“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
John de Brito was the scion of a powerful aristocratic Portuguese family: his father, Salvador de Brito Pereira, died while serving as Viceroy of the Portuguese colony of Brazil. He joined the Jesuits in 1662, studying at the famous University of Coimbra. 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. The ruler of the Maravar country imprisoned him in 1684. Having been expelled, he returned to Lisbon in 1687 and worked as a mission procurator. King Pedro II wanted him to stay, but in 1690 he returned to the Maravar country 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 living like a Sanyaasi, abstaining from every kind of animal food and from wine. St. John de Brito 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. Britto remained a strict vegetarian until the end of his life, rejecting meat, fish, eggs and alcohol, and living only on legumes, fruits and herbs.
John de Brito’s preaching led to the conversion of Thadiyathevan, a Marava prince who had several wives. When Thadiyathevan was required to dismiss all his wives but one, a serious problem arose. One of the wives was a niece of the neighbouring king, the Sethupathi who took up her quarrel and began a general persecution of Christians. De Brito and the catechists were taken and carried to the capital, Ramnad, the Brahmins clamouring for his death Thence he was led to Oriyur some thirty miles northward along the coast, where he was executed on 04 February 1693.
Brito was beatified by Pope Pius IX on August 21, 1853. He was canonized by Pope Pius XII on June 22, 1947. St. John de Brito’s feast day is February 4.
Truly the life of John de Brito was a grain that fell and died to give much fruit for the kingdom of God. In every way he gave of himself to spread the message of the Gospel, a true self empting, to manifest Christ.