John de Britto, a young Portuguese nobleman, felt a strong call to become a Jesuit missionary to India. Surmounting the many obstacles to that dream, he merited a martyr’s crown in the Indian subcontinent.
John entered the Society of Jesus when only 15. He was so successful as a student that after his priestly ordination his Jesuit superiors tried to detain him in Portugal as a teacher. Winning out against the academics, the young priest set sail for Goa, India, in 1673. He was to spend the rest of his life in India, all the more successful as a missionary because of his wholehearted devotion to his task.
The Jesuits who initiated the apostolate in southern India had discovered that the Indian people would not give them a hearing unless approached in terms of their own culture. Father John therefore not only learned the Hindu language and literature; he went among the nation as a guru (teacher) and holy man (sanyasi), wearing the garb of that office, abstaining from meat, and respecting, as far as he could, the social customs of the Indian caste system.
While the Jesuits were widely welcomed because of these accommodations to the native life style, their “Madura Mission” was a most difficult assignment. The climate was trying, travel was painful, and Father de Britto himself was physically frail. Furthermore, South India was politically unsettled. This social disturbance made it possible for the fanatical pagan priesthood to interfere, even violently, with the work of the Jesuits and their catechists. Once, for instance, de Britto and some of his native associates were arrested and commanded to honor the pagan god Siva. When they refused, they were subjected for several days to cruel tortures.
De Britto escaped with his life on this occasion, in a manner deemed even miraculous. After liberation, he was called to Lisbon on the business of the Madura mission, of which he was superior. Once he was back in Portugal, King Pedro II and the papal nuncio both tried to keep him in Europe. But the missionary pleaded so ardently to return that he was finally allowed to have his way.
Father de Britto continued this heroic work for three more years. Then he encountered his mortal enemy in the person of one of the repudiated wives of the Poligar of Siruvalli. The poligar had become a convert of de Britto. On being baptized, he had been called on, of course, to give up his several wives. One of the dismissed wives now sought revenge by reporting to the local rajah that the priest had taught things subversive of the pagan gods. Jailed, Father John wrote to his superior on February 3, 1693, “I await death, and I await it with impatience. It has always been the object of my prayers. It forms today the most precious reward of my labors and my sufferings.” The next clay he was beheaded at Oriur, on the order of Rajah Raghunatha. There was a delay in the execution because Raghunatha long sought to evade the responsibility.
When the news of the missionary’s death reached Lisbon, King Pedro ordered a solemn memorial service, not of mourning but of thanksgiving. The martyr’s mother was in attendance, dressed in festive garb rather than in black. When John, as a child, had fallen ill, we are told, the mother had invoked the aid of the great Jesuit missionary, St. Francis Xavier, and had dedicated her son to him. For her, then, as for John de Britto, martyrdom was triumph.
Pope Pius XII canonized Father de Britto in 1947.
— Father Robert F. McNamara