June 29th: Venerable Andrew de Oviedo, SJ

June 29th: Venerable Andrew de Oviedo, SJ

Born: Circa 1517
Died: Between June 19 and July 9, 1577

Andrew de Oviedo was born in Illescas, Spain. He went to Rome to offer himself as a candidate for the Society after he graduated from the University of Alcala and was accepted by Fr Ignatius, the founder in 1541. After he did further studies in Paris, Louvain and Coimbra, Fr Oviedo was appointed rector of the Jesuit college in Gandia, Spain in 1545 which was newly set up by Francis Borgia, fourth duke of Gandia. When the duke’s wife, Leonor was dying, Fr Oviedo assisted her in her last hours and a year after her death, led the duke through the Spiritual Exercises. He also later directed the duke through the noviceship when the latter decided to enter the Society and to take his vows in 1548 and who later became the Society’s third superior general. Fr Oviedo later went to Rome and became the rector of the new college in Naples.

Portugal had been interested in Ethiopia since the beginning of the sixteenth century and when the Abyssinian Negus (emperor) led King John III to believe that he was disposed towards Catholicism through correspondence, the king asked the Society to supply missionaries for this new harvest. Of the several appointed, three were named bishops and Fr Oviedo being one of them became bishop of Hierapolis. He and another bishop were also coadjutors to the patriarch, with right of succession. He and Fr Barreto were consecrated in Evora, Portugal in My 1555 and became the first Jesuits to become bishops.

To ascertain that the religious climate of Ethiopia was right, Bishop Oviedo and five Jesuits went as an advance guard. The party left Goa on Feb 16, 1557 and landed at Arquico on the Tigre coast on Mar 17 and to his great disappointment learned that the Negus was not interested in Catholicism and had no intention to convert or change his schismatic belief that Christ had one and not two natures. As he was not able to make any headway with the Negus, Bishop Oviedo occupied himself by ministering to the small Portuguese Catholics in the capital but still hopeful that the country would one day be converted to Catholicism.

In 1599 when Minas, a less tolerant emperor succeeded his father, he forbade Bishop Oviedo to preach and proselytize as he had converted several prominent individuals to Catholicism. For three difficult years, Bishop Oviedo did not succumb to discouragement but had to move to Maigoga, a small village where about 100 Portuguese families had settled around the church of St George which he later renamed Fremona where he could preach and go about his ministry freely.

Bishop Oviedo became patriarch when Bishop Barreto died in 1562 but his fourteen years in Fremona were spent in extreme poverty despite his title. He lived in a small thatched hut and grew his own food supply in his garden. When Fr Borgia, now general of the Society learned of his old friend’s plight, he wrote in great admiration of the bishop’s selfless sufferings for his faith. Although King Sebastian of Portugal and Pope Pius V both wrote to the bishop offering him the choice of going to either Japan or China and exercising his episcopacy there, the bishop declined as he rather remained as pastor to the five or six hundred Catholic families scattered throughout Ethiopia as he said “without him, they have no priest.”

Bishop Oviedo remained in Fremona and continued with his lonely and destitute life, to the extent that he was said to have torn blank pages from his breviary to write to the king and cutting off the margins of other pages to write to the pope. He however wrote a book “On the Primacy of the Roman Church and the Errors of the Abyssinians”. Bishop Oviedo’s life was filled with privation and hardship and he wore himself out in serving Christ and His flock. He died in Fremona on a date between June 29 and July 9, 1577 and was laid to rest in St George’s church. His cause was introduced in Rome on June 8, 1630.