Feast of St John Britto – John 12:20-32
John de Brito who renamed himself Arul Anandar is often called ‘the Portuguese St Francis Xavier’ by Indian Catholics. He was born of Portuguese aristocracy on 1 March 1647 and became a member of the royal court at age nine and a companion to the young prince later to become King Peter II. His father, Salvador de Britto Pereira, died while serving as Viceroy of the Portuguese colony of Brazil.
When de Brito was young, he almost died of an illness and his mother vowed he would wear a Jesuit cassock for a year if he were spared. He regained his health and walked around court like a miniature Jesuit. De Britto truly desired to become a Jesuit. Despite pressure from the prince and the king, he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Lisbon on December 17, 1662 when he was only 15 years-old and studied at the famous University of Coimbra.
He wrote to the superior general in 1668 asking to be sent to the east as a missionary. When John’s mother knew that her son was going to India, she used all her influence to prevent him leaving his own country, and persuaded the Papal Nuncio to interfere. “Not to answer the vocation as I ought, would be to provoke the justice of God. As long as I live, I shall never cease striving to gain a passage to India” was the reply of the future martyr.
He was ordained in February 1673 and left Lisbon for Goa in mid-March, arriving the following September. Father de Brito worked in the mission field of Madurai. When he studied the Indian caste system, he discovered that most Christians belonged to the lowest and most despised caste. He thought that members of the higher caste would also have to be converted for Christianity to have a future. He became an Indian ascetic, a pandaraswami since they were permitted to approach individuals of all castes and established a small retreat in the wilderness
He was one of the earliest Jesuit missionaries in India to adopt elements of the local culture in his evangelization. The Madurai Mission was a bold attempt to establish an Indian Catholic Church. As such, Britto learned the native languages, went about dressed in yellow cotton, and lived like a sanyasi, abstaining from every kind of animal food and from wine. St. John de Britto tried to teach the Catholic faith in categories and concepts that would make sense to the people he taught. This method, proposed and practiced by Roberto de Nobili, met with remarkable success. As he became well-known, the number of conversions greatly increased.
He was made superior in Madurai after 11 years on the mission, but he also became the object of hostility from Brahmans who resented his work and wanted to kill him. He and some catechists were captured by soldiers in 1686 and bound in heavy chains. When the soldiers threatened to kill the Jesuit, he simply offered his neck, but they did not act. After spending a month in prison, the Jesuit captive was released.
When he got back to Madurai, he was appointed to return to Portugal to report on the status of the mission in India. When he reached Lisbon ten months later, he was received like a hero. He toured the universities and colleges describing the adventurous life of an Indian missionary. His boyhood friend and now-king, Peter II asked him to remain at home to tutor his two sons, but de Brito placed the needs in India above the comfort of the Portuguese court. De Brito sailed again to Goa and returned to the mission in Madura when he arrived in November 1690 with 24 new missionaries. He came back despite a death threat that the raja of Marava had made four years earlier.
The Jesuit missionary travelled at night from station to station so he could celebrate Mass and baptize converts. His success in converting Prince Tadaya Theva indirectly led to his death. The prince was interested in Christianity and De Brito insisted that the prince could keep only one of his several wives after his baptism; he agreed to this condition, but one of the rejected wives complained to her uncle, the raja of Marava who sent soldiers to arrest the missionary on January 28, 1690. Twenty days later the raja exiled de Brito to Oriyur, a neighbouring province his brother governed. The raja instructed his brother to execute the troublesome Jesuit. He died at Oriyur, Tamil Nadu on 11 February 1693. Pope Pius XII canonized him in 1947.