Saint of the Day – 4 February – St John de Britto SJ (1647-1693) also known as Arul Anandar (his Indian title and name) – Martyr, Priest, Missionary, Confessor, Preacher – born João de Brito in Lisbon, Portugal on 1 March 1647 – martyred at Oriyur, Tamil Nadu, India on 11 February 1693 (aged 46). Patronages – Portugal, Diocese of Sivagangai, India.
King Pedro II of Portugal, when a child, had among his little pages a modest boy of rich and princely parents. Much had John de Britto—for so was he called—to bear from his careless-living companions, to whom his holy life was a reproach. A terrible illness made him turn for aid to St Francis Xavier, a Saint so well loved by the Portuguese and when, in answer to his prayers, he recovered, his mother vested him for a year in the dress worn in those days by the Jesuit Fathers. From that time John’s heart burned to follow the example of the Apostle of the Indies He gained his wish.
On 17 December 1662, he entered the novitiate of the Society at Lisbon and eleven years later, in spite of the most determined opposition of his family and of the court, he left all to go to convert the Hindus of Madura. When Blessed John’s mother knew that her son was going to the Indies, she used all her influence to prevent him leaving his own country and persuaded the Papal Nuncio to interfere. “God, Who called me from the world into religious life, now calls me from Portugal to India,” was the reply of the future martyr. “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.”
He travelled to the missions of Madurai, in Southern India, present-day Tamil Nadu, in 1673 and preached the Christian religion in the region of the Maravar country. He renamed himself, Arul Anandar in Tamil and for fourteen years he toiled, preaching, converting, baptising multitudes, at the cost of privations, hardships and persecutions.
John at first hoped to win over members of both the higher and the lower castes to Christianity, and so he dressed and lived as an Indian ascetic. He attracted so many members of the lowest caste to Christianity that members of the royalty of Madura saw John as a threat to the caste system. They imprisoned and tortured him but then released him. The Jesuits recalled him to Portugal in 1687 and worked as a missions procurator. King Pedro III (his childhood friend who was now the King) wanted him to stay but in 1690 but after four years, he was allowed to return to Goa and went back to the same territory where he had once been held captive with 24 new missionaries.
The Madurai Mission was a bold attempt to establish an Indian Catholic Church that was relatively free of European cultural domination. As such, Britto learned the native languages, went about dressed in yellow cotton and lived like the people he was seeking to convert – 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 practised by Fr Roberto de Nobili SJ (1577–1656) (an Italian Jesuit missionary to Southern India. He used a novel method of adaptation (accommodation) to preach Christianity, adopting many local customs of India which were, not contrary to Christianity) met with remarkable success. Britto remained a strict vegan until the end of his life, rejecting meat, fish, eggs and alcohol and living only on legumes, fruits and herbs.
Like St John the Baptist, he died a victim to the anger of a guilty woman, whom a convert king had put aside and, like the Precursor, he was beheaded after a painful imprisonment. St John’s preaching had led to the conversion of a Marava prince who had several wives. When Thadiyathevan, the prince, was required to dismiss all his wives but one, a serious problem arose. One of the wives was a niece of the neighbouring king, who took up her quarrel and began a general persecution of Christians. Britto and the catechists were taken and carried to the capital, Ramnad. Thence he was led to Oriyur, some 30 miles northward along the coast, where he was executed on 4 February 1693.
St John was Beatified by Pope Pius IX on 21 August 1853. He was Canonised by Pope Pius XII on 22 June 1947.
The stained glass below shows St John portrayed in the attire of an ascetic, with a gold flame at each side of his head, representing two miracles attributed to him during his lifetime. The orange-red heart at the right knee and a black yin and yang symbol at the right ankle indicate his love for the people of all India. He stands on greenery, under which is a black scroll weighted down by a scimitar.
The shield of the Society of Jesus consists of a blue circlet on a purple background on which the Jesuit logo, IHS is written above the three nails of the crucifixion of Jesus, surrounded by rays of light. A circle around the shield contains the words “Society of Jesus” and the abbreviated motto of the Society, “A.M.D.G.” (“For the Greater Glory of God”). The foundation date of the Society is 1540.
The Red Sand of St John
This seashore sightseeing location is one of the most venerable pilgrim centres of Christians in the world, as it is the site of St John de Britto’s martyrdom. It was at this place where the saint was beheaded in 1693. The sand dune here was stained by the blood of the revered saint. There is a shrine constructed in Portuguese style (see below) containing a statue of the saint, known locally as ‘Arul Anandar’ who had modestly offered his neck to the executioner.
The “red sand dune” has become a pilgrimage site where many miracles have been granted. Numerous incurable diseases have been cured by the application of the red sand on the respective body parts. Couples are believed to have blessed with children on visiting the shrine and praying for St John’s intercession. During festivities, pilgrims mainly from Tamil Nadu and Kerala participate irrespective of their caste, creed and religion. Thus, together with Christians, Hindus and Muslims also come to worship at the shrine in thousands, to mark respect to a unique holy man who shed his life and blood at that spot. The occasion appears to be more as a social gathering rather than a religious festival. The auspicious ceremony is a rare opportunity for these simple people to bring gaiety and enthusiasm in their life. The strong faith and enviable ability to combine pleasure and righteousness on a pilgrimage gives a divine atmosphere to the Oriyur feast.
Devotees from other dioceses and districts visit the shrine on specific dates. In February, believers from Dindigul arrive while in June, they are from Karunguli and Nagapattinam. During September more than 25,000 pilgrims visit the shrine for dedicating prayers and offerings. In October, nearly thousands of pilgrims arrive from the neighbouring Sivagangai district and in December, visitors are from Madurai and Melur. Throughout the year, thousands of pilgrims from Sakthikulangara, the only parish in Kerala, visit the St John de Britto shrine to seek the unique blessings.