergy who had at some point apostatized under persecution, claiming that the validity of the sacraments depended on the moral character of those administering them. Perpetrating many outrages and violence, the Donatists murdered large numbers of Catholics; St. Augustine himself was the target of several of their assassination attempts.


St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo

Gradually, by the bishop’s zeal, learning and sanctity, as well as Emperor Honorius’ laws against the Donatists, the Catholics gained ground. In AD 411 the Donatist doctrine was shown to be false at the conference of Carthage. St. Augustine, in disputations between the assembled 286 Catholic and 279 Donatist bishops, proved the Donatists to be in error. He explained that the sacraments were valid and efficacious even when administered by an unworthy priest, for Christ was the actual actor of the sacrament. He further affirmed that mercy and forgiveness could be granted to all repentant sinners, even to the traditores. Augustine’s defense of Catholic doctrine was successful and vast numbers of Donatists, including many bishops with their whole flocks, came back into the Catholic Church. The Emperor ordered Donatist clergy to be banished from Africa and their churches restored to the Catholics.

The bishop of Hippo was equally firm in condemning the heresy of Pelagius and his followers. The Pelagians denied both original sin and the necessity of divine grace (as well as of the sacraments) for salvation. It was largely due to Augustine’s efforts that Pelagius and his chief disciple Celestius were condemned as heretics and excommunicated (AD 417).

His arguments against Pelagianism helped Augustine refine the doctrine of original sin and the doctrine of the necessity of God’s grace for man’s salvation. He clearly proved from passages in Holy Scriptures that all men were sinners and could gain no merit on their own but only through Christ. He further taught that virtues and good works (even if they were not infected by motives of self-love, vainglory or other passions) could never be meritorious of eternal life unless done for God alone; and such supernatural motive could only be produced by divine grace.

Death and translation of relics

In AD 428 the Vandals, adherents of the (already condemned) Arian heresy, invaded Roman Africa, leaving cities in ruins, burning churches, slaying the population and murdering bishops and priests. Two years later they besieged Hippo. Bishop Augustine, by then gravely ill and close to death, spent his last days in prayer and penance, while ordering the safeguarding of all the books he had bestowed on the church of Hippo. He died on August 28 of that same year (AD 430). Not long thereafter the Vandals sacked and burned down the city of Hippo. The only things they left untouched were Augustine’s cathedral, his remains and library.


The relics of St. Augustine (S. Pietro in Ciel d’Oro)

The Catholic bishops later expelled by the Vandals from North Africa translated Augustine’s body to Cagliari in Sardinia. In AD 724 the saint’s remains were transferred – after being redeemed for their weight in gold from the Saracens – by the pious Lombard king Liutprand and his uncle, the bishop of Pavia, to the basilica San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro in Pavia. Liutprand had the sacred relics placed in several coffins engraved with the saint’s name and carefully hidden in the crypt, where they were rediscovered in 1695. In 1700 the Augustinians, expelled from Pavia by the Napoleonic armies, found refuge in Milan, taking Augustine’s remains with them. Two centuries later, after the Augustinians regained and restored their church San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, the saint’s relics returned. This is where they remain to this day, resting in a silver urn at the foot of the magnificent marble Ark. (King Liutprand is also buried in the basilica.)

Saint Augustine was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Boniface VIII in 1298. His feast day is celebrated on August 28.

Nature, grace and free will

One of the fruits of St. Augustine’s long battle with the heretics is the profound explanation he has left us of various Catholic doctrines, particularly those of original sin, free will, nature and grace.

Against the Manichaeans the saint affirmed that God gives each man the grace necessary for his salvation, yet He does not take away man’s free will. Being all-powerful and all-knowing, God has always known how each soul would respond to this grace, but He nevertheless leaves man the liberty to choose. (God wants us to love Him and to be with Him in eternity, but it has to be of our free will; He will not force anyone to love Him, for a forced love would be no love at all.) As St. Augustine told the Manichaeans, “all can be saved if they wish”.

His explanations of nature and grace earned the bishop of Hippo the name of Doctor of Grace. Like St. Paul, the Apostle, St. Augustine taught that the grace of God is a gift, free and unmerited, and necessary for our salvation. This necessary grace is never wanting, but through our fault.

In AD 415 he wrote his famous book On Nature and Grace (De Natura et Gratia) against the Pelagian heresy. The Pelagians, denying original sin, taught that man can be saved without baptism or grace, that he doesn’t need God to be good but can rely on his own nature. (Due to the fallen human nature all men harbor pride in their heart, and hence have a tendency to Pelagianism, believing in their own strength, merit and self-sufficiency.)

St. Augustine demolished their errors and thoroughly demonstrated that man, by his own powers, could never earn or attain salvation and sanctity. No natural virtue can be meritorious of eternal life; only that which is animated by the supernatural, by divine charity produced by supernatural grace. Thus only by God’s grace can man do anything good (profitable for his salvation). All that is good in us must be attributed to Him. While God dispenses His grace freely, man can obstruct its flow by turning away from God, by sin.

Original sin

The Scriptures tell us that Adam and Eve were righteous in the Garden of Eden before they sinned. It was the sin of our first parents that brought death and misery into the world. Augustine affirmed, against the Pelagians, that Adam and Eve possessed – before they sinned – the gratuitous gifts of immortality, freedom from suffering, infused knowledge, etc, as well as sanctifying grace. Having lost them by their sin, we do not inherit these divine gifts.

As a result of original sin we thus inherit a fallen nature, deprived of the original holiness and justice, and inclined to evil. This inclination to sin is called concupiscence (an illicit or inordinate desire). St. Augustine and the Christian tradition identify the greatest war we all face as the war between the soul and the flesh. Augustine uses the image of a marriage between the soul and the body; the soul/husband is wedded to the body/wife. Before original sin the soul and body were in perfect union and harmony, whereas now they are at war with each other.


Holy Trinity

In the East, the Greek Fathers (St. Athanasius, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Gregory of Nyssa) had already made a thorough presentation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity during their fight against the Arian heretics. While St. Hilary of Poitiers had initiated the translation of their Trinitarian theology into Latin, it was St. Augustine who affirmed the Trinitarian tradition in the Latin West. He defended the orthodox consensus of St. Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers, and further explained it with relational analogies (for instance, the Father being the lover, the Son the loved, and the Holy Spirit the mutual love shared between the two).
The 15 books On the Trinity (De Trinitate), on which he worked for 15 years, are the most profound and elaborate of Augustine’s works.

Celibacy and marriage

Jesus Himself, as well as St. Paul and many Church Fathers, taught that celibacy was the highest calling. Augustine also considered celibacy to be the most blessed state. However, he also defended marriage as good and holy, especially in his treatise The Good of Marriage (De Bono Coniugali).

Today, when marriage is being destroyed not only by the secular governments aided by the mass media, but also by the heretics and apostates who occupy the seats of the Church hierarchy, we need to be reminded of the clarity and unanimity of the teaching on marriage from Jesus, the Apostles, Church Fathers, Doctors, Popes and Councils for nearly 20 centuries. St. Augustine left us several works on the subject. (As a reminder that the doctrine has not changed and cannot change, Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI’s landmark encyclical on marriage, heavily references the bishop of Hippo.)

Family is the building block of a nation. Marriage is necessary to establish a Christian society. Augustine stressed that God created all humans from one couple, the first bond of human society thus being the union of husband and wife. Sex is not an end in itself but is ordered to the common good of society. Marital sex was a gift to Adam and Eve so that they may fill the Garden of Eden with children and future generations. However, original sin corrupted this gift, and concupiscence causes it to be divorced from its objective of procreation, which ultimately leads to the destruction of Christian society, culture and civilization.

Augustine also affirmed that the union between Christ and the Church was mysteriously signified in Christian marriage. The sacramental bond of marriage sanctions a union that seeks procreation and mutual fidelity.

“These are all the blessings of matrimony on account of which matrimony itself is a blessing; offspring, conjugal faith and the sacrament.” (De Bono Coniugali, cap. 24)
“By conjugal faith it is provided that there should be no carnal intercourse outside the marriage bond with another man or woman; with regard to offspring, that children should be begotten of love, tenderly cared for and educated in a religious atmosphere; finally, in its sacramental aspect that the marriage bond should not be broken and that a husband or wife, if separated, should not be joined to another even for the sake of offspring. This we regard as the law of marriage by which the fruitfulness of nature is adorned and the evil of incontinence is restrained.” (De Genesi ad Litteram, lib. IX, cap.7)

The holy Doctor defended the indissolubility of marriage in several of his works (including On Adulterous Marriages – De Coniugiis Adulterinis, On Marriage and Concupiscence – De Nuptiis et Concupiscentia, The Good of Marriage, etc). He compared the definitiveness and indissolubility of the sacramental marriage bond with the irrevocability of priestly ordination and of baptism. Augustine, in line with all the Church Fathers, affirmed that a married person, even after a separation on account of adultery, could not take another wife or husband.

LeonardoBoldrini-Madonna and Child, St Jerome, St Augustine

Madonna and Child, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine (by Leonardo Boldrini)

Other teachings

St. Augustine left more writings about the Holy Virgin Mary than many other early Fathers. He always defended her being the Mother of God (which, though a long-held early Christian belief, only became a defined dogma at the Council of Ephesus in AD 431). He further affirmed her perpetual virginity, writing that she “conceived as virgin, gave birth as virgin and stayed virgin forever”.

The saint also defined the concept of just war. A defensive war would not only be just but may be necessary; peacefulness in the face of a grave wrong that could only be stopped by violence would be a sin.

Augustine’s legacy

St. Augustine is the greatest and most influential among the Church Fathers. His thinking practically established the foundation for Christian civilization; his works inspired the medieval conception of state, empire and Christendom. Charlemagne loved no book more than the City of God, and the Empire he founded was inspired directly by St. Augustine.

As a giant of theology he is only equaled by St. Thomas Aquinas. (St. Thomas himself drew heavily on Augustine; as a Dominican friar he even lived the Rule of St. Augustine, for this was the rule chosen by St. Dominic for his Order of Preachers.)

Of course Augustine’s extraordinary influence is not limited to the realms of theology and philosophy. Nor was he simply an intellectual. Once he had found the Truth he embraced it with all his soul and all his heart, for he understood that Truth must be loved and lived by. While his love was securely rooted in dogmatism (which allows the soul to know what it loves and why it loves), the dogmas were applied in practice, in relation to the duties of Christian life. This combination of heart and mind may explain St. Augustine’s universal influence in all ages. He does not only inspire theologians, he inspires the soul, the inner life of a Christian.

St.AugustinAlthough some Protestants, by choosing and picking and distorting his words, like to claim Augustine as their own, his Catholic faith and theology come through in all his writings. Like the other Church Fathers, he clearly affirmed the teachings about the Eucharist, praying for the dead, eternal life by merits (i.e. faith and works), etc. He taught about the Divine institution of the Catholic Church, its authority (the God-given authority of bishops and priests as the successors of the Apostles), its essential marks, and its mission in the economy of grace and the administration of the sacraments. Augustine also acknowledged the authority and primacy of the Roman pontiff (“Roma locuta est, causa finita est”, while a paraphrase, came from the bishop of Hippo). And of course there are also his writings about Mary’s purity and perpetual virginity.

Augustine’s writings

St. Augustine left us his legacy of thought and teaching in 113 books, 218 letters and some 800 sermons.

While in his own days Augustine was best known for his writings against the heretics (several dozen works refuting the heresies of the Manichaeans, Pelagians, Donatists, Arians, etc), in our times his most popular theological books are those on doctrine, such as On Christian Doctrine, On the Trinity, The City of God. There are also many practical works – helping the faithful live good Christian lives – on a variety of topics such as marriage, continence, virginity, widowhood, lying, patience, etc. The saint also left us many biblical commentaries, sermons and letters.

However, of all of Augustine’s works none has been more universally read and acclaimed than the edifying account of his conversion. In the Confessions (Confessiones) he talks of his journey from the moral abysses of pride and sensuality to his conversion to a life in (and for) Christ. The bishop of Hippo, by his own admission, wrote this autobiography, depicting the struggle between his soul and his passions, for his own humiliation – so that the world which was admiring his holiness may know of all the sins of his youth (as well as the imperfections to which he was still subject).

Augustine sent the finished book to Count Darius with these words: “The caresses of this world are more dangerous than its persecutions. See what I am from this book: believe me who bear testimony of myself, and regard not what others say of me. Praise with me the goodness of God for the great mercy he hath shown in me, and pray for me, that he will be pleased to finish what he hath begun in me, and that he never suffer me to destroy myself.”

In the Confessions we find Augustine’s perhaps most famous lines:

“Late have I loved Thee, O Lord; and behold,
Thou wast within and I without, and there I sought Thee.
Thou was with me when I was not with Thee.
Thou didst call, and cry, and burst my deafness.
Thou didst gleam, and glow, and dispell my blindness.
Thou didst touch me, and I burned for Thy peace.
For Thyself Thou hast made us,
And restless our hearts until in Thee they find their ease.
Late have I loved Thee, Thou Beauty ever old and ever new.”

The City of God (De Civitate Dei), considered by many as the saint’s most important work, was written over a time span of 13 years (AD 413-426). The pagans’ charges that Christians brought about the fall of Rome [more precisely, the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in AD 410] prompted Augustine to begin writing this work. In the first part (the first ten books) he refutes the charge and demolishes pagan beliefs. In the second part (books XI-XXII) he shows the two cities – the heavenly city (City of God) and the earthly city (City of Man or City of the Devil) – from their origin, through their growth throughout history, to their final destinations.


The Triumph of Saint Augustine (by Claudio Coello)

Augustine conceives human history as a battle between the City of God, i.e. the followers of Christ and His Church (the sons of light who love God and dedicate themselves to His eternal truths) and the City of Man (the sons of darkness immersed in their self-love, pride and the pleasures of this world). The destiny of the inhabitants of the City of God is eternal happiness, while those who follow the Devil are destined for eternal punishment. Augustine expounds on questions such as the existence of evil, the suffering of the just, original sin, concupiscence, free will, etc. He stresses that the true home of a Christian is heaven; hence it is not an earthly kingdom but heaven to which his affections and efforts should be directed.

The Enchiridion (or Handbook on Faith, Hope and Love) is a synthesis of Augustine’s theology reduced to the three theological virtues.

The various letters we have from St. Augustine tell us about his life, work and doctrine. In a letter to Count Boniface the holy bishop gave this valuable advice (which he himself, once converted, never failed to live by): “If you consult me for the salvation of your soul, I know very well what to say: Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.”

St. Augustine, the penitent – a model to imitate

St. Augustine, the holy Doctor, the pillar of the Church, may be a distant giant of Faith and theology – one whom we can admire in awe but whose example we could never hope to imitate. But there is another Augustine – Augustine the penitent – who speaks to and is understood by each and every soul.

His is the story of a great sinner who – despite having one of the most brilliant minds humanity has ever known – spent the first half of his life wallowing in impurity and false beliefs, to become not only one of the greatest saints but also an extraordinary defender of the faith he had earlier so scornfully rejected.

It is also the story of his mother, St. Monica, who – by her incessant prayers, tears and suffering over so many years – obtained from God the grace for her son to abandon his evil life and to give himself entirely to God. And, most importantly, it is a magnificent proof that God’s mercy and goodness is infinitely greater than our wickedness and sinfulness, and that He never gives up on a lost sheep who is trying to find the way back to Him. All He wants is a sinner’s repentance. No matter how much we may have offended God, if we come to Him with contrite heart, determined to amend our ways, He will not only welcome us with open arms but will give us all the graces we need to become saints.


St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose (by P.-F. Sacchi)

Let Augustine’s example be an inspiration and a warning. An inspiration to all who struggle to overcome a vice or sin; a warning to a world addicted to lust and impurity. It was the sins of impurity, along with his pride, that darkened Augustine’s mind to the point he could no longer see or understand the Truth. Let us then take to heart this lesson: sin blinds us; it darkens the intellect, it weakens the will. [Or are we moderns wiser, more “enlightened” than the great St. Augustine? Do we know better? Do the eternal truths no longer apply to us?]

“Too late have I loved You”, cried Augustine to God. But once he had obtained the grace of conversion he made up for it by the holiness of his life – because he didn’t waste any time but gave himself entirely, heart, body and soul, to God and to the service of Him and of His Church. In this sense we are all called to follow in St. Augustine’s footsteps.


Sancte Augustine, ora pro nobis!


Arca – Tomb of St. Augustine (San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, Pavia)

Life of St. Augustine (St. Possidius) – audiobook; or read online here [an early biography written by Augustine’s friend Possidius, telling us about the saint’s life and apostolate]

The Life of St. Augustine, Bishop, Confessor, Doctor of the Church (P. E. Moriarty) – pdf, text, kindle

The Confessions of St. Augustine (St. Augustine of Hippo) – text, kindle format; also here in pdf, text, audio 

The City of God (St. Augustine) – text, kindle format; also here in pdf, text, audio

Handbook on Faith, Hope and Love (St. Augustine) – pdf, text, audio

Soliloquies (St. Augustine) – pdf; or pdf, text, kindle format here


Pavia is also home of the Collegio Ghislieri – a college founded in 1567 by Pope St. Pius V (Antonio Michele Ghislieri). A majestic statue of the holy Pope stands in front of the college at Piazza Ghislieri. Another statue of his can be found in a corner of the college courtyard, and at the entrance/reception hangs his portrait.


St. Pius V (Collegio Ghislieri, Pavia)


Collegio Ghislieri, Pavia













St. Charles Borromeo – Light of the Holy Church, Titan of Counter-Reformation


Milan: Saint Charles Borromeo

Duomo (Piazza del Duomo 18; 7am-7pm;


Duomo, Milan

The Duomo (Cathedral) of Milan is the largest Gothic cathedral and third largest Catholic church in the world; it can easily accommodate over 40,000 people. Construction began in late 14th century and carried on until early 19th century. Beneath the Duomo are the excavated remains of a 4th century early Christian baptistery (Battistero di San Giovanni alle Fonti), considered to be the place where St. Ambrose baptized St. Augustine in 387. The ruins of two old basilicas from the times of St. Ambrose can also be seen in the excavations.


Duomo, crypt – St. Charles Borromeo

Having seen the Duomo on prior visits, I headed straight to the crypt where St. Charles Borromeo, the 16th century cardinal archbishop of Milan and great saint of the Counter-Reformation, lays in a crystal coffin.

Given the popularity of the cathedral with tourists from all over the world wringing a few minutes of prayer at St. Charles’ tomb required a constant battle with the deluge of cameras shoved into my face even in front of the saint’s very remains. The visitors appeared oblivious of whose relics were before them, or else their knowledge did not induce them into behaving with any more respect. (This, sadly, is a common scene at holy places and shrines in most parts of Europe; with the abandonment of the faith piety, decency and respect went right out of the window, which is particularly notable in churches and even in front of the Blessed Sacrament.)


Relics of St. Charles Borromeo (Duomo, Milan)



A sketch of the life and achievements of this great man follows below. If this appears somewhat extensive for a blog post, I nevertheless hope you may read it, in honor of this remarkable saint who is a worthy role model for faithful Catholics in our own troubled times. Links to (free to download) biographies of St. Charles are at the end of this post.


S. Carlo Borromeo

St. Charles Borromeo


St. Charles Borromeo, one of the most important saints not just of the Counter-Reformation but of all Church history, and the perfect model of a prelate, can inspire and teach us much today. May the Lord, in these terrible times of widespread apostasy and depravity, grant His Church holy men in the mold of Saint Charles.





Charles Borromeo was born in 1538 at the castle of Arona (near Milan) to a very wealthy aristocratic family. The birth of the boy who was to become a glorious saint was announced by a brilliant light that appeared above the castle, illuminating the night from two in the morning, the time of his birth, until daybreak (as confirmed under oath by multiple witnesses in the canonization process).

His parents were known for their piety and virtuousness, which young Charles imitated from early age. Being of an earnest disposition he shone amusements and preferred to spent time in prayer and listening to the reading of devout books. Only 12 years old he received the tonsure of minor orders. When his uncle, around that same time, turned over to him a wealthy Benedictine abbey (one of the benefices held by the family), Charles insisted the revenues belonged to the Church and the poor and, except for the minimum necessary for his studies, could not be used for any other purposes.

Due to a speech impediment (which he would only overcome many years later) and his love of silence he was considered by many to be slow of mind. However, he loved to study and at the age of 16 was sent to the University of Pavia to study civil and canon law. Then, as today, universities were known for corrupt morals; debauchery reigned among most of his fellow students. Charles would immediately flee from even the slightest occasion of sin and retire to his prayers and devotions, which often earned him ridicule and sneers. Caring little for the derision of the world and preferring the friendship of God to that of men, he begged the Lord to keep his soul from evil and harm. Rejecting two of his tutors – priests he considered too secular, lax in saying their office, and improperly dressed as laymen instead of wearing clerical attire – young Charles showed his prudence and good judgement.

Cardinal and Secretary of State

Soon after earning his doctorate Charles received the news that his uncle, cardinal Giovanni Angelo di Medici, had been elected to the papacy (after the death of Paul IV). The new pope, who took the name Pius IV, summoned his nephew to Rome and, in short progression, made him cardinal, administrator of the archdiocese of Milan, and Protector of Portugal, the Low Countries, the Catholic cantons of Switzerland as well as of the Carmelites, Franciscans and the Knights of Malta, among other offices. He also entrusted Charles, still only 23 years old, with the administration of the Papal States.

Carlo Borromeo

Despite the heavy burden of the multiple tasks the energetic and diligent young man performed them admirably, while never neglecting his prayer, devotions and sacred studies. Surrounded by wealth and honors, St. Charles – in his heart increasingly austere, humble and disengaged from worldly things – not only did not find enjoyment in them but saw the dangers they presented to the soul. Longing for monastic life of contemplation and penance, lived only for God and far from the world, the young cardinal sought advice of the venerable archbishop of Braga, who counselled him to stay in Rome in service of the Church. Accepting this as God’s will, St. Charles would spend the rest of his life untiringly laboring for the good of the Church and the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom.

When his older brother unexpectedly died in late 1562, Charles, as the remaining male heir of the Borromeo family, was urged to abandon his ecclesiastical offices and marry. He, however, seeing the futility of worldly pursuits, decided to live henceforth only for Christ. The following year, after giving up most of his estates and benefices, he was ordained priest and, three months later, consecrated bishop. In 1564 he became archbishop of Milan but, being needed by the Pope in Rome, wasn’t permitted to take up residence in his archdiocese until two years later.

Apostle of the Council of Trent

Pius IV, at the insistence of his nephew, reconvened the Council of Trent, which had been interrupted for the previous ten years. Under the skilful organization and zealous oversight of cardinal Borromeo the great Council was successfully concluded by the end of 1563. It condemned Protestant heresies and clarified and confirmed Catholic dogmas and doctrines – particularly those that had been disputed by the Protestants. It also anathematized anyone who denied these doctrines. [Modern-day Catholics would be well advised to have a look at these anathemas, for the things condemned by the sacred Council – and by any Council from Nicea to Vatican I – are the very same that multitudes of those who claim to be Catholic believe, propagate and practice today.]

The Council also instituted reform of education, life and discipline of the clergy and religious, tightened organization of religious institutions, and clamped down on various ecclesiastical abuses and excesses which had become widespread in the Renaissance Church. The texts of the Council of Trent can be read here:

St. Charles also supervised the compilation of the Catechism of the Council of Trent (issued by St. Pius V; here is the pdf version of the Church’s finest, soundest and most complete catechism), the Missal and the Breviary.

St. Pius V

Pope St. Pius V

Upon the death of his uncle Pope Pius IV, cardinal Borromeo wholeheartedly supported the Dominican friar and cardinal of Alessandria, Michele Ghislieri, who was noted for his holiness and zeal. The other cardinals followed his advice and Ghislieri was raised to the throne of St. Peter, taking the name of Pius V. (St. Charles put all personal interests and considerations aside, for relations between his uncle Pius IV and cardinal Ghislieri had been far from amicable, and did what he knew to be best for the glory of God, the Church and salvation of souls.) Charles held Pius V in great esteem and veneration and wrote, shortly after the election, in a letter to the cardinal of Portugal: “Let us mutually rejoice that we have in him a wise and prudent Pontiff whose holiness is so great that it seems incapable, indeed, of increase…” St. Pius V also came to greatly esteem and love St. Charles. And so two of our most glorious saints were brought together to fight and root out heresy, corruption and immorality wherever they found them.

St. Charles was also involved in the implementation of liturgical norms, and even helped to reform liturgical music, restoring the sense of sacredness. (During the Renaissance period church music became corrupted by the use of secular tunes and songs which appealed to the taste of the age, and even the liturgical ones became too florid and extravagant, discouraging piety and attracting many to church only for the musical performance.) St. Charles supported sacred polyphony and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, who to this day is considered the greatest composer of sacred music.

The task of applying and enforcing the decrees of the Council of Trent, first in Rome, then Milan, became the life-work of St. Charles Borromeo. As soon as the Council ended he started putting to action the vast program of reforms, beginning with the restoration of discipline and morality of clergy, religious and laymen, as well as promotion of solid religious education. Mere months after he put into practice the new rules transformation of Rome became palpable.

Restoration of morality, piety and religious instruction in Milan

Shortly after Pius V rose to papacy cardinal Borromeo was at last able to take care of his own archdiocese of Milan – at the time Italy’s largest with over 600,000 souls and some 3,000 clergy. A daunting task awaited him. Milan had not had a resident bishop for eight decades; conditions were disastrous. Multitudes – rich and poor alike – were plunged in sin and iniquity of every kind, children were growing up without knowledge and fear of God, vast numbers of adults had not been to confession for years and decades (if ever!), clerical discipline was non-existent, priests were ignorant, lazy and led worldly and scandalous lives, monasteries were plagued by disorder.

The situation was so dire that reform may well have seemed impossible. St. Charles, never losing heart, put his whole confidence in Divine assistance and gave himself entirely to the duty of bringing souls back to God. He knew that where the priesthood was holy the laity would follow; where the priesthood was relaxed the laity would fall. Therefore the work had to begin with a spiritual reform of clergy – rooting out laxity, vice and abuses. He started with the bishops, who were to be an example to their priests and laymen. To rid the Church of any corruption Charles replaced unworthy men with ones of exemplary life, great personal integrity and piety. Prelates and priests were expected to be resident in their respective dioceses and parishes, be free of worldly attachments and ambitions, recite all the hours of the Divine Office in choir, dismiss any females (including female relatives) from their households, etc. All priests were ordered to wear the cassock. Those who possessed several benefices had to resign all but one.

The saint also reformed monastic life, bringing back obedience to the old rules of the Orders and imposing the regulations of the Council of Trent (including insistence on strict enclosure). This cost him much time, prayer and tears, for many monasteries, especially the female branches, initially refused to obey the rules and reforms he prescribed.

For the benefit of his flock cardinal Borromeo took a very firm – and public – stand on the popular vices and evil customs of the day. Disorder and immorality were no longer tolerated, work on Sunday was strictly forbidden, entertainments on Sundays (and holy days) censured, observance of Lent made mandatory. Those known to be openly leading a life of sin were instructed, reprimanded and, if they refused to made amends, punished. In order that the Holy Name of God be revered by all the saint enacted harsh penalties against blasphemers and those who harbored them or neglected to correct blasphemy. Numerous were his regulations for restoration of Christian morals, for he – as a good shepherd – loved his sheep even to the point of laying down his life if that were the price for saving their souls.

This courageous action against disorder and sin earned St. Charles much hostility, as well as the reputation of a kill-joy. Yet, while certainly rigorous and uncompromising, the person he was most severe with was himself. Always striving to set a personal example of discipline, virtue and moral standards, he first enforced upon himself all that he preached to others.

In fact the archbishop’s first act in Milan was a reform of his own household. He reduced staff (keeping only priests of exemplary life), sold all superfluous luxuries to help feed poor families, forbade his retainers to accept any gifts, and imposed such discipline on all members that his court surpassed, in devotion and modesty, even the strictest religious houses.

St. Charles Borromeo (pic3)

Saint Charles Borromeo
(by Giambattista Tiepolo)

St. Charles had so great a respect for the ecclesiastical habit, which he had worn since childhood, that he avoided even the smallest act of levity that was unbefitting his vocation. He led an ascetic life, arming himself for the tasks ahead with fervent prayer and devotions, severe fasts, mortifications and austerities. But above all things, and throughout his entire life, he was most careful to preserve his heart and soul from every stain of impurity which he abhorred as contrary to the angelic virtue required in ecclesiastical persons. His love of purity was such that he never let anyone see his arm, foot, or any other part of his body uncovered; nor did he speak to any woman, not even to pious relations, or any nun, without at least two people being present, and even then as briefly as possible. Keeping himself far from every stain, he could not bear to hear anyone utter a single impure word.

St. Charles went to confession every morning – before celebrating Mass, and instructed his priests to confess at least once a week. He had a great respect for the liturgy and insisted on scrupulous reverence and decorum not only in celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass but also in recitation of the Divine Office and in all religious rites and ceremonies. The habitual neglect of the Sacraments, gross abuses in religious practices and irreverence for holy places and things he encountered in Milan greatly grieved the archbishop. It was thanks to him that beauty, dignity and splendor were restored to liturgy, and abuses were suppressed with all severity.

The saint’s devotion and fervor for the glory of God quickly rubbed off on the Milanese, whose love and reverence for all holy things greatly increased. The previously deserted cathedral had people flocking to the services of the Church; their dedication to the worship of God rose as soon as they saw it worthily celebrated. To further draw their hearts to the love of God the saintly archbishop revived and encouraged devotions (including the ancient Forty Hours devotion), Eucharistic processions, adoration and pilgrimages (especially to the Holy Shroud of Turin and to Marian shrines).


The Vision of St. Charles Borromeo

Proper education and training of priests and solid instruction in Catechism and Catholic doctrine for laity was a priority for St. Charles. He established many seminaries and colleges for the education of clergy, and founded the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine with schools teaching the Catechism to children (these were the first Sunday Schools; by time of his death there were 740 such schools in the archdiocese, with over 40,000 pupils). Also founded by the saint were the Oblates of St. Ambrose, a secular fraternity of priests who supported him in religious works wherever they were needed. Nor did he neglect to establish throughout his archdiocese schools for instruction of the poor, orphanages and hospitals.

St. Charles’ zeal and care for the souls of his charges eventually bore wonderful fruits and his became the model see not only in Italy but in all Catholic lands.

Pastoral visits

As archbishop he held six provincial councils and eleven diocesan synods, and traveled untiringly on pastoral visitations throughout his vast archdiocese, three times visiting every single parish. At the request of the popes he also made apostolic visitations to many other provinces. Even the most remote and inaccessible Alpine regions, completely abandoned by clergy, St. Charles deemed important enough to merit his time and effort. He would endure any privation and hardship (traveling on horseback and by foot, in heat and snow, lacking food and shelter) to win a soul for Christ.

Everywhere he went he found profound ignorance, rampant immorality, profanation, lack of reverence for the Sacraments and for priests, and almost no knowledge of God and His law. And so he wept and prayed, preached and catechized, admonished and instructed, drove out heresy, enacted reforms, replaced unworthy priests by pious and zealous ones, and restored dignity to divine service. As in Milan so in the poor mountain parishes, words of the holy man of God went straight to the sinners’ hearts. Countless souls destined for damnation were converted after hearing a single sermon, a few words of instruction, or a heartfelt plea from St. Charles.

In the Swiss valleys many were infected with the heresies of Zwingli, Calvin and Luther and the false doctrines of liberty of conscience, freedom to sin, life according to flesh and everything contrary to the law of God. The saint, deeply grieved at seeing so many on the road to perdition, succeeded in delivering countless souls from heresy and apostasy to God. His exhortations and sermons, and more so his personal holiness, worked miracles at bringing those deceived by false prophets back into the Church. The people, seeing his self-denial and austerities combined with such zeal for their salvation, highly esteemed the sanctity of the cardinal – this being quite the contrary of what heretical preachers had told them about prelates. Even in regions where all had lost the faith most people welcomed St. Charles with respect and joy, and were often well disposed for conversion at his bidding, for anywhere he went his reputation preceded him.

It was thanks to these extraordinary efforts and labors that the faith was preserved and heresy and debauchery defeated in the archdiocese of Milan and other territories under the influence of St. Charles Borromeo.


The incorrupt heart of St. Charles Borromeo
(Basilica dei Santi Ambrogio e Carlo al Corso, Rome)

Conflicts and assassination attempts

His necessary toughness in implementation of the Council of Trent and restoration of order and morals made the saint many enemies. For much of his life he suffered calumnies, false accusations and evil rumors propagated not just by heretics and incorrigible sinners but also clerics and religious who disliked his enforcement of strict ecclesiastical discipline. St. Charles paid no attention and simply fought on, working for God and the Church, with no care for himself, no thought for the judgement of men, nor fear of his powerful adversaries.

He never shrank from his duty to save souls and protect his flock from harm. When it brought him into conflicts with the secular powers he stood his ground and put all his trust in the Lord. His actions against highly placed laity, whose disorderly lives were causing public scandal, resulted in several efforts for his removal from office. (While episcopal jurisdiction in temporal things was still to a certain extent recognized – though not as commonly and extensively as in the medieval period – it wasn’t, in practice, respected in Milan when St. Charles became archbishop.)

When certain nobles living in public adultery proved impervious to his exhortations and attempts to win them to a better life, the saint, seeing the infinite harm caused by their example to the rest of his flock, ordered them to be imprisoned. (If public vice was allowed to pass unpunished, what hope was there for regeneration of the city and conversion of the people to honest, God-fearing lives?) The senate, seeing this as undue interference in secular matters, had the sheriff of the episcopal court seized, publicly beaten and banished from the city. After prayer and careful deliberation St. Charles declared several of the civil officials excommunicated. Both parties made formal complaints to Philip II; the king referred the matter to the Pope who upheld the archbishop.

In 1569 the canons of Santa Maria della Scala (a church under royal patronage), who lived lives unworthy of clergy, refused to accept the archbishop’s jurisdiction. When he tried to conduct a canonical visitation the canons insulted and attacked him; one of their armed supporters fired a shot, damaging the cross the saint was carrying. Throughout all this St. Charles stood brave and resigned, eyes fixed upon the crucifix, lips moving in silent prayer. Once again he had to resort to excommunication. The governor and senate sided with the canons and complained to both king and Pope, shamelessly accusing the holy prelate of treason, threatening to imprison and banish him. St. Pius V approved of the archbishop’s actions and expressed his astonishment that the people of Milan would not respect so good and holy a man whose only object and desire was to secure the salvation of the souls committed to his care. He further wrote (in a letter to the governor) that nothing could be more glorious to Charles Borromeo than to suffer banishment or death in the faithful discharge of his duty and in defense of the Church, and that the devil had stirred up this persecution to hinder the good effect of the archbishop’s zealous endeavors. Very shortly thereafter two of the chief actors in that outrage, including one who had shot at the cross, died sudden and miserable deaths.

Only a few months later St. Charles survived, quite miraculously, the most serious attempt on his life. Priors of the Humiliati – a decayed penitential order unwilling to submit to reform – plotted to have archbishop Borromeo murdered. A religious of the order, paid to carry out the hit, fired a shot at the saint – from a distance of four or five meters – as he was kneeling at the altar of his chapel. St. Charles, believing himself mortally wounded, calmly finished his prayers, signaling his staff to do likewise, and offered his life to God, thanking Him for allowing him to die for His Church.


St. Charles’ vestments scorched by the bullet
(Basilica di Sant’ Ambrogio, Milan)

When the prayers were concluded the archbishop was found to be unharmed. The bullet had struck him on the spine, but instead of piercing him through and through it inexplicably fell down to his feet, leaving nothing but a slight swelling on the skin and the marks on his – pierced and scorched – vestments. (Whilst the bullet dared not shed the saint’s blood, some of the remaining shot penetrated a table of solid wood standing nearby, and made a hole in the wall.) The Lord wanted St. Charles to continue His labors on earth for 15 more years before allowing him to take his just reward in heaven.

The archbishop withdrew, for a few days, to a Carthusian monastery, and there made a new offer of his life to God and the Church. Meanwhile the news of his miraculous preservation turned the open hostility of his enemies into sympathy and admiration. Even the rebellious canons of La Scala humbled themselves and submitted, upon which the archbishop lifted their excommunication and ensured the culprits would be treated with leniency. Similarly, when his would-be assassin was captured, the saint begged the Pope to pardon him, but St. Pius V could not allow such injustice; the man was executed and the order of the Humiliati abolished.

It wasn’t long before St. Charles’ problems with Milan’s secular powers resumed. The new governor, whom the archbishop had considered a friend, soon began attacking him and infringing upon the rights of the Church. St. Charles sought advice of the Pope (Gregory XIII, St. Pius V having died in 1572) who instructed him to excommunicate the governor and all those who had aided him in rebellion against the Church’s authority. Following the excommunication the governor became an open enemy, interfering with the saint wherever he could. He hindered the meetings of Confraternities, sent armed men to take possession of the Borromeo family castle of Arona, and posted several companies of infantry and cavalry outside the archiepiscopal palace as though the archbishop was a state prisoner (which did not deter St. Charles who continued to go in and out as his duties required, without regard to the threat). At last king Philip II transferred the governor to Flanders where he soon became ill and, after two years of terrible suffering, died.

The archbishop’s battles with the civil government were not over, however; the next governor was just as determined to bring down ecclesiastical authority as his predecessor. Although Pope Gregory XIII had backed St. Charles, the governor was not deterred and continued acting – and encouraging the people to act – against his ordinances. To ensure proper observance of Lent, St. Charles forbade any balls, festivities and tournaments to take place during the forty days. Rebelling against the order, his enemies organized a public tournament the first Sunday of Lent, in front of the cathedral. In response the archbishop excommunicated all those who had participated in that grotesque act of impiety. Shortly thereafter the wretched governor became gravely ill and died.

Humility and charity

St. Charles was not only famous for his strictness but also his great humility and charity. He would not let any praise or flattery be directed at himself, and never spoke of his own actions unless to ask for advice or to condemn his deficiencies. He was grateful to those who would point out any faults they might see in him, and often implored people that they may do him this favor. No matter how he was treated, he always considered it better than he deserved. Whenever he encountered any obstacles in doing all the good he wished, instead of blaming the parties responsible for the troubles, he put it down to his own sins and shortcomings. Always displeased when hearing of virtues being ascribed to him, he tried to conceal them as much as possible to dispel the idea that he was a saint.


St. Charles Borromeo Administering the Sacrament to Plague Victims (by S.Caula)

St. Charles’ entire life was a testimony of boundless charity and care of others; examples of his selfless assistance to the people of his diocese would fill volumes. During the plague and famine of 1576 he spent all of his money, and even incurred great debts, to daily feed 60,000 people. When the plague broke out many people – including the governor and nobles – fled Milan. The saint not only stayed but dedicated himself entirely to the poor wretches – distributing food, clothes and alms, visiting the sick in their homes, and working at the hospital where the plague-stricken were isolated and left to die. Their archbishop was the only one who would not forsake them, administering the last Sacraments and providing much needed spiritual consolation in their final hours. The clergy of Milan refused to help him in such work, so he sent for (comparatively fearless) priests and laymen from the Swiss valleys. Finally, shamed by St. Charles’ heroism, many Milanese – laymen and clergy – offered their aid.

Sin being the cause of scourges, the saint, at the foot of the altar, made a voluntary sacrifice of himself, offering his life – if God would accept it – in atonement for the iniquities of his people. He redoubled on his already severe bodily discipline, fasts and mortifications, and urged people to do penance. In penitential processions he walked with a rope around his neck, his feet bare and bleeding, a large crucifix (along with a relic of the Holy Nail of the Passion of Our Lord) in his hand, endeavoring to turn away the just anger of God.

St. Charles Borromeo (pic2)

St. Charles Borromeo and Two Angels
(by A. Grammatica)

Altars were erected in the streets throughout the city so that all people, quarantined in their homes, could assist at daily Mass from their windows. Priests went from house to house, hearing confessions on the doorstep (the penitents kneeling inside behind the door), and on Sundays parish priests went round with the Blessed Sacrament, giving Holy Communion to people on their doorsteps. Prayers, psalms and hymns were sung seven times a day (after the manner of the canonical hours), and all the inhabitants attended at their windows, making the responses on their knees. St. Charles thus united the whole city to offer praise to God in one voice.

All for the glory of God

It is well to remember that, while practicing personal poverty, humility, and contempt for earthly things, the saint at the same time maintained the splendor of his ecclesiastical dignity. He understood the obligation of giving due honor to his office of archbishop and cardinal – for the glory of God and edification of his people. When he was speaking in his own person, he placed himself below all, but when he spoke as cardinal he justly deemed himself above every other dignity inferior to his own. In the same manner, he required due honor and respect to be paid to the office of bishop, which he deemed as much above any worldly dignity as the spiritual is above the temporal. [He would never tolerate those who, in a outward show of (false) humility and poverty, take away the respect and honor due to God and the Church… which is precisely what the wretched prelates of our times are wont to do.]

St. Charles, as his rank required, dressed with great decorum and solemnity. Yet underneath the external grandeur of a cardinal he always wore a rough hair shirt and so, unknown to others, practiced penance for his sins and those of his people. Many times when visiting churches in pilgrimage he wore shoes without any soles in order to have only the pain but not the praise of men.

Once St. Charles, sitting in his carriage, was approached and greeted by a friar. The friar, who was walking on foot, made a remark about the benefits of a cardinal’s office with splendid robes, magnificent carriages, and such. The saint responded by inviting him to journey in his carriage. Yet barely had the friar taken a seat he started crying out in pain; placed beneath the beautiful cushions of the benches were iron nails the holy prelate used to mortify himself. The friar, unable to tolerate the pain, begged to be let out, gladly returning to the comfort of traveling by foot.

The beauty and grandeur were there to glorify God before the people, and to make them conscious of the importance of Divine things. The mortification was directed and offered to the Lord and therefore best done in secret – lest one might become tempted to seek admiration and praise of others. [Is the modern attitude not rather the opposite? A mask of outward humility covering souls full of pride…]

St. Charles was also responsible for magnificent restoration and rich adornment of many churches in Milan, Rome and elsewhere; the seminaries, schools, convents, archiepiscopal palace and other ecclesiastical structures he built were equally admirable for their beauty. From the houses of God he removed everything that was unbecoming, such as profane statues and paintings, military flags, memorials of nobility, etc. This he did throughout his archdiocese despite strong opposition, for his sole regard was for God’s honor rather than gratification of human inclinations. He enriched churches with both material and spiritual treasures. A priest, amazed at seeing the transformation carried out by the archbishop, left this testimony: “His church fills every one with astonishment, and seems like the palace of Solomon, and the temple of Jerusalem.”

When it came to altars, sacred vessels and anything else required for Holy Mass and the other offices, St. Charles spared no expense in order that everything might correspond with the majesty and glory of God. He was of one mind with all the saints in that it is our duty to give God only the best, the most splendid of everything. [This is another message entirely lost (on purpose, one must say) on the modernist destroyers – clergy and laity alike – who strip churches, altars and tabernacles of everything that was, in beauty and magnificence, duly glorifying God, and build barren, ugly-as-sin, soul- and faith-destroying edifices befitting their blasphemous cult of man.]


Duomo, Milan

St. Charles understood the importance of the majesty and exactness of ritual, and insisted on observance of proper ceremonies even to the smallest particulars, not allowing any deviation. He considered nothing unimportant that appertained to the worship of God, though it might seem so to ordinary people. Detailed rules were laid down for the clergy in saying the Divine Office, to increase devotion and attention paid to its recitation.

The saint insisted on respect and veneration for holy places, to which testify his many decrees regulating behavior in churches. He forbade chattering and walking about, made men sit separately from women, required women to veil their heads and men to wear cloaks, among other things. All were expected to assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with utmost reverence, piety and devotion, and all public and scandalous sinners were excluded as unworthy to be present. Seculars, of course, were not allowed to enter the choir or approach the altars – and no one, not even the king, was exempt from these rules.

The archbishop also restored proper observance of Advent and Lent, of vigils and ember days, into which many abuses had crept. He was especially careful to ensure veneration for the Blessed Sacrament and decreed that it be reverently kept in all churches upon the high altar, in tabernacles of the greatest possible beauty and splendor, with a lamp constantly burning. On no occasion could the Blessed Sacrament be removed to any other and inferior altar, for it would be unbecoming of His Divine Majesty.

Putting all of this into practice cost the saint much difficulty and grief amid great opposition, but he never relented and in the end saw an almost miraculous transformation of his archdiocese. What had previously been known for its abuses, corruption, scandal and sin became a spiritual garden or, in the words of one cardinal, “heavenly Jerusalem”.

Spiritual life

St. Charles was immersed in the world, from his birth to his death, and yet no man was less of the world.

While men of the world try to avoid suffering and become attached to every comfort, Charles Borromeo, on the contrary, avoided every comfort and sought for greater suffering and bodily affliction. He renounced any sentiments of self-love and became perfectly disengaged from all earthly things and desires, to be absorbed only in God. The passions that so often blind and influence even the best of men had no place in his heart. Wealth, which is a source of danger to most, in his hands turned into an instrument to advance the glory of God, and an incentive for even greater watchfulness in working out his salvation. God, in His mercy, amidst all the prosperity let Charles see the worthlessness and vanity of earthly things, fixing his mind on the true riches of heaven.

In spite of his important roles and incredible activity and labors, he managed to lived the life of a contemplative. Even among the saints it is exceedingly rare to find one who so perfectly mastered both the active and the contemplative. St. Charles’s life was indeed one long act of prayer, mortification and self-denial.

Prayer was his nourishment and delight; in prayer he was immersed many hours of the day and night. “Souls,” he used to say, “have to be gained on the knees.” On any occasion of importance for the Church or public welfare, or when visiting holy places and relics of saints, he would remain all night in contemplation, denying himself even the few hours of bodily rest. He was wont to pass whole nights in prayer in the church of St. Ambrose in Milan – before the relics of the saint, and in the Catacombs of Rome. When on the road he spent all the time completely absorbed in prayer. Even while occupied with business he was in the presence of God, mind always raised to heaven.

fasting of st charles

The Fasting of St. Charles (by Daniele Crespi)

Aside of devotion to prayer Cardinal Borromeo’s life was defined by strict discipline and great private and public penances. He chastised his body with daily fasts (in the later years on bread and water, except on Sundays and feast-days), wore a rough hair-shirt, and scourged himself mercilessly. He patiently endured heat and cold, even during his arduous journeys, never warming himself at the fire in the winter, nor wearing gloves and furs. Although by nature much inclined to sleep, he allowed himself very little rest, and that on a bed of straw (this being perhaps his greatest struggle between body and spirit).

All of this helped mortify his will and sanctify his soul, keeping him detached from the temptations that overwhelm lesser men. By this strictness and austerity of life he also strove to make up for the honors and dignities which were forced upon him. (It is no coincidence that almost all great saints have chosen the path of constant mortification. And while many – especially today! – consider this excessive, it’s well to note that as severe as the penances were they never prevented St. Charles from doing his labors in the service of God.)

No matter how exhausted, he never neglected any of his religious duties, not even in grave sickness. The Divine Office he always recited kneeling, as well as the Little Office of Blessed Virgin Mary and the rosary. Likewise he read the Holy Scriptures on his knees. When he heard the Angelus ring he knelt down wherever he might be, even in the mud. Many times during mental prayer or while saying the Office he went into ecstasies.

A rule St. Charles inviolably observed was to go to confession every morning – before saying Mass, and to make a spiritual retreat at a monastery twice a year, where he always made a general confession. Out of respect and devotion to the Holy Sacrifice he always kept rigorous silence (unless very important business intervened) from the evening prayer and meditation until the next day after Mass and thanksgiving. It was, he used to say, unbecoming a priest to apply his mind to any temporal business before that great duty.

As already mentioned, the saint was indignant upon seeing any irreverence, profanation or lack of honor for God and all things divine. It is then no surprise that he discharged all religious duties not only with the greatest attention but also with the most perfect ceremonial, even in the mountain villages and among the simplest people – because he had no regard to place or persons but only to the majesty of God whom he was serving. He would rather omit a function than perform it with the least defect or imperfection.


St. Charles in prayer

Cardinal Borromeo had an extraordinary devotion to the Blessed Virgin; he put all his colleges under her patronage and recommended everyone – even soldiers – to daily recite her Office and rosary. He was devoted to St. Ambrose whom he took as his patron and model of holiness and whose picture he always kept near; and to the Milanese martyrs Sts. Gervasius and Protasius. He also carried on him a small picture of the English bishop and saint John Fisher, martyred by Henry VIII. Great was his veneration of holy relics. He undertook long journeys to visit relics of saints and martyrs, passing whole nights in prayer before them. A relic of the True Cross was one he always carried on his body.

The Passion of Christ was a constant object of St. Charles’ devotions and meditations. He had a great reverence for all its sacred instruments, including the relics of the Holy Nail and especially the Holy Shroud of Turin to which he made several pilgrimages. At Rome he frequently spent long hours (and sometimes whole nights) on his knees in the chapel of the holy pillar of Flagellation in the basilica of St. Praxedes, as well as in other places of devotion. Whenever able he visited sacred places, churches, the stations of the Cross – and encouraged others to do likewise.

St. Charles’ example of great personal holiness and virtuous living was edifying to everyone around him. He would spare no effort to try and save souls over whom he had been appointed to watch, fervently working for their conversion and sanctification. But it was above all his personal example and sanctity that converted countless obdurate sinners as well as Protestant heretics.

To a layman asking for instructions for gaining heaven, the saint gave this answer: “Whoever desires to make progress in the way that leads to God must always endeavor to serve God with the same fervor as if he were making a fresh beginning every day; he must always walk in the presence of God, and make Him the end of all his actions.”

No human respect

His heart and soul turned solely to God, and never seeking anything but His greater glory, St. Charles feared no man’s censure and coveted no man’s praise. Unlike the feeble prelates and men of our day, he never hesitated to sacrifice his personal popularity, welfare and even safety for the good of the Church and the Faith. He had a sincere contempt for the opinion and false maxims of the world. His fear of God and hatred of sin made him so upright and uncompromising that neither respect for princes, nor favor of friends and relations, nor promises or threats had any influence over him.

He held truth and sincerity in so great esteem that he could not endure flatterers – who deceive with their words – and would not have anything to do with such persons, considering them a cause of many evils. Candor and sincerity are required of those who profess to be Catholics, and cardinal Borromeo was always sincere with others, regardless of their rank – Pontiffs and princes included, never allowing himself to be affected by any human respect. He never failed to admonish all who needed it, and was even more ready to perform this act of charity for princes and prelates, knowing they had few or none to tell them the truth.

He met opposition with unalterable firmness and resolutely enforced observance of his decrees. No one would ever be able to divert him from the course or make him change his mind when he knew to be doing the right thing for the glory of God and the good of souls. The saint was very disapproving when he saw prelates yielding, for no sufficiently grave reason, to laity and secular powers. His readiness to offer up his life in defense of the rights of God and of His Church gave him the fortitude to act regardless of danger.

Once criticism was directed at the saint for his nine day long pilgrimage (to the Holy Shroud) done solely by foot. Many – including Pope Gregory XIII – censured him, for they saw it unfitting of a prelate to journey in such manner through the country. Cardinal Borromeo, not in the least disturbed, wrote, in a letter to Rome: “I wish you to understand that on such occasions the principal thing is to do what one considers right and to be perfectly indifferent to the world’s opinions.”

Carrying the cross with joy and total trust in God

“All that will live godly in Christ Jesus, shall suffer persecution.” (2 Tim. 3:12).

“The servant is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20)

St. Charles Borromeo, one of God’s greatest and most blameless saints, had abuse heaped upon him during much of his life, not only by worldly men but also religious. The fact that he always stood up for righteousness and truth and was an incorruptible defender of Divine law and justice brought him the hostility of powerful men, the distrust of the nobility, clergy, and people, and eventually drew upon him the deadly hatred of the wicked, so that his very life was sought. Placing all his trust in God, he held out against all of this with invincible courage.


Crucifixion by Guido Reni
(San Lorenzo in Lucina church, Rome)

Malicious men always took exception at the saint’s exemplary spiritual life, calling him a hypocrite and impostor. He was insulted, calumniated and slandered, yet bore all patiently for the love of God, remembering how Jesus endured everything that was sent Him. He accepted the sufferings as mortifications that would further purify his soul and detach him more perfectly from the world. To be scoffed at, insulted, and abandoned was an honor, for it allowed him to bear what Christ bore, thus bringing him even closer to the Lord. What to others is a cross of pain to St. Charles was a crown of glory. The more bitter the cup became, the more he gave thanks to God for being allowed to suffer with his Savior.

St. Charles said that the whole of the Catholic faith was summed up in the love for the cross. And so he was always eager to suffer more for our Lord, and to offer his life for the love of Him. The cardinal’s vestments were by their color a constant reminder to him that he might be called upon to suffer death for Christ’s sake: “I am clothed in red in token that I am ready to shed my blood in the service of the Church.” As his fellow cardinals later testified, “martyrdom stopped short of him, not he of martyrdom”.

St. Charles’ confidence in God was so great that he had no doubt whatsoever that He would take care of him. He knew that as long as he conformed to God’s Will he had nothing to fear, and thus was not daunted by any threats and attacks. Because the only motive in all his undertakings had been to promote the glory of God and to defend the rights of His Church, his good conscience and total trust in Divine Providence made him invincible.

The saint used to say that he who serves God with a pure intention, casting aside all self-interest and seeking only His glory, may always hope for success, especially when, according to human judgement, there seems to be only failure. Therefore he exhorted everyone to have complete confidence in God, who never abandons those who place their trust in Him. St. Charles’ success in so many undertakings which to human judgement seemed impossible attests to that truth.

Against heresies

It has always been the case that in times of grave danger to the Faith and to Holy Mother Church God raised great of saints to defend the Truth. St. Athanasius, a 4th century titan of the orthodoxy (followed by a few others – St. Hilary, St. Ambrose, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzen) near single-handedly saved the true Faith when almost all had embraced the Arian heresy. St. Dominic fought against the heresy of the Albigensians (Cathars). And the 16th century was the time of the glorious saints of the Counter-Reformation: St. Pius V, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis de Sales, St. Peter Canisius, St. Teresa of Avila, and several others.

The Church at that time was in a deplorable state. The faith had grown dormant and almost extinct in many, discipline and morals had been dethroned in both the clergy and the flock. Luther, who started his revolt 21 years before Charles Borromeo was born, brought, with his followers, devastation and ruin to millions of souls, perverting the knowledge of the truth and further corrupting morals.

Defense of the faith against the heresies that threaten destruction of souls is a mission and duty of the Church – a fact the great saints and popes were always keenly aware of.

St. Charles spared no effort to preserve the Church from the least taint of error and to suppress and extirpate heresy. “It is a certain and well-recognized fact that by no other crime is God more gravely offended, by none provoked to greater wrath, than by the vice of heresy, and that nothing contributes more to the ruin of provinces and kingdoms than this frightful pest.” – Cardinal Borromeo

St. Charles Borromeo (pic)

St. Charles Borromeo Archbishop of Milan (by Carlo Dolci)

The saint left nothing undone to check the spread of heresy in Europe. In accordance with the decrees of the Council of Trent he ordered all libraries to be examined and every doubtful book to be cast out, forbade the printing of books suspected of heresy or contrary to good morals, and directed that schoolmasters should be men of good repute and should pay more attention to teaching of faith and doctrine instead of mere book-learning. When any heretic had occasion to enter his diocese he required notice to be given of it, lest Catholics should be perverted. Heretics were not allowed to enter churches except during sermons, and were forbidden to display any outward signs of heresy (for instance eating meat on Fridays, etc) so as not to cause public scandal and dishonor God among the people.

St. Charles also required the profession of faith and obedience to the Supreme Pontiff from all clergy and religious, from preachers and confessors coming from other provinces, as well as from physicians, surgeons, schoolmasters, teachers, lawyers, booksellers and printers of books. Any who were not good Catholics were prevented from holding such offices, in order that danger to souls might be avoided.

He knew it was bishops’ duty to purge their dioceses of the evil of heresy. In the second Provincial Council of Milan he addressed the bishops and priests with these words:

“Fathers, this is our duty, and our office, placed as we are in the exalted seat of episcopal dignity, to look out for dangers as from a watch-tower, and to repel them when they threaten those who are resting under our charge and care. As parents we ought to have a fatherly oversight of our sons; as pastors never to take our eyes off the sheep which Jesus Christ has delivered by His holy death from the mouth of hell; and if any are being corrupted by the impurity of vice, to heal them with the sharpness of salt; if any be wandering in moral darkness, we ought to hold the light before them…”

He continued: “But if we act otherwise, at the fearful judgment of God, when we shall give an account of the souls entrusted to our charge and care, we shall hear their accusing cries, and the anger of the Judge sharply upbraiding us, and saying: ‘If you were watchmen, why were you blind? If pastors, why did you let the flock committed to you wander? If the salt of the earth, how did you lose its savor? If you were the light, why did you not shine to them that sat in darkness and the shadow of death? If apostles, why did you not use apostolic power, why did you do all things for the eyes of men? If you were the mouth of the Lord, why were you dumb? If you knew yourselves unequal to this burden, why so ambitious? If equal to it, why so careless and neglectful?”

“Hence the Bishop must, above all things, persevere in this eternal solicitude and continuous vigilance, not only to prevent the most pestilent disease of heresy from penetrating among the flock committed to him, but even to remove the faintest suspicion of it from them. And if it should happen to penetrate, which may the Lord Christ in His pitiful mercy forbid!, then he must strive at once by all means in his power to have it driven out immediately, and he must have those who are infected or under suspicion of being infected with the pestilence treated according to the pontifical canons and sanctions.”

[O how much we, who live in an age when the truth has been all but lost and falsehood and perversion reign supreme, need holy, fearless and uncompromising prelates in the mold of St. Charles Borromeo… and pontiffs like St. Pius V!]

End of life

Despite his arduous work, fatiguing travels, and a rule of life so strict it was almost not in human power to fulfil it, St. Charles never showed any signs of weariness. It was thought something miraculous that the cardinal, whose health was always delicate, could bear so much, especially considered how little rest he took and how great his austerities and mortifications were. His apostolic zeal and untiring care for the beloved flock made all labor and hardship easy to him.


St. Charles Borromeo Tended by an Angel
(by Francesco Caccianiga)

It was November 3, 1584 when the Lord at last granted the holy prelate what he had been yearning for, and took him to his just reward. St. Charles was only 46 when he died, spent from his fervent labors for the glory of God. Even in his last days, consumed with fever and pain, he would not give up his vigils, fast and austerities. He desired to leave this world in sackcloth and ashes and so, as his final hour was approaching, the priests of his household dressed him in penitential garb and sprinkled him with ashes. In this manner – a fitting conclusion of a life of continual penance – St. Charles expired. His last words were “Ecce venio” (Behold, I come).

Never before had Milan seen such grief and sorrow as overtook the city at his passing, and the loss was equally lamented in Rome and by Catholics throughout the world. He who had been a burning light shining before the whole Church would now have an even greater lustre and glory in heaven. (In the days after his death the saint appeared, clothed in great light and glory, to several priests, including his spiritual director Father Adorno to whom he foretold he’d soon follow him to heaven – which came true a few months later.)

In his life Cardinal Borromeo held a remarkable position of influence in Europe – his opinion and advice were sought by all the Popes under whom he lived as well as by many European sovereigns (whose high opinion and reverence for him is attested by the 31 volumes of letters addressed to the saint by eminent persons from all parts of the continent, including Protestant princes). He was admired by his fellow cardinals, priests and laity as a great model of holiness, virtue and zeal. Cardinal Baronius considered him “a second Ambrose, whose early death, lamented by all good men, inflicted great loss on the Church”.

Cardinal Sirleto wrote in his eulogy:

“Charles Borromeo, imprisoned in the body while his soul was in heaven, seemed to have nothing of the flesh in him save the outward appearance. In appearance he was a man, by grace an angel. He was a model of Christian piety, a mirror of the office of Bishop and Cardinal, a strong defense against the wicked.

He was a shining ornament of the Church of God. He was in life and holiness as salt, as a light by his learning and preaching, a city of defense on the hill of Sion, a burning lamp of the Gospel. He had the faith of a martyr, for he desired but had not the lot of martyrdom. In wisdom a Doctor of the Church, in his life a Confessor, he ruled with the discipline of a Pastor.

In innocence he was like Abel; in uprightness as Noe; in faith as Abraham; an Isaac in obedience; a Jacob in labor; a Joseph in chastity; a Moses in meekness; a David in humility; in zeal, Elias; a workman that needed not to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth, undertaking nothing save for the glory of God; with soul so established in Him that he never could be overcome; in one word, a treasure-house and home of every spiritual gift.”


Madonna and Child Enthroned with St. John the Baptist, St. Charles Borromeo and St. Mary Madgalene de Pazzi (by F. Curradi)

Gabriel Paleotto, Cardinal Archbishop of Bologna, called the saint “a new kind of relic in the body of a living man, a tabernacle containing a divine and holy spirit. A pattern of ancient discipline, a mirror of innocence, dwelling-place of all virtues, a model of episcopal dignity; setting a fresh example day by day of watchfulness, of pastoral solicitude, of a desire for heavenly things and a distaste for those of earth, of continual labor, of unusual abstinence, and of invincible constancy. He was an illustrious Prelate, shining like a sun, a most holy Cardinal, a pattern for Bishops of our time.”

Antonio Seneca, bishop of Anagni, who was during eight years a member of St. Charles’ household:

“Charles did perpetual violence to nature, most vigilant as he was and unwearied in watching over his senses, a model of holy living, a blameless pattern of evangelical life, a bright mirror of spirituality purified form passion and appetite. He joined prudence to simplicity, justice to mercy, a great heart to humility, severity to meekness, gravity to modesty, and discretion to zeal. He did not scatter or fleece the flock, but was a true shepherd. In the defense of his people and of the liberties of the Church he was like a stronghold, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass. Vigilant in rooting out vice, benevolent in correction, just in judgement, loving in punishment, patient of human weakness, quick to avenge disobedience, his justice was united with kindness, his severity with gentleness and peace. He was a diligent guardian of wholesome discipline both in priests and people.”

Miracles and canonization

Charles Borromeo is one of those saints whose holiness was widely acknowledged even during life. His reputation for virtue and sanctity was such that wherever he was passing people flocked to him in the thousands, kneeling on the roads to ask for his blessing. Cities were instantly transformed during his visits, the inhabitants willingly giving up their worldly amusements in order to attend to piety and devotion in the presence of the saintly prelate; churches and cathedrals were overflowing as everyone desired to hear his Mass and sermon and receive Holy Communion from his hands. (St. Charles used to preach and administer the Sacraments wherever he went, even beyond his province. Great multitudes received Holy Communion from him, especially on great festivals when he was occupied in this duty from early morning till vespers; on one occasion he gave Communion to as many as eleven thousand people.)

People’s joy at his presence was as overwhelming in cities as in the poorest and most remote mountain villages. They would always try to touch his vestments or secretly touch their rosaries to them – such was his reputation for sanctity. Objects belonging to him or touched by him were sought-after and revered by the faithful as relics even while the saint was still alive. The rooms in which he rested at night during his visitations were reverently kept, by the house owners, from profane use and converted to oratories or else deemed sacred after the cardinal had honored them by his presence. (Even many Protestant heretics were so convinced of St. Charles’ sanctity that they too carefully preserved, as precious treasures, objects that were used by or came into contact with him.)

The universal belief in the sanctity of the great prelate only increased after his death. Popular devotion and confidence in his intercession arose almost immediately; the people of Milan, on their own accord, kept the day of his death as a feast of obligation, adorned houses with his pictures and erected altars in his honor in different parts of the city. The veneration was strengthened by the numerous miracles and graces obtained through St. Charles’ intercession. Not only Milan but many other Italian and European cities hold records of many attested cases of miracles. More than a thousand miracles were evidenced to have been worked at the saint’s burial alone. The astonishing number of ex-votos in the Duomo of Milan testifies to the copious graces received by the holy cardinal’s intercession – just of the silver ex-votos there are more than ten thousand!


The Intercession of Charles Borromeo supported by the Virgin Mary,
by J.M.Rottmayr (Karlskirche, Vienna)

God was pleased to work miracles through St. Charles even in his lifetime, including several hundred astonishing and instant cures of simple people as well as clergy and nobility, many duly certified by physicians and under oath. Such was his fame of curing the dying by his blessing that he had to be careful about visiting the sick, for everyone wanted his blessing in the hope of being healed. During his visitations to the Swiss valleys, on at least two occasions the Lord, hearing St. Charles’ prayer, miraculously saved his companions who were at the point of drowning in a river or plunging to their deaths in the mountains. Numerous people possessed by evil spirits were freed after a benediction of the saintly archbishop.

Countless more prodigies occurred after his death, as were also wrought by his relics. The sick and disabled who paid a visit to St. Charles’ body (exposed for several days after his death) and touched it, in a belief of obtaining a cure by the merits of the great servant of God, were instantly healed of their maladies. Thousands of miracles, many recorded under oath for the canonization process, happened in the years following cardinal Borromeo’s entry to heaven. Great numbers of incurably ill were instantly restored to health, including those suffering from birth defects and paralytics who regained the use of their lame limbs upon praying at the saint’s tomb or in front of his pictures. In some cases St. Charles appeared, shining like the sun, to the sick and dying, in their sleep, to tell them they had been healed – and indeed upon awaking they found themselves restored to perfect health.

A boy born to an apothecary and his wife, who had already lost two small children to the same malady their youngest was born with, died on the sixth day of his life, in the presence of his parents, a nurse and matron; while the father went out to arrange for his funeral he implored St. Charles, to whom he was very devout, for help, and the dead child was not only restored to life with no sign of his illness but grew far stronger and more robust than common for his age. Another astonishing miracle involved giving sight to a boy born blind – without eyes in his sockets. The mother, devoted to St. Charles, named the newborn after him; on the 25th day after the child’s birth, while the mother was praying for his intercession, her daughter saw the saint, clad in his pontifical robes, appear in the air to give the boy his blessing; turning immediately to little Charles mother and daughter saw, to their astonishment, that he now had two perfectly formed and sound eyes.

There were also other types of prodigies, such as the saving of a ship about to go down in a storm; or the case when the saint appeared to a laborer who was taking his mid-day repose in a church, warning him to leave for the building was about to fall – the man fled in terror and, relating the vision to some people he met outside, was met with disbelief, only for them to see the church, apparently sound and strong, crumble to the earth in that very moment. In another documented case a boy fell into the river and, about to drown, called upon the saint for help; St. Charles took him in his arms and held him above the waters for a quarter of an hour until a boatman came to help, taking the child from his arms (a great multitude saw this marvel, though the saint himself was only visible to the boy).


Apotheosis of St. Charles Borromeo
(by J.M. Rottmayr)

Such miracles were not limited to Italy but were also recorded in other parts of Christendom, wherever people prayed for St. Charles’ intercession. The beneficiaries of miraculous cures included many members of nobility and even royalty, most notably in Poland. Relics of the saint were also held in great veneration by kings and commoners alike. The king of Spain preserved, with the greatest reverence and devotion, a small portion of the cardinal’s hair-shirt; his queen kept as a most precious treasure his chasuble. The Duke of Savoy was presented with the rochet in which St. Charles was buried and, in order to give it an honorable place, had it put in the same repository over the high altar in which the Holy Shroud was preserved. The Grand-Duke of Tuscany considered the pontifical glove of the saint he was presented with to be of greater value than any province of his states. The Archduke Maximilian of Austria held in similar reverence a small portion of one of the albs used by St. Charles. Pope Paul V preserved with great devotion part of the alb in which the saint was buried. Cardinal Baronius (whose own canonization cause was reopened a few years ago), upon receiving the stole that had belonged to St. Charles, would not even touch it, but struck his breast as unworthy even to hold so precious a relic in his hands. God was pleased to work miracles by His servant’s relics; mere contact with the things St. Charles had used was enough to drive away disease and infirmity. His shoes, also kept by cardinal Baronius, were used to successfully exorcise the possessed.

Spiritual graces obtained by the merits of the saint were even more abundant. Through his intercession countless obstinate sinners were converted; people who had lived depraved lives suddenly repented, became exceedingly devout and spent the rest of their days in penance for their past sins. St. Charles, in heaven, has continued to work for salvation of souls as he did while upon earth.

Charles Borromeo was beatified by Pope Paul V in 1602 and canonized on November 1, 1610. His feast day is celebrated on November 4.

A model of a prelate – especially for our times!

It is astonishing how much St. Charles accomplished in his short life, in a mere 24 years of governing the Church. He entrusted himself completely to God and looked to Him and His assistance for all strength and virtue, exclaiming with the Apostle: “I can do all things in Him who strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13). The holiness of his life and perfect conformity to Divine Will made St. Charles pleasing to the Lord and worthy of His aid.

God raised this great saint to make him a champion of the true faith, defender of the rights of Holy Mother Church, and reformer of the evils that had crept in during the sensuous Renaissance period. His was an age of open licentiousness and immorality. The truths of faith have, in many places, been ignored or entirely forgotten. St. Charles, burning with holy zeal and love for God, had the necessary fortitude, coupled with prudence, to take on and root out the ills that had permeated both civil society and religious life. Feared for his severity and loved for his kindness, he succeeded – by instruction, admonition, and personal example of holiness – in changing men’s hearts and bringing them back to God. A teacher of the faithful, scourge of hardened sinners, helper of the afflicted, restorer of ecclesiastical discipline – St. Charles is a perfect model for all bishops and cardinals.

And yet his holy example has been ignored rejected by the prelates of our own age. Ours is a society where corruption of morals is complete, perversion and depravity of all kinds not only abound but have been enshrined as right and virtue; good is denounced as evil worthy of suppression and persecution; the mere existence of Truth is denied; and God is mocked and insulted even by those who claim to hold the faith.

And what are our shepherds doing? Are they faithful to God and the true Faith? Or do they accommodate, compromise, adapt to the demands of modern man? Are they heroically defending the Truth? Or betraying Christ to gain esteem of the corrupt world?


The Last Judgement, by Michelangelo (Sistine chapel)

The principal duty of pastors is to guard the purity of the faith and integrity of moral teaching, and to preserve the faithful from the dangers of error and evil. St. Charles Borromeo, as a watchful and loving shepherd, took any pains to eradicate heresy and drive heretics away from his flock, and to keep his own in the fold of Christ, the true Church, outside of which there is no salvation. He preached, instructed, reprimanded and, when necessary, punished – always mindful of his duty in the battle for salvation of souls. If we love God, we must hate the things He hates – and what He most hates is heresy and apostasy.

To their disgrace, the vast majority of modern bishops and clergy have entirely abandoned the duties of care of souls, and replaced them with secular humanist obsessions – equality, liberty (from God and His law), rights of man, immigration, economy (and then always on the leftist/socialist side). They defraud and betray the faithful by suppressing the fundamental truths of the Faith, by omitting to teach about the Commandments, sin, judgement, hell, penance, grace, and anything else unpalatable to modern hedonistic man. For these wolves in sheep’s clothes the Church is just another human institution aimed at making life on earth better, easier and more pleasant. Instead of showing souls the narrow path to heaven, they lead them on the wide, easy and well trodden road to hell.

Cardinal Borromeo never hesitated to reprove and rebuke (regardless of one’s status or power), suppress abuse, enforce discipline. He proceeded, with the severity demanded by the corruption of the age, against vice and public scandal, wherever he encountered them. Instead of giving in to the pressures of the day he fought them relentlessly – whether it was the secular government disputing his jurisdiction, the priesthood fighting his disciplinary rules, or the innovators trying to update and adjust the Church’s “obsolete” teaching.

In our age Catholics trying to hold onto their faith must daily witness the unworthy spectacle and scandal of their shepherds who embrace the errors of the world, suppress or deny the Truth, and preach the falsehood modern man wants to hear. Rather than risk unpopularity by standing with God, teaching His doctrine, and turning sinners back from their evil ways, they affirm everyone in their errors and false creeds, and so make themselves responsible for the damnation of countless souls. Where are the good pastors like St. Charles, willing to lay down their life to save souls, for whom Christ had died, from the snares of the devil?

The saint expected not only priests to be full of zeal for the salvation of souls, he endeavored to inflame all Catholics with the same desire. In his rules for Confraternities he wrote: “The workers must be very zealous for the salvation of souls, purchased by the precious Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. This zeal will be found in them when every one makes every effort possible to prevent the loss of souls ransomed at so great a price.”


Charles Cardinal Borromeo

St. Charles had a great love for the Holy Mother Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, and never failed to defend her either against the secular powers infringing on her rights, or against destroyers who sought to bring her, and her majestic traditions, down to the perceived levels of the people. (Instead the saint showed the people how they could rise up to God.) Incensed upon seeing any impiety or lack of honor due to God, he put an end to all abuses and demanded absolute respect and reverence for holy things. Modern-age prelates and clergy not only tolerate such abominations – they are the worst perpetrators of profanation and sacrilege!

Charles Borromeo insisted people have due respect for bishops and priests, and at the same time expected his priests to behave according to the dignity of their position, censuring them if he observed any deficiency in piety, discipline or gravity of manner. He was wont to say that he suffered more from a breach of discipline committed by a priest than from all the opposition of temporal princes, and that the least harm done to the Church grieved him more than if all the tribulations in the world were to overtake himself and his family. It is therefore no surprise that the saint watchfully and tenderly guarded the young men in his seminaries; they were not only to receive good education but most importantly to become models of piety and sanctity, rooted in deep spirituality and resistant to any corruption and contagion from the world. [Is there any wonder at the appalling state of modern priesthood when seminaries have, for decades, been completely immersed in bad morals and false doctrine?]

“I am only God’s steward – to Him I shall have to account for what He has placed in my charge”, St. Charles used to say. Let us pray for our shepherds, that they may exercise their duties faithfully and with courage. God will judge them according to what they did and failed to do in their care of souls. “Woe to the pastors, that destroy and tear the sheep of my pasture, saith the Lord.” …”You have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold I will visit upon you for the evil of your doings, saith the Lord.” (Jer. 23:1-2)


If pastors have failed to pick up St. Charles’ torch, lay Catholics faithful to Tradition must do so instead. We must never cease to proclaim the Truth and defend our Faith; we must be vigilant and denounce heresy regardless where it is found; we must neither collaborate nor compromise with the evils that permeate modern society; nor must we retreat in the face of threats, persecution, or even martyrdom. That – and nothing less – is our duty before God, Who placed us here in these dark times for a reason. Unless we take up our crosses and follow Christ – even unto crucifixion, we shall not enter His kingdom.

Sainthood can be found by anyone who keeps his eyes on the Cross. St. Charles Borromeo kept his eyes firmly on Christ and His Church, and that focus affected everything he did, and made him pleasing to the Lord. Pope Clement VIII called St. Charles a “great light of the Holy Church”. And his light continues to shine, magnificent as ever, illuminating the thorny path of all who are determined to keep the Faith and conform to the will of God.


Sancte Carole, ora pro nobis!

St. Charles Borromeo’s incorrupt heart is exposed in a reliquary in the beautiful baroque Basilica dei Santi Ambrogio e Carlo al Corso (also known simply as San Carlo al Corso; Via del Corso 437, Rome) built in honor of Milan’s two greatest saints. The church is also famous for its marvellous frescoes.

In Milan’s Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio, in a small museum, is a reliquary with St. Charles’ vestments scorched by the bullet of the Humiliati would-be assassin.


Basilica dei Santi Ambrogio e Carlo al Corso, Rome


Prayer of St. Charles Borromeo
(by Orazio Borgianni)


The Life of St. Charles Borromeo, vol. I (biography by G.P. Giussano) – free download in pdf, kindle format

The Life of St. Charles Borromeo, vol II (G.P. Giussano) – pdf, kindle format

St. Charles Borromeo – A sketch of the reforming cardinal (L. Stacpoole-Kenny) – free download in pdf, kindle version

St. Charles Borromeo – A sketch of the reforming cardinal – audio version (free)






Traditional Catholic Shrines: Milan – Saint Ambrose


In this series on traditional Catholic shrines, likely to encompass a few dozen posts, I will attempt to share experiences (along with photos and useful info) from recent visits to various Catholic sanctuaries and holy places in southern Europe.

The first reports will cover shrines and pilgrimage places throughout Italy; Spain and Portugal will follow later.

Comments and questions are always welcomed and appreciated.


Having visited Milan (and many of the places covered in later posts) in the past, my recent travels were aimed specifically at visits to shrines, tombs of saints and other Catholic sites. It is these that will be the focus of my posts. There are plentiful sources for general tourist information, history and sightseeing tips, which will therefore be omitted here.

Milan, capital of Lombardy and a city of about 1.3 million inhabitants, is a business hub, fashion mecca and, with its rich history and sights, a popular tourist destination. The reasons it landed on my itinerary, however, were St. Ambrose and St. Charles Borromeo… or more precisely, their tombs. The city also served as a convenient base for a day trip to Pavia (the resting place of St. Augustine) and Bosco Marengo (native village of Pope St. Pius V) – which were among the highlights of my European travels. More on that in another post…

St. Ambrose

Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio (Piazza Sant’Ambrogio 15; Mo-Sat 10-12/2:30-6pm, Sun 3-5pm;


Basilica of St. Ambrose, Milan

St. Ambrose, the holy bishop of Milan, one of the most important figures of early Christianity (and one of the four Latin Doctors of the Church), is buried in the basilica bearing his name. The original church was consecrated by Ambrose himself (in 386 AD) and was later rebuilt in the 11th century. The body of the saint (well preserved skeletal remains dressed in episcopal robes) is on display in the crypt, together with the remains of the martyrs St. Gervasius and St. Protasius.


St. Ambrose in the crypt of his basilica

Ambrose’s sister and fellow saint Marcellina, who gave herself to the Church as a consecrated virgin, is also buried at the basilica. The remains of his brother, St. Satyrus, are here as well.

The golden altar, dating back to the 9th century, depicts the lives of Christ and of St. Ambrose. The magnificent 4th century Sarcophagus of Stilichone, carved with biblical motives, is one of the few pieces preserved from St. Ambroses’s original basilica – a masterful example of early Christian art.


St. Ambrose was born in 339 to a wealthy and noble Christian family (his father was the Pretorian Prefect of Gaul), became a lawyer and later provincial governor with residence in Milan. When the (Arian) bishop of Milan died in 373, disagreement broke out between the Arian heretics and the Catholics as to the election of a new bishop. A child’s voice was suddenly heard crying out “Ambrose, bishop”, and both sides immediately agreed upon this divinely inspired appointment.

Ambrose, initially refusing to accept the post, ended up consenting to the Will of God and within a week was baptized, ordained and consecrated bishop of Milan. He gave his money and lands to the Church and the poor, adopted an ascetic lifestyle with much fasting, mortification and fervent prayer, and gave himself to diligent studies to prepare for the difficult task ahead.

The holy bishop dedicated the rest of his life chiefly to fighting the Arian heresy that had caused apostasy of a large portion of bishops, priests, religious, nobles and some of the emperors. Empress Justina, an Arian, desired to oust Ambrose; she demanded him to turn one of Milan’s churches over to the Emperor for Arian use. Ambrose refused, saying: “If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to succour me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it.”

Justina and her teenage son Emperor Valentinian II then drew up an imperial law granting freedom for public worship to Arians (same as to Catholics), threatening anyone who would oppose the law with capital punishment. [I include the following anecdote to show the sad contrast between Christians then and today… The head of the recording office, Benevolus, when ordered to have the law promulgated, “tore off his belt, his badge of office, and flung it at the feet of the Empress with the words ‘Dismiss me from my post, but leave me the integrity of my faith’ “. His Arian replacement then went ahead and promulgated the law.]

Bishop Ambrose defied the law and was ordered to leave Milan, which he refused to do: “I cannot think of abandoning the Church, for I fear the Lord of the Universe more than any earthly Emperor. If the Emperor acts as sovereigns are wont to act, I am prepared to suffer what bishops are wont to suffer!” Ambrose then spent several days and nights barricaded inside his basilica, protected by the faithful ready to die with their bishop, while armed imperial troops were waiting outside to arrest him. In the end the bishop prevailed and the Emperor gave in. 

St. Ambrose, through his influence on emperors, was also instrumental in overthrowing (by then still widespread) paganism and having Christianity replace it as the official religion of the Empire.


St. Ambrose barring Theodosius from Milan Cathedral (van Dyck)

One of the most famous scenes of St. Ambrose’s life is his confrontation with Emperor Theodosius when the latter’s command ended in a massacre of 7000 people in Thessalonica. Ambrose openly threatened the Emperor (whose faith and loyalty to the Church were not in doubt) with excommunication and forbade him to receive Holy Communion until he had done sufficient public penance. Only after several months of penance did Ambrose let Theodosius receive the Sacrament. This event – the monarch humbly submitting to a Church authority he publicly acknowledged to be higher than his own – marked the start of a new relationship between the Church and State.

St. Ambrose died in 397, having served as bishop of Milan for 23 years. Although he is best remembered for having brought about the decline of the Arian heresy in the western Church, and strengthening the authority of the Church, he also left a large volume of works, sermons, letters and hymns, including influential texts about the virgin birth and perpetual virginity of Mary, and her role as the Mother of God. The hymn Te Deum has traditionally been ascribed to St. Ambrose (composed on occasion of his baptism of the great St. Augustine – his most famous convert). The Ambrosian Rite (different from the Roman Rite and still occasionally used in the Archdiocese of Milan) is named after the saint.



Saint Ambrose

Saint Ambrose: His Life and Times  (biography by A. Paredi; free download)

St. Ambrose: His Life, Times and Teaching (biography by R. Thornton; free download)

Ambrose: Selected Works and Letters (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, P. Schaff; free)

Let us pray to St. Ambrose – the epitome of a holy and fearless shepherd – that, through his example of integrity, strength of character, courage and willingness to lay down his life in defense of God, the Faith and the Church, he may bring our modern prelates and clergy to recognize and embrace their duty to labor for the glory of God and salvation of souls.


St. Ambrose, along with three other Doctors of the Church – St. Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine – upholding the chair of Peter at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.