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St. Toribio of Mogrevejo (March 23)

March 23, 2006

In the early 1500’s, with the discovery of the New World fresh on the pages of history,
the Spanish empire was rapidly expanding into new and lucrative lands.
Unfortunately, as is often the case, the pioneers in these new lands
were only in it for their own gain.
Laws, morals and social niceties that got in the way of their greed were ignored,
casually cast aside and or trampled underfoot.
Native peoples were exploited and persecuted.
Cruelty, treachery, fraud and debauchery–in a word, anarchy–were the law of the land.
Scandalously, the morals of the clergy were often no better than those of the Conquistadores.
The Spanish crown, having tried in vain to stem the tide of these abuses in Peru,
was on the lookout for a man of courage, strength, holiness and compassion
who could step in and Christianize the country.
When the archbishopric of Peru became vacant in 1580,
King Philip II believed he’d found just the man for the job.

The man in question wasn’t so sure.
Toribio de Mogrevejo was indeed devout, courageous, and sensitive, but he wasn’t a priest.
And he had no intention of becoming one.
He’d been a professor of law at the prestigious University of Salamanca
before King Philip II had promoted him to be chief judge of the supreme court
as well as of the ecclesiastical court of the Inquisition at Granada.
He’d held this post for five years and excelled,
gaining a reputation for his intelligence, moderation, honesty and sensitivity.
When he learned that he’d been appointed archbishop of Peru, he was horrified.
As a Church lawyer, he knew that Church law prohibited laymen
from being appointed to the position of archbishop,
and he brought forth all the relevant legal arguments against his appointment.
Rome, however, agreed with the Spanish king, and Toribio finally relented.
He was rapidly ordained to each of the minor orders, then to the priesthood,
and finally to the archbishopric of Peru.
Within a year, he found himself on the shores of South America.

His life-long devotion to Mary and his years of generosity to the poor,
of prayer and of fasting as a youth served him well.
Nothing intimidated him.
He began immediately to reform the morality of his new diocese, all 18,000 square miles of it
(now divided into 19 dioceses!), beginning with the clergy.
Predictably, they persecuted him.
When they protested, “but we’ve always done things this way”,
he remained meek, patient and firm, becoming known for the reply,
“Christ said, ‘I am the truth’; He did not say ‘I am the custom’”.
He was also known for saying,
“Time is not our own, and we must give a strict account of it.”

He set out on foot and mule to visit the length and breadth of this vast territory,
much of it among the most mountainous, rugged terrain in the world,
sleeping on the ground, eating what the natives ate, exposed to tempests, torrents,
deserts, wild beasts, tropical heat, fevers, and savage tribes.
This first visit took him over 7 years,
and he made two more diocese-wide visits during his tenure as archbishop.
Finding that most of the natives, even those who had been baptized,
knew nothing of the Christian faith
and that the clergy hadn’t even bothered to learn their languages,
he studied their languages himself,
going far out of his way to deliver the Good News of Jesus’ love to even one poor native.
He published catechisms in the Aymara and Quechua languages (as well as in Spanish),
so the natives could learn about God in their own language.
He defended the rights of the natives against Spanish oppression,
but he was also sensitive enough to anonymously provide for the needs of impoverished Spaniards
who couldn’t bring themselves to ask for help.
His finances were constantly depleted by his generosity to the poor.
He built the first seminary in the New World, built many schools, churches,
hospitals, monasteries and convents,
and was instrumental in improving roads throughout the diocese
(he knew the importance of good roads from his own extensive travels!).
He Baptized and Confirmed nearly half a million souls,
including the Dominican tertiary, St. Rose of Lima.
He shepherded other Peruvian saints as well:
the Dominicans St. Martin de Porres and St. John Masias,
and the Franciscan missionary St. Frances Solano.

In the midst of everything, his spiritual life flourished.
He celebrated Mass daily with great fervor, spending a long time before it in preparation
and after it in thanksgiving, even when traveling.
He went to Confession nearly every day, and spent long hours in prayer and meditation,
continuing his life-long practise of praying the rosary
and the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary daily.
He loved suffering, danger and hard labor for the sake of Jesus
and for the sake of the people entrusted to his care.

It was on this date in 1606, in the midst of his third diocesan-wide visit,
that Archbishop Toribio succumbed to a fever in the town of Sana,
dragged himself to the church to receive Viaticum,
ordered that his goods be divided among his servants and the poor,
and then released his soul into God’s hands.
His last words were, “Into Thy hands, I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
A year later, when his body was returned to Lima, it was found to be incorrupt.

St. Toribio, great missionary, champion of the oppressed, and holy reformer,
help us to be as holy, as open-handed and as open-hearted as you were,
that we may catch your vision of holiness and join you one day in Heaven.

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