So far, I believe, only four bishops of the Western Hemisphere have been canonized as saints. The earliest of these was archbishop of Lima, Peru, from 1579 to 1606. St. Toribio Alfonso de Mogrovejo, a native of Spain, set a splendid apostolic example to all the future bishops of the Americas.
Toribio was the child of a noble Spanish family. He made a brilliant course in civil and canon law at the University of Salamanca, and then joined that university’s faculty. Taking note of Toribio’s legal talent, King Philip II of Spain named him chief judge of the ecclesiastical court of Inquisition at Salamanca. Usually that post was occupied by a bishop. Toribio was a cleric, but had received no holy orders. Even so, he proved to be an admirable judge, winning acclaim for both his skill and his moderation.
In 1568, the Spanish Council of the Indies, which had charge under the kings of Spain of supervising Spain’s transatlantic domains, decided that their colonies were badly in need of reform. Philip nominated Toribio to the pope as the new archbishop of Lima in Peru. The professor/judge tried to decline the honor because he was not in holy orders. But his plea was overruled. He was given all the clerical orders in quick succession, and consecrated a bishop in 1580. The new prelate then set out with his sister and her family on the long and dangerous ocean journey to Peru. After making the last 600 miles of the trip overland on foot, the archbishop was installed in Lima on May 11, 1581.
Once the jurist-archbishop had made the first of his arduous pastoral visits of the archdiocese, he convoked the Third Council of Lima in 1583. Through this and subsequent synods, he worked to apply the reform decrees of the Council of Trent.
It was not easy to achieve reform. Many of the clergy justified their abusive practices as “local custom.” The archbishop reminded them: “Christ said, ‘I am the truth.’ He did not say, ‘I am the custom.’” In connection with his reforms, Toribio also established the first seminary for priests in the new world (Lima, 1591).
Archbishop Mogrovejo was not the sort of bishop who just sat at home and issued laws. He devoted as much time as possible to covering on visitation the 18,000 miles of his archdiocese. “Time is not our own,” he would say, “and we must give a strict account of it.” To prepare himself as a preacher he diligently studied the many languages spoken by the Indians. He performed his visitations mostly on foot, often under great hardships and at risk of life. Even when traveling, however, he never failed to offer Mass daily and go to confession daily to his chaplain-companion. As a follow-up of these journeys, he constructed roads across the wilderness, and set up churches, schools, convents and hospitals.
Archbishop de Mogrovejo was also solicitous of the poor, both the Native Americans and the Spanish. Some of the proud but impoverished Spaniards would have refused to accept charity. Toribio saw to it that they were helped secretly without knowing their benefactor.
Like his contemporary, St. Charles Borromeo, the reforming bishop of Milan, St. Toribio did succeed in large part in improving the quality of faith in Peru. A valuable assistant was the great Franciscan preacher, St. Francis Solano. Saints also sprang up in his garden. Among the 500,000 he personally confirmed was St. Rose of Lima, and probably also the two Dominicans, St. Martin de Porres and St. John Massias.
When Toribio died, aged 68, he left his estate to his servants and to the poor. He had established legal precedents that would benefit not only Latin America but even the future United States. Along with St. Rose of Lima, he had exemplified Spanish America at its Catholic noblest and best.
--Father Robert F. McNamara