Saints for our Times: Turibius brought faith to ‘Indians’ of South America

By Mary Lou Gibson


You can’t say no to the king. That’s what Turibius of Mogrovejo found out when King Phillip II of Spain chose him to be the second archbishop of Lima, Peru in 1580. At the time, Turibius was a professor of law at the University of Salamanca and chief judge of the Inquisition court at Granada.

Turibius had no intention of becoming a priest. Editor Michael Walsh writes in "Butler’s Lives of the Saints" that he was a brilliant scholar and was shocked by the king’s decision to make him the archbishop. He even appealed to the canons which forbade the promotion of laymen to ecclesiastical dignities, but his objections were overruled.

He was put on the fast track to becoming a deacon and was then ordained and consecrated. King Phillip’s decision to send Turibius to Peru was a wise one. The church in New Spain was rife with scandal and abuse. David Hugh Farmer writes in the "Oxford Dictionary of Saints" that the Spanish conquerors were often tyrants who were there to make their fortunes by any means. They oppressed the Indians and many of the clergy followed the will of the conquistadors in their treatment of the native population. Lima was one of the richest cities in the world at that time, editor Dom Basil Watkins writes, and there was much corruption prevalent in church life.

Turibius’s reforms of the clergy were met with much opposition. When some of them tried to use God’s law as a justification of their accustomed way of life, Turibius answered them in the words of Tertullian. "Christ said, ‘I am the truth;’ he did not say, ‘I am the custom.’"

Turibius also came into immediate conflict with the secular authorities over the treatment of the Indians whose rights he defended. They opposed many of his efforts to redress the injustices to the native population. Undaunted by the resistance he encountered, he set out to visit all parts of his diocese, which comprised some 18,000 square miles. He traveled on foot through the steaming climate often meeting wild animals or other dangers.

There were few roads and his metropolitan see encompassed the present day countries of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Peru, Bolivia and a portion of Argentina. He made the trip through this vast area three times during the next 25 years. He began to learn the Quechua language and felt it was important for the clergy to learn the appropriate local language as well.

Turibius convened a Council of Lima in 1582. Its most important measures concerned pastoral care of the Indians according to Paul Burns writing in "Butler’s Lives of the Saints" –– new concise edition. After the Council, a new catechism was published in the local languages as well as in Spanish, and sacramental rites were standardized. Turibius continued to visit the distant parts of his diocese while also involved with building churches, hospitals and religious houses.

His charity also extended to the impoverished Spaniards who were too proud to ask for help. Farmer writes that Turibius helped these people indirectly and often anonymously. He also founded a home for separated women, a hospital for sick priests and a convent of Poor Clare nuns.

Turibius founded the first seminary in the Americas in 1591. At the time, Indians could be admitted to minor orders, but not to the priesthood. He convened and presided over a Third Council of Lima in 1582-83 that was attended by prelates from Hispanic America. Rosemary Guiley writes in "The Encyclopedia of Saints" that his most lasting legacy was his organization of the church in Peru. He built churches and hospitals and almost doubled the number of parishes in the archdiocese.

Turibius died at Santa, Peru on Holy Thursday, March 23, 1606, while on his way back to Lima. His body was buried there but was later brought back to Lima where it now rests in the cathedral. He was canonized in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII. His feast is celebrated on April 27 in Peru and on March 23 elsewhere. In 1983, Pope John Paul II proclaimed him Patron of Latin American bishops. Many biographers credit Turibius with baptizing and confirming close to one million people. Among the most famous of these baptized were two of South America’s best known saints: Rose of Lima and Martin de Porres.

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