Who Is St John De Britto?
John de Britto (in Portuguese João de Brito and known among Indians as Arul Anandar) was born in Lisbon on March 1, 1647, and died in Oriyur Tamil Nadu, India, on February 4, 1693. He was a Portuguese Jesuit missionary and martyr often called “the Portuguese St. Francis Xavier” by Indian Catholics. He can be called the John the Baptist of India.
He was born to a noble Portuguese family. As a youngster, John was a playmate of the future king of Portugal, Pedro II. At 15, the young nobleman applied to join the Society of Jesus, into which he was duly accepted. His talent for academic excellence was soon noted by his superiors. However, John’s great admiration and devotion to St. Francis Xavier urged him to apply to serve in the Indian missions.
In 1673, amid strong opposition from his family, John traveled to Madurai in southern India. John lived austerely, traveling throughout India on foot. He dressed in the saffron cloak and turban of the native Indians, abstained from eating meat, and lived humbly. John soon became well known and formed a group of catechists. Though practicing Catholicism was not illegal in India, he was hated by many because of his faith. He and his followers were often subjected to agonizing torture, but each time John miraculously recovered.
In 1686, John was summoned to Rome, where the Superior General of the Jesuits appointed him Procurator of the Mission. Attempts to hold him in Europe, even the offer of an episcopate, did nothing to deter him from returning to India in 1690.
Seeking the fellowship of the poor and the outcast, John taught the Catholic faith in categories and concepts that would make sense to the simple people he met. This method, which had been proposed and practiced earlier by another Italian Jesuit, Roberto de Nobili, had met with remarkable success.
While on the one hand John’s 20 years of tireless service in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus brought around 30,000 people to the Christian faith, on the other hand the local Hindu Brahmins were not pleased with him. Under their influence, the local ruler of the Ramnad Kingdom in the Marava country, Sethupathi, imprisoned John in 1684, and subjected him to torture. But to put him to death, they needed the king’s assent which they got later on the occasion of the baptism of Thadiya Thevar, a Marava prince, who was inspired by the Gospel Message John preached and whom he had healed of a severe illness.
Adhering to his baptismal promise to practice monogamy, Thadiya Thevar sent away all his wives but one. This invited the wrath of one of the dismissed wives, the niece of the King Sethupathi, who came to her defense and began a general persecution of Christians. Churches were burnt and the houses of the Christians were looted. John was arrested, tortured, and asked to leave India. When he refused, he was sentenced to death, “I await it with impatience,” he wrote to his superior. “It has always been the object of my prayers. It forms today the most precious reward of my laborers and my sufferings.”
He was to be beheaded. He knelt at the execution block and the King’s order of death was read aloud. The executioner hesitated, but John said to him, “My friend, on my part I have prayed to God and have done what I should. Now you do your part.”
John de Britto was canonized by Pope Pius XII on June 22, 1947, and his feast day is celebrated every February 4. During the apostolic pilgrimage to India in 1986, St John Paul II said in his homily during the Eucharistic celebration in honor of Saint John de Britto: “Saint John de Britto’s life faithfully reflected the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for it was a life of service unto death. Yes, his life is a service unto death for Jesus, but how about ours? We seek the power to serve, but he sought the pain to serve. We seek rewards, but he sought loss in serving.”
Let us go to Oriyur, Ramanathapuram, and know more about the marvelous work of this saint.
By Stella Anand