This is the second of three stories in our Synod 2018 series focusing on vocations. In October, Pope Francis will convene a worldwide synod of bishops and heads of religious orders to discuss the faith, young people, and vocations. Our subject this month is the vocation to the priesthood, as we look at St. Turibius of Mogrovejo, a lawyer-turned-bishop whose humility, administrative genius, and generosity made him a pioneer of the faith in South America.
How does someone with earthly prominence, money, and titles become a saint? How does a man with no apparent priestly vocation become archbishop in one of the largest dioceses in the world? These seeming contradictions bloom side-by-side in the story of St. Turibius of Mogrovejo, a sixteenth-century bishop from Spain who was instrumental in evangelizing a region of South America spanning seven modern-day countries. Although he isn’t well-known outside of that area, Turibius is an example for anyone who wants to help bring other people to faith in Christ.
Integrity at a Time of Abuse. Turibius was born in 1538 to a devout noble family in Mayorga, Spain. His parents taught him how to pray and live his faith from a young age. It was clear that Turibius had a good heart and an exceptional mind. At age twelve he began studying at the University of Valladolid. Over the next ten years, he rose to prominence as a law scholar and lecturer at the prestigious University of Salamanca. Yet even as he became influential, he also continued to deepen his faith. He took several extended pilgrimages along the Camino de Santiago to the tomb of St. James the Apostle—pilgrimages that involved days and days of walking.
When Turibius was in his mid-thirties, King Philip II of Spain appointed him as the head judge for the Church’s inquisitorial courts in the majority Muslim province of Granada. To understand this move, it’s important to understand the time: the Spanish Inquisition of the sixteenth century.
Following the Protestant Reformation, Spain, along with most other European countries, imposed oppressive conditions over its religious minorities in order to ensure political stability. Being a mostly Catholic kingdom, Spain enacted laws restricting its Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish citizens. Motivated by a combination of political and religious concerns, agents of the Inquisition sought to promote gospel values, but many were known to be overzealous in their desire to protect and defend the faith.
That was clearly the case in Granada. Laws bridling Muslim culture had understandably provoked an uprising. In response, Philip II forcibly dispelled Muslims from their homes. He knew that he needed a trusted, well-educated lawyer there to help restore peace. Soon after Turibius’ arrival, though, the Court at Granada was investigated for abuse of power. Remarkably, everyone but Turibius was found guilty. The young lawyer, his good reputation now cemented, served at Granada for ten years. Then came another surprise assignment.
Discerning His Greatest Call. Philip II had recommended to Pope Gregory XIII that Turibius be named the archbishop of Lima, one of the largest missionary dioceses in Spain’s colonial empire. This was no small assignment even for an experienced cleric, let alone a layman. This New World territory, which covered almost the entire west coast of South America, was in sore need of administrative resources, clergy training, and catechesis.
Despite the need and the urgency of a papal summons, Turibius hesitated. He spent three whole months prayerfully discerning whether to accept the appointment. In the end, he came to believe it was a call from God that he could not refuse.
But even then, Turibius was concerned about his lack of experience. In contrast to public officials who became bishops almost overnight, Turibius made a unique request. He asked to spend the next two years receiving all the minor and major orders leading up to bishop. In this way, he could prepare himself for the challenge of evangelizing a foreign and uncharted land.
“Make Disciples of All Nations.” So at forty-two years old, Bishop Turibius arrived to the Americas with his sister and her husband. A crowd of African slaves and curious indigenous people gathered at port to see his ship. Turibius had evidently shifted into his new shepherd’s role during the journey. As soon as he walked off the ship, he walked up to the crowd and asked them questions about their lives. He delayed the next leg of their journey to Lima to spend extra time listening to these people and sharing bits of the gospel with them.
This was quite out of character for a Spaniard of title and learning. Moreover, it was a startling precedent. Many people, even clergy, considered slaves and the indigenous population to be less than human, but Turibius treated them as children of God. Right from the start, his witness began melting hardened hearts and healing wounded perceptions about Christianity.
It was the first of many difficult pastoral situations that Turibius would face on a daily basis. In many of them, he would be guided by the reforms of the Council of Trent, which had concluded eighteen years earlier, but had barely been implemented. For example, the Council Fathers wanted clergymen to live in their own diocese and minister to people in every corner of it. In the Diocese of Lima, that included the remotest inhabitants of the Amazon rainforest. Turibius worked with his brother priests to help them embrace this missionary call.
Smelling like the Sheep. Few of Turibius’ words are recorded, but his love for Christ shines through his actions. During the five hundred mile walk to the city of Lima, he stopped frequently to talk with passersby and offer to baptize them. Whenever he entered a new town, the first thing he did was visit the church. Next, he visited the indigenous people and the slaves, and finally he went to the Europeans. This showed that all his sheep were equally important—and that both he and Jesus were their friends.
Indeed, poor people felt free to approach the archbishop directly. To one poor man who came to him, Turibius gave the shirt that was intended to be his change of clothes. “Take it and go quickly,” he said, “before my sister tries to stop me!”
Turibius’ well-meaning sister wasn’t the only one prone to blocking his good works. Because his office was supposed to help the Spanish monarchy to govern Lima, local officials expected him to remain in the city doing administrative work. But Turibius’ goal was clear: to bring Christ to people who had never heard of him before. Three times, he left his bishop’s seat to go on mission across the diocese—a distance of three thousand miles. Each visit took years to complete on foot, but his success in spreading the gospel was astonishing.
He is said to have baptized an estimated five hundred thousand people, including St. Rose of Lima; St. Martin de Porres, who was of mixed racial descent; and St. Francis Solanus, whom he later befriended. Along the way, Turibius discovered unknown tribes who had never seen a bearded European man. He learned their dialects and created lasting faith communities, supported by members of the clergy. Under his direction, the archdiocese developed catechisms and Confession guides in the indigenous languages—another goal of the Council of Trent.
Serving the Poor—In Every Sense. By the time Turibius died in 1606, he had convened local synods, established more than a hundred new parishes in remote areas, founded the first seminary in Latin America, and catechized more than any other living missionary in the Americas up to that time. This was a marked contrast to other, older dioceses in the Americas.
Turibius’ ministry reflected what Catholic social teaching calls the “preferential option for the poor.” These “poor” included victims of slavery and racism, but also anyone whose language prevented them from hearing and embracing the gospel. The poor also included priests whose ministry needed renewal and reform. By his heartfelt preaching, zealous example, and distinctive administrative gifts, Turibius mobilized these men to venture out as missionaries too.
Man of Prayer and Service. So how did Turibius accomplish all this? It seems that it started with a combination of prayer and time management. He was known to rise early so that he could spend time with the Lord in quiet meditation. He also firmly believed that God takes account of how we have used our time and that our “great treasure” is the present moment.
Because of his humility and prayer life, Turibius was able to see how human sins like racism, coupled with organizational sins like clericalism, could get in the way of his Christian duty. He always tried to place a priority on caring for souls, whether through personal charity or by helping people to refocus and serve more effectively.
Finally, Turibius sought to stay open to going wherever God might lead him. At each twist in his life’s journey, he paused to hear the Lord, and then said yes with all his heart. Each of these qualities makes him a model bishop, but also a model missionary disciple. And that makes him a model for all of us.
Carlos Taja is the Assistant Director for Evangelization and Catechesis at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.