Nobility of Blood Is a Powerful Stimulus for the Practice of Virtue

March 24, 2016

From the magnificent sermon of Saint Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), Archbishop of Milan, on the feast of Our Lady, September 8, 1584:

“The beginning of the Holy Gospel written by Saint Matthew, which was proclaimed to you from this place a short while ago by Holy Mother Church, inspires us above all to examine attentively the nobility, the remarkable lineage, and the magnificence of this Most Holy Virgin. For, if that person is to be considered noble who traces his origins from illustrious ancestors, how great is the nobility of Mary, whose filiation traces from kings, patriarchs, prophets, and priests of the Tribe of Judah, to the seed of Abraham, and to the royal stirp of David?

“Moreover, although we are not ignorant of the fact that true nobility—the Christian nobility—is that which the Only Begotten of the Father conferred on all of us when ‘as many as received Him, He gave them power to be made the sons of God’ (John 1:12), and that this dignity of nobility is common to all faithful Christians, nevertheless we believe that nobility according to the flesh ought not in any way be despised or rejected. On the contrary, he who would not acknowledge this very nobility itself as a singular gift and blessing of God and would not also give special thanks for it to God, the Giver of all good things, would truly be utterly unworthy of the name noble, inasmuch as through the fault of an ungrateful soul, than which nothing could be more base, he would tarnish the splendor of his own ancestors. Indeed, nobility of the flesh adds much to true radiance of soul and bears no small benefits.

Anna of Austria with her children praying by Philippe de Champaigne

Anna of Austria with her children praying by Philippe de Champaigne

“In the first place, the splendor of the blood and the virtue and famous deeds of the ancestors have a marvelous effect in disposing the noble, virile man to follow in the footsteps of those from whom he descended. And doubtless also it is that his own nature is more inclined to good and virtue, whether because of the conformity of his blood with that of his progenitors and, in consequence, the transmission of their spirits; or because of the perpetual memory of their virtues that he retains and on that account holds more dear—and knows how to value—for having shone forth in those of his own blood; or because, finally, of the sound rearing and formation he received from distinguished men. It is certainly recognized as true that the nobility, magnificence, dignity, virtue, and authority of the parents induce the sons the more to preserve zeal for the same things. Whence it follows that the nobles, as if by a certain instinct of nature, seek after honor, cultivate magnanimity, despise cheap gains, and finally abhor those things deemed unworthy of their nobility.

“In the second place, nobility is equally a stimulus for holding fast to virtues. This differs from the first benefit we have described; the first predisposes the noble to embrace righteous works more easily; the second adds powerful stimuli to that which has been rendered easy and, as it were, is a kind of bridle that represses vices and actions unbecoming of the noble and that, should the noble fall into some fault, causes him to be overcome with an extraordinary shame so that he may, with all his strength, take care to purify himself of this stain.

“Finally, the last benefit of nobility to consider is that, just as a precious rock glimmers more when it is set in gold than in iron, so also these virtues are more splendorous in the noble than in the common man; and nobility added to virtue is its greatest ornament.

Finally, the last benefit of nobility to consider is that, just as a precious rock glimmers more when it is set in gold than in iron, so also these virtues are more splendorous in the noble than in the common man; and nobility added to virtue is its greatest ornament. Photo by Charlesjsharp

“It is not only true that we should value nobility and the luster of ancestors, but besides this we must most firmly hold these two theses:

“Firstly, just as virtue is more splendid in the noble, so also is vice far more shameful. For just as dirtiness is more easily noticed in a bright place suffused with the sun’s rays than in any obscure corner, stains are more noticeable on a golden garment than on a cheap and ragged one, and, lastly, moles and scars are more easily seen on the face than on another more hidden part of the body; thus, also, vices are more noticeable and offensive to the beholder and more disfiguring to the spirits of the sinners among the nobles than among men of vulgar condition. What is, in all truth, more disgusting than to see a young man sprung from illustrious and well-born parents who is corrupted and given over to taverns, gaming, drinking, and feasting?

“Secondly, it is true that although someone may be exceedingly noble, nevertheless, unless he add his own virtues to the nobility of his ancestors, he straightaway becomes ignoble; for nobility ceases when virtue is discontinued, so that if there be any traces of splendor left in him, they are certainly useless: for they do not achieve their own aims in him, so that they might render him more disposed to outstanding deeds and might be a stimulus to virtues and a curb restraining him from sinning; and all his nobility is rather the highest reproach to him than even the slightest source of honor. And it is this very thing for which Our Lord Jesus Christ reproached the Pharisees when they boasted of being sons of Abraham, saying: ‘if you be the children of Abraham, do the works of Abraham’ (John 8:39); for anyone at all can boast that he is the son, or the grandson, or a sharer of the nobility of the person whose life and virtues he imitates. And because of this Our Lord said to those same men: ‘You are of your father the devil’ (John 8:44); nay, even by the most holy Precursor of Christ they were called ‘offspring of vipers’ (Luke 3:7).

Nobility ceases when virtue is discontinued.

Nobility ceases when virtue is discontinued.

“Who indeed would be so ignorant or thoughtless as to still find room for doubt concerning the supreme nobility of the Most Holy Virgin Mary? Who would not know that she not only equaled the virtues of her progenitors, but greatly surpassed them by far, and that she herself can and ought to be deservedly called most noble inasmuch as the splendor of so many illustrious patriarchs, kings, prophets, and priests, whose succession is described here in today’s Gospel, received its greatest increase in her.

“But someone or other will ask, how can the nobility of Mary be deduced from the enumeration of so many ancestors and great ancestors, when it is the origin of Joseph, Mary’s husband that is being described? But whoever shall diligently read the Sacred Scriptures will most easily resolve this doubt. Inasmuch as by Divine law it was prohibited that any virgin, especially one who was going to come into an inheritance, accept a husband from outside of her own tribe (Num. 36:6 ff.), therefore, it is most clearly evident that Joseph and Mary were of the same tribe and family, and one and the same nobility is obvious for both from this description of the human ancestry of the Son of God.

Who would not know that she not only equaled the virtues of her progenitors, but greatly surpassed them by far, and that she herself can and ought to be deservedly called most noble inasmuch as the splendor of so many illustrious patriarchs, kings, prophets, and priests, whose succession is described here in today’s Gospel, received its greatest increase in her.

“In addition to these reasons that impelled Matthew, at the urging of the Holy Spirit, to describe the lineage of Joseph, he himself was writing his Gospel to the Hebrews and they indeed would know that the Messiah was going to come from the seed of Abraham and from the stock of David; they also thought that Joseph was the father of Christ, though he was not His true father, but his supposed father; therefore, having learned from here that Joseph, whom they thought to be the true father of Christ, was descended from those from whom the Messiah was going to come, they could not possibly deny that Christ was the true Messiah promised to the races; wherefore, immediately at the beginning of the Gospel itself it is said: ‘The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham’ (Matt. 1:1); for to each more expressly than to the others the great offspring of the Messiah had been frequently promised.

For what is the family of Mary? That of Joseph. What is the tribe, what the home, what the nobility of Mary? That of her husband, Joseph. This most becomes Christian spouses, truly noble and fearing God.

The Saint goes on to look at another aspect of this great theme of which he speaks.

“Finally, in the third place, O most cherished Daughters (for this part is directed to you), the lineage of Joseph, but not of Mary, is described, in order that you might learn not to be haughty and not to say insultingly to your husbands: ‘I have brought nobility into your house; I brought you the brilliance of honors; to me, O Husband, you ought to ascribe whatever you have of dignity.’ But know this and inscribe it most constantly in your minds: the family, the glory, the nobility of the wife ought to be nothing other than that of the husband; and those wives are to be detested who in any way dare to place themselves before their husbands and pass over their names in silence, mentioning only those of their own ancestors. Truly, this spirit of haughtiness is diabolical. For what is the family of Mary? That of Joseph. What is the tribe, what the home, what the nobility of Mary? That of her husband, Joseph. This most becomes Christian spouses, truly noble and fearing God.”

Nobility book

Sancti Caroli Borromei Homiliae CXXII (Augustae Vindelicorum [Augsburg]: Ignatii Adami & Francisci Antonii Veith Bibliopolarum, n.d.), editio novissima, cols. 1211-1214 in Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII: A Theme Illuminating American Social History (York, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 1993), Documents IV, pp. 473-475.

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