Saint Carlo's Relics
It was a tiny piece of a saint’s body encased in a gold circular stand flanked by two angels. I made my way to a hundred-year-old church on his November 4 feast day to see the relic. The gold reliquary was placed in a room just off the nave of the church alongside relics of other November saints. This brownish-grey speck of St. Charles Borromeo, reformer of the Catholic church, was smaller than I had imagined, and a lot more minute than some of the relics I had seen in Italy. I wondered what body part was in the speck –bone fragment, blood stain, or from an internal organ.
A fascination with this spot in a glass from a man who died in 1584 started a search to understand how a piece of this Italian saint made it from Milan, Italy, to the Church of the Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. I found answers to most of my questions, including who he was, how he lived his life, and what happened to his body after he died.
Relics are not neutral. People are intrigued, rebuffed, or deadly serious about them. Most think they are fake. Information in print or online about macabre and weird relics (for starters, the tongue of St. Anthony of Padua, head of St. Catherine of Siena, the Shroud of Turin) is easy to find. Finding the why and how relics became venerated is a rewarding research journey.
I venture most Catholics are not terribly familiar with Charles Borromeo, or as I will call him, Carlo. For those without religious affiliation, or believers of other faiths, his name is not familiar. Yet he was a most impressive and pivotal figure in the sixteenth century, well known throughout Western Europe. Historians are more likely to situate Carlo, and rightly so, as a key figure in the Council of Trent, depicted as an austere holy man. Like many saints, there are two tales to tell: the documented person he was as he lived his life according to his values, and the person the papal institution crafted.
Carlo Borromeo (1538-1584), who became the bishop of Milan, lacked for nothing as a child. At the tender age of 12 he entered the clerical state but wasn’t ordained a priest until 1563. Born to a well-to-do family in northern Italy, he was educated in Milan and Pavia. His devout nature was apparent early on. It helped his career to have an uncle who became Pope Pius IV (r. 1559-1565) and appointed Carlo to Papal Secretary in his early 20s. Uncle and nephew acted as close confidants and advisors when Carlo was appointed papal representative to the Council of Trent in 1562. The Council had been closed for ten years, and this was a chance to take the politically tense and fractious group of attendees in a direction that would finally result in reforms to the church in response to Protestant and Catholic conflicts. Carlo was the go-between.
At its conclusion, the Council of Trent reiterated the authority of the Catholic church, condemned Protestantism, established better education systems for clergy, reaffirmed veneration of the saints and relics, codified liturgical practices, and banned selling indulgences, among other things. One of the many sticking points in Trent was appointing cardinals without having been ordained a priest. In other words, it was more a political appointment than a religious one. Carlo was a beneficiary of such practices, having been appointed cardinal deacon and administrator of the largest diocese in Italy (Milan) without ordination. Old habits die hard; it was only in 1917 that canon law ruled cardinals had to be ordained a priest first.
Whether or not the decrees of Trent were truly reforming is up for debate, but Carlo took it very seriously. This was a chance to revitalize the church. In Carlo’s way of thinking, the Council of Trent was to be implemented in reforms at the local bishop level, mostly reshaping parish vitality and ensuring the clergy were up to par. He approached these reforms with zeal and humility, especially restructuring clergy education in the diocese of Milan.
Carlo was a change agent in his Milan bishopric. At the time Milan had 2,000 churches in its diocese, 3,000 clergy, 90 convents, and 110 monasteries. There were more than 800,000 souls under his care. Beginning with his arrival at age 27 in 1565, he reconfigured the ways local parishes were managed, instituting more formal teaching methods for clergy and laypeople, routing out ineffective and lax clergy, and personally ending the practice of bishops not residing in their diocese. Milan had not had a resident bishop for eighty years. Carlo found the state of clergy and laity in poor shape. For the most part they were not engaged or disciplined. Church buildings had not been kept up. Priests were not highly regarded, and he strove to restore some dignity to the priesthood. Carlo encouraged faith formation in schools for girls and boys as well as basic education, which fulfilled a social need.
His reputation was one of extreme austerity and sternness. He was said to have never laughed. Authoritarian and hierarchical, Carlo had clear ideas that lay people would be followers only, with a limited role in even simple tasks, and forbade them from opening the church in the morning or ringing church bells. It would be a mistake to involve laity, especially in teaching or scripture interpretation. His reforms were welcomed, but he also made enemies and created conflict. Local authorities resented him meddling in enforcing church law. Spanish King Philip II, ruler of the Duchy of Milan, felt Carlo was too severe in his reforms. Philip did not want to cede power to a bishop. Although a devout Catholic, further ecclesiastical expansion or influence challenged his sovereign authority.
Carlo’s life of strict piety, fasting, long hours of praying, and keeping his diocese in order was threatened one day. An assassin entered the room where he was praying and fired an arquebus (a long gun fired from the shoulder) directly at him. It was late October 1569. The ball struck him in the back, but by a miracle, his followers said, it did not pierce his skin. Instead, the ball fell to the ground beside him. His chronicler said he kept on praying and did not stop after the firearm was discharged.
A religious group called the Umiliati (Humiliati, or Humbled Ones), formed in Germany, protested his reforms. Three of the Umiliati were the culprits in the assassination attempt. Carlo was already concerned with the laxity of the Umiliati and the less than pious nature of their monasteries. They had accumulated material goods and were not conforming to the rules of the order. According to Carlo’s biographer there were three rectors who, instead of following Carlo, had turned to Satan. These three conspired to kill him to stop the reforms. They stole money from a church and a weapon to commit the crime. The shooter was a priest dressed as a lay person.
Carlo did not want them prosecuted, but Pope Pius V (1504-1572) intervened. Two were executed, and one was sent to the galleys, and then a monastery for punishment and redemption. Carlo’s survival was considered miraculous and surely a sign from God of his sanctity. The artist Guercino sketched the moment of the attack, with the weapon fired at close range at the praying bishop. Although drawn more than sixty years following the attempt, it demonstrates the longevity of the story.
In 1576-77 plague struck Milan. Carlo was critical of nobility for their lack of help and providing food. He took a leading role in providing the sacraments to the people as well as food. Some said he fed 3,000 people during the plague. Unfortunately, he saw the plague as a punishment for sins. He always tended towards a very ascetic lifestyle with frequent fasts, self-flagellation, and sleep deprivation. These acts of piety increased following the plague and especially during his pilgrimages to holy places, particularly to see the Shroud of Turin for the first time in 1578, where his 1610 chronicler claimed he barely ate or drank during the four day long ninety-mile journey on foot.
Carlo’s friction with authority increased after his uncle died. His relationship with the papacy changed. The subsequent popes saw the role of the papacy as ultimate, and Carlo saw the role of the local bishops as more independent from the pope. In the end, Rome became the victor in implementing the Council of Trent church wide. For the most part Rome left him to minister in Milan until his death.
Carlo’s Death and Autopsy
His austere lifestyle contributed to an early death at age forty-six. His biographer Giovanni Giussano called it a happy death as he continued to try to zealously pray in his weakened state with a fever. As he passed, the priests surrounding him lamented greatly. The entire city, according to Giussano, was in grief. Members of his household and others immediately took what they could in the form of relics: his rosary, skull cap, alb (white vestment), straw from his bed, and any books or pictures in his room. Later, as he lay in state, crowds came to pray before the body, many holding rosaries or other objects and attempted to touch them to the saint, making a third-class relic of their own. The physical remains of a saint are considered first-class relics; books, crucifix, or other objects he would have used or touched are second-class relics. Third class relics are objects touched to a first or second-class relic. The Milanese had a strong desire to transmit his holiness for their protection and well-being through their third-class relics.
What was next for a holy or mystical person after they die? Often an autopsy to look for supernatural signs attributed to the hand of God. Sanctity could manifest in miracles, visions, or internal organs. Giovanni Battista Carcano Leone was a distinguished professor of anatomy and surgeon and acted as Carlo’s personal physician. Carcano Leone was tasked with performing Carlo’s holy autopsy.
Disemboweling a body following death was common, often done by a barber for less important folks. The abdomen and thoracic areas were opened, and the viscera and internal organs were removed. The cavity was washed and filled with aromatic herbs to offset decomposition and allow for public viewing. The head and reproductive organs were left undisturbed. There was no dishonor in this postmortem procedure, instead it indicated higher social status.
Autopsy was also common, but only done under certain circumstances, such as determining cause of death, suspecting foul play, or to discern signs of sanctity. Examination of the internal organs could confirm a state of holiness, particularly the condition of the heart. There was little correlation regarding the appearance of organs and/or health of the individual while the person was alive and how that related to cause of death. The heart was the source of piety, compassion, and emotion. St. Filippo Neri, who died at the considerable age of 80 in 1595, also had an autopsy. He was as famous as Carlo Borromeo in his time and in some ways was a Counter Reformation contemporary. In Neri’s body they found an enlarged heart, determined to be a mark of holiness. The man suffered for years from palpitations and shortness of breath, also thought to be due to his piety. Physicians did not consider those signs of illness or contributing factors to his death, but the result of supernatural causes. Science was overruled by theology.
Carcano Leone made a report on the findings of his autopsy. Carlo’s body was found to be thin to the point of emaciated, a sign of religious commitment. There was no fat on his abdomen. His heart was of normal size. The physician removed the heart from Carlo’s body and held it in his hands, weeping. Other descriptions of Carlo include thin and tall, with a large aquiline nose with blue eyes. His paleness was seen as typical of a devout man. His shoulders were scored by years of using “the discipline,” self-flagellation, and his torso was raw from the hair shirt he wore. Finally, a death mask of his face was made to preserve his likeness. This was quite common especially for nobility and important persons. Probably made of plaster, it served as a model for future artists, and replicas were made. The death mask would have been considered an important relic of the saint.
Carlo had a large funeral in Milan, however, that did not compare with the opulent 1610 canonization ceremony in Rome. No expenses were sparred for the four-hour solemn mass with expensive gifts presented in honor of Carlo. St. Peter’s was under construction, but the celebration was extravagant. It was part of the message Rome wanted to convey about how Borromeo should be remembered. If church reform was intended to be fiscally conservative, that value was not expressed in his canonization. Pope Paul V presided over Carlo’s sainthood and during his reign (1605-21) only one other person achieved sainthood.
Carlo saw the archbishops as having some freedom from Rome and the local parishes the bedrock of faith formation. Following his death, some of his ideas and innovations were quietly let go as Rome preferred instead to fashion him loyal only to Rome. More importantly, after Carlo died, the pope reframed Carlo as a cardinal, not a bishop, to elevate his status but also to remove him from his role as a local change agent. His heart was transported to Rome as part of the canonization process, as a holy relic. Carlo’s life and legend was reshaped by placing this important body part in Rome as a symbol of his loyalty to the pope.
Carlo’s reputation for austerity needed no tweaking by the pope following his death. His devotion to Christ’s suffering is typically how he is depicted in many paintings and engravings. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, a Venetian artist, painted him for Spanish royalty in 1767. His telltale physical features are present in his portraits: in a state of prayer, with a large nose, thin, and with dark brown hair. Nearly two hundred years after Carlo died, his official portraits depicted what Rome preferred. Forgotten was his devotion to local Milanese churches along with his harsh and unforgiving strictness. Primarily he was remembered as devoted to the passion, the Council of Trent, and loyalty to the pope. Carlo’s focus on elevating the role of bishop was pushed aside. Today if one reads about Carlo in Catholic context there is no criticism of his personality or deeds. Today he is a patron saint of those who teach religion.
Carlo’s body – most of it – is in the Milan Cathedral. A silver mask was made to cover his face. His heart is in the church of San Carlo al Corso (the full name is Basilica of Santi Ambrogio and Carlo). It is said to be incorrupt, a sign of sanctity, which in Catholic speak, means it has not decomposed. There are two other churches named after him in Rome, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (St. Charles of the Four Fountains), and Santi Biagio and Carlo ai Catinari (Saints Blaise and Charles of the Chains).
Reportedly a rib is in Spain, and a finger elsewhere, although my research did not confirm that. The King of Spain received a piece of his hair shirt for veneration. His vestments with evidence of the bullet mark are preserved in Sant’Ambrogio, Milan. His clothing and shoes remain in Europe. Thousands of miracles were reported shortly after his death (some while he was alive also), either through contact with a relic or by praying to an image of him. I learned Carlo’s relic at the Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church is part of his bone. I have no idea how his bone(s) were fragmented and disseminated. Because of the well documented autopsy I have reason to believe the heart in Rome is Carlo’s, and most likely the bone I saw.
Carlo’s relics are elsewhere in the USA, including Morton Grove, Illinois at All Saints Parish where he is one of 3,000 relics. However, if you are looking for relics I suggest St. Anthony’s Chapel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Chapel has 5,000 relics, the most in the USA.
Nativity of our Lord, St. Paul, Minnesota, exterior and Heritage Room, photo Gerriann Brower
Butler, Alban, and Paul Burns. Butler’s Lives of the Saints. New concise edition. Liturgical Press, 2003.
Giussano, Giovanni Pietro. The Life of St. Charles Borromeo: Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, volume 1 and 2, first published 1610, English translation Burnes and Oates, New York, 1884.
Hahn, Cynthia. The Reliquary Effect: Enshrining the Sacred Object. Reaktion Books, 2017.
Park, Katherine. "Holy Autopsies: Saintly Bodies and Medical Expertise, 1300-1600." The Body in Early Modern Italy, Julia L. Hairston and Walter Stephens, editors, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010, pp. 61-73.,
Harpster, Grace T. “Carlo Borromeo’s Itineraries : The Sacred Image in Post-Tridentine Italy.” Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, 2018,
Headley, John M., John B. Tomaro, and Folger Shakespeare Library, eds. San Carlo Borromeo: Catholic Reform and Ecclesiastical Politics in the Second Half of the Sixteenth Century. Folger Shakespeare Library, Associated University Presses, 1988.
Huss, Isaac. “Saints (Bones) Among Us.” Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church website, June 26, 2015.
McBrien, Richard P. Lives of the Saints: From Mary and St. Francis of Assisi to John XXIII and Mother Teresa. 1st ed. Harper San Francisco, 2001.
Siraisi, Nancy G. "Signs and Evidence: Autopsy and Sanctity in Late Sixteenth-Century Italy." Medicine and the Italian Universities, 1250-1600. Education and Society in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, v. 12, Brill, 2001, pp. 356-380.