On a hilltop in Arona, Italy stands a giant statue of Saint Charles Borromeo. For two hundred years, from the day of its completion in 1698, it stood proudly as the tallest statue in the world. Built of copper and granite, it had been commissioned by a collection of admirers. From within the statue one can climb to windows in the eyes and ears and see the surrounding countryside of Arona and the beautiful Lage Maggiore.
The Shrine of San Carlo lies a few meters away. Within the shrine St. Borromeo’s relics are conserved in a carved wooden showcase besides an altar. Behind the altar is a reconstruction of his original room—a room modest and unpretentious. He was a humble man; the only cardinal to have refused the papacy when it was offered to him. So revered even in his own day, he was quickly (for any age) canonized by Pope Paul V in 1610.
Evidence of the love Milanese felt for this man is evident in the statue and shrine. His continuing popularity can be found today in well over fifty schools, seminaries, cities, and counties that carry his name around the world.
The fact that Charles Borromeo was a cardinal before he was ordained a deacon, priest, and bishop was normal in the 16th century for a nephew of the pope. In those days the title “cardinal” was honorific in the Church although a salary often came with it. The last non-priest cardinal died in 1899. To ensure that lay cardinals did not return, the 1917 Code of Canon Law decreed that from then on only those who were priests or bishops could be chosen as cardinals.
It is difficult to judge people from another age. Yet, the nepotism of the middle 16th century which seems so strange is not so uncommon today: President John F. Kennedy made his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, Attorney General.
Borromeo’s story is told in detail in my novel The Hidden Saint: The 16th Century Church in Crisis which will be released in March, 2017 by eLectio Publishing.