St. Toribio de Mogrovejo: Apostle of Peru

During the sixteenth century, in the Spanish colonies of the Americas, many conquistadors and colonists, giving vent to their avarice, debauchery, and cruelty, abused the native peoples, treating them little better than dumb animals. The encomienda system had been established by the Spanish conquerors in which the owner was responsible for the education and safety of the natives; in return, the natives were to work in the fields or mines of the owners. The Indians were tied to the land like serfs and this indigenous labor force was passed down from one generation of owners to the next. In this arrangement, very few Indians were given the required religious instruction by their masters. Raising their spiritual condition was not a priority. At the same time, they were cruelly overworked, often being treated no better than slaves, many of them dying from such abuse.

At the same time, there were great men who rose up and condemned this unjust and abusive structure. Most prominent among these defenders of the indigenous peoples was the tireless and vehement crusader for their rights, the Dominican Bishop of Chiapas, Bartolomé de Las Casas. Earlier in the sixteenth century, his writings and public debates influenced both the authorities of the Church and the State. In his bull, Sublimis Deus (1537), Pope Paul III stated, in opposition to certain theories of the time, “that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it.” Furthermore, even if they were not Christians, the pontiff declared that they were not to be deprived of their property or their liberty. If they were enslaved or their property confiscated, the pope stated, “It shall be null and have no effect.”

In addition to the work of popes like Paul III, Charles V issued the “New Laws” of 1542 in which he clearly stated that the natives were free and the Spanish colonists were forbidden to extract free labor service from them. These extremely unpopular laws were difficult to enforce, eventually leading to a violent revolt in Peru. In order to save his Empire from possible dissolution, Charles had the laws suspended and an attenuated version of the laws was promulgated in 1552. Later in the century, priests of various religious orders attempted to address the continued mistreatment of the natives by invoking the edicts of the Spanish kings as well as the bulls of the sovereign pontiffs. Nevertheless, enforcement was an uphill battle. The New World was so far away.

In the late sixteenth century, however, Philip II had chosen a man to put the Peruvian Church in good order, inaugurating a true reformation. As it turned out, this man was also one of the world’s great missionaries, a man who treated the Indians with dignity and did everything in his power to improve their worldly condition and to save their souls. This man was St. Toribio de Mogrovejo. He was a model bishop, following closely the directives of Trent by building and organizing a solid ecclesiastical structure in Peru through provincial councils, archdiocesan synods, and pastoral visitations; in order to form an educated and virtuous clergy, he also built the first great seminary in the New World. At the same time, Toribio was a zealous missionary, protecting the Indians and making great personal sacrifices on his journeys to bring the faith to pagan Indians or to fortify the faith of those already baptized.

Early Life
Toribio Alfonso de Mogrovejo was born in 1538 at Mayorga in Spain. His father was Don Louis Alfonso, mayor of the said city, and his mother was Anna de Roblès y Moran y Villaquexida. At the age of twelve, he was sent to the University of Valladolid to be educated in the humanities. Following this, he then went to study law at the University of Salamanca.

Even though he remained a layman, Philip II appointed him chief judge of the Inquisitorial Court of Granada. As he prosecuted his duties so well in the ecclesiastical court, the king proposed him to the pope as the Archbishop of Lima. Gregory XIII named Toribio to this office in 1579. Although the shocked jurist pleaded his incapacity for so great an office and also reminded the king of the canons preventing a layman from being appointed to ecclesiastical dignities, he relented and took up the charge appointed him. In short order, he received all the major orders, eventually being consecrated a bishop in Seville. He then set out for the New World.

Guiding Spirit of the Third Council of Lima
After making his solemn entrance into Lima on 24 May 1581, Toribio wasted no time in surveying the ecclesiastical landscape of his archdiocese, holding an archdiocesan synod within months of his arrival. Encompassing about 400 miles along the coast, his archdiocese was huge. Furthermore, the ecclesiastical province of Lima was one of the largest in the world, extending from Central America, down into what is now Argentina and Chile.

One of Toribio’s greatest accomplishments was overseeing the Third Provincial Council of Lima (1582-1583), one of the most important and far-ranging councils held in the Americas. Commissioned by Philip II to hold a provincial council soon after his arrival, he went to work right away. As the metropolitan, Toribio was the president of the council, but he was also the guiding spirit of the assembly; he was personally involved in drawing up the most important documents of the council himself. Among other things, Toribio worked to implement the decrees of the Council of Trent in the Americas. In particular, this council focused on the reformation of the clergy and the means of evangelizing the Indians and forming them into good Christians.

Unlike earlier provincial councils, the Third Council of Lima made no essential distinctions between the Spaniards and the Indians. They were to be treated with equality. Therefore, it noted that the Indians, like the Spanish, had the right to receive both the sacraments of the Eucharist and Extreme Unction. In order to educate the Indians about the faith in their indigenous languages, the council produced a trilingual catechism in Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara. This was the Doctrina Christiana, y Catecismo para Instruccion de los Indios(1584), the first book ever published in South America. Confessional manuals in Quechua and Aymara were also mandated by the council; they would assist confessors in questioning the natives properly during the Sacrament of Penance. Furthermore, as preaching was also to be carried out in the indigenous languages, the council also called for a compilation of sermons in Quechua and Aymara.

Because many of the secular clergy lived worldly and scandalous lives, the council also gave special attention to clerical reform. As a result, it proscribed clerics from engaging in business ventures under the pain of excommunication. Many priests had been selling European manufactured goods to the Indians, making a quite a handsome profit as a result. Other priests, like many laymen, employed the natives in the mines. These reforms created violent opposition among many of the clergy.

Following the Tridentine prescriptions, the council enforced disciplinary regulations and required each diocese to found a seminary, thus providing priests with the intellectual, moral, and spiritual training necessary for their vocation. Toribio established the first seminary in the New World at Lima in 1590. In this seminary, he required that the Indian languages be taught to the aspiring priests.

Although some of the sessions of this council were quite turbulent, Toribio brought this influential council to a happy conclusion, having it confirmed by the Holy See in 1588 and promulgated by the Council of the Indies in 1591. The acts of Third Council of Lima were far reaching, playing a great part in the revitalization of the Church, not just in Peru, but in all of South America. Not only did all the bishoprics within the province of Lima promulgate its acts, but its acts were also later adopted by all the archdioceses of South America. Toribio also held two more provincial councils in 1591 and 1601. Beside these provincial councils, the archbishop held thirteen archdiocesan synods to ensure the health of his local Church.

Reformation of the Clergy and Laity
As one of his chief duties, Toribio set out to restore the ecclesiastical discipline of his clergy. In order to properly support his clergy, without having them engage in worldly business, Toribio established the tithe. Regarding disciplinary measures, he proscribed sumptuous dress in his clergy, and he forbade clerics to engage in games of chance and to go hunting. Most serious of all, he vigorously attacked the vices of simony, clerical incontinence, and concubinage in the secular clergy.

In order to effectively maintain the reformation of his clergy, Toribio established visitors-general. These trusted men, travelling throughout the archdiocese, would report abuses and extirpate disorders; at the same time, they would also edify those priests with whom they come in contact. If the members of the secular clergy were reformed, Toribio understood that this would be a great step in the reform of the laity as well.

Toribio devoted himself to the colonial laity as well, a number of whom were Christians in name only. Very few of the laity made their Easter Communion and, outside of Lima itself, there was almost no one who had received the sacrament of Confirmation. Many of the colonists also used the natives as a means of making their fortunes, but they neglected to provide them with Christian instruction. Toribio would eventually remedy this.

Pastoral Visitations
Over the course of his twenty-five year episcopacy, Toribio conducted three pastoral visitations of his diocese, travelling across the entirety of the territory under his jurisdiction, most often by foot. His visitations took seventeen years to accomplish, covering 18,000 miles. Moving from parish to parish, he really made an effort to know and instruct the members of his flock, whether Spanish or Indian. For the salvation of souls, he made nocturnal journeys on paths covered by torrential downpours of rain or covered with layers of snow. Even on these long journeys, Toribio always said mass each morning and made a daily confession to his chaplain.

In his pastoral visitations of parishes, Toribio carefully inspected all objects used for Divine Worship. They were expected to be in good condition. He would then meet with the local priest, discussing the nature of his studies and his progress in the Indian tongue. After examining the parish registers, he checked to see if the priest had the newly revised missal and breviary of Pope Pius V, the synodal acts and archdiocesan constitutions, and the Roman Catechism. Toribio was thorough. Meeting with the natives themselves, he patiently listened to their woes and any complaints against their Spanish overlords. He also brought them alms. If he felt that the number of inhabitants was too great for one priest, he either gave the priest some vicars to aid him, or he made a new territorial division, providing the new pastor with whatever necessaries he needed to found the new parish. Over his twenty-five year tenure, it is said that he doubled the number of parishes in Peru.

Care for the Indians
In his protracted journeys, Toribio traversed the most difficult and forlorn areas, climbing over steep and rugged mountains, sometimes by himself, to bring the Gospel to the natives in some outlying area. Oftentimes, he would dwell in the hut of the Incas for a few days with no food or bedding, lovingly bringing them Christian instruction. Toribio went to them in their cabanas, instructing the young, the women, and the elderly in the rudiments of faith, preaching to the whole tribe, then baptizing and confirming them. He saw himself primarily as a missionary, extending Christ’s Kingdom on earth.

In order to connect more closely with natives in his pastoral care, Toribio spent time in learning the Indian languages so that he could directly communicate with his flock. Within a fairly short time, he was able to express himself in Quechua and eventually to preach in that language with facility. The Indians were astonished at his mastery of their language. On account of this, he made a great number of conversions.

Toribio saw himself as the “Protector of the Indians.” He was very zealous that the Indians learn the Christian faith and, at the same time, were not overworked. In fact, in the Thirteenth Archdiocesan Synod of Lima, he mandated that the Indians were to receive religious instruction on Wednesdays and Fridays of every week. He forbade all Spaniards from preventing the natives from attending these sessions on the pretext of work. Moreover, they were not to be worked on feast days either. Utilizing canonical penalties when appropriate, he protected the Indians from both their masters and public officials. In particular, Toribio fought the corruption of the oppressive corregidores de indios, magistrates who ruled over the native communities, who refused to utilize the communal financial funds of the natives for their set purpose.

Death and Canonization
St. Toribio personally knew some of the great saints of South America. Besides confirming St. Rose of Lima, it appears that he also confirmed St. Martin de Porres and St. John Macias. Furthermore, he was a good friend of the great missionary Franciscan, St. Francis Solano, the “Wonderworker of the New World.”

While conducting one of his visitations, Toribio was taken ill at Pascamayo, eventually making his way to Saña. Having received viaticum and the last rites, Toribio died at Saña on 23 March 1606, repeating the very words of Christ, “Into thy hands, I commend my spirit.” Toribio was beatified by Innocent XI in 1697 and canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726. Pope St. John Paul II named him the Patron of Latin American Bishops in 1983.

Through the attentive work of Toribio, the Church of Peru was well organized and placed on a sound foundation. He reformed both clergy and the laity under his charge, accomplishing this through establishing a seminary, conducting three pastoral visitations, convening archdiocesan synods, and holding provincial councils. Through his charitable work, he built numerous churches, religious houses, and hospitals. By means of his wide-ranging missionary activity, he zealously sought the spiritual and physical improvement of the Indians, personally seeking them out to directly bring them the good news in their own language. Astounding as it may seem, Toribio baptized and confirmed almost 500,000 people by the end of his life. Nevertheless, he not only wanted his charges baptized and confirmed, but he desired their full spiritual maturation, brought about through the reception of the other sacraments and further catechetical instruction. Like St. Charles Borromeo, Toribio was a model bishop; like St. Francis Xavier, he was an exemplary missionary.

 Editor’s note: Above is a photograph of the St. Toribio de Mongrovejo statue in the Chapel of Saint Toribio in the Basilica Catedral de Lima, Peru.

Joseph F. X. Sladky

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Joseph F. X. Sladky holds a Ph.D. in Church History from the Catholic University of America. He teaches at Chelsea Academy in Front Royal, Virginia.

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