Blessed Joseph de Anchieta, Priest, Jesuit
José de Anchieta Llarena was born on 19 March 1534 in San Cristóbal de La Laguna on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, Spain, to a well-off family. His father, Juan López de Anchieta, was a landowner from Urrestilla, in the Basque country, who had escaped to Tenerife after taking part in a failed rebellion against King Charles V. His mother, Mencia Díaz de Clavijo y Llarena, a descendant of the conquerors of Tenerife, came from a Jewish family and was related to the family of Ignatius Loyola.
Anchieta went to study in Portugal when he was 14 years old, in the Royal College of Arts in Coimbra. He was intensely religious and sought admission in 1551 to the Jesuit College of the University of Coimbra as a novice. During his studies, the young Anchieta became quite ill, with an affliction of the spine which tormented him throughout his life, but he was considered an exceptionally intelligent student and a gifted poet. He learned to write in Portuguese and Latin as well as in his mother tongue.
In 1553 Anchieta travelled to Brazil as a missionary of the third group of Jesuits sent to the New World, accompanying Duarte da Costa, the second governor-general nominated by the Portuguese crown. After a perilous journey and a shipwreck, Anchieta and his small group arrived in São Vicente, the first village founded in Brazil, in 1534. There, he had his first contact with the Tapuia Indians living in the region.
In the same year, Anchieta with 12 other Jesuits were sent to a plateau in the Serra do Mar and there established a small mission station. Here, Anchieta began, with his Jesuit colleagues, the work of conversion, baptism and catechesis and education for which the Jesuits were well known. Anchieta taught Latin to the Indians and began to learn their language, Old Tupi, and to compile a dictionary and a grammar, which was the custom of Jesuit missions whenever they made contact with a local people. The Jesuit College of São Paulo of Piratininga, as it was called, soon began to expand and to prosper.
Meanwhile, due to the killings and ransacking of villages by the Portuguese colonisers, the local tribes in present-day Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Espirito Santo united in a confederation against them and supported the French colonisers. Anchieta, who was totally opposed to the Portuguese behaviour, strongly opposed Governor-general Duarte and initiated peace negotiations with Tamao people during which his knowledge of the Tupi language was crucial.
After many incidents during which Anchieta and his colleague, Manuel da Nobrega, were almost killed by the native people, he finally gained their confidence and peace was established.
Peace was broken, however, when it was decided to expel the French colonisers permanently. Anchieta was with the Portuguese forces, acting as both surgeon and interpreter, and took part in the final, victorious battle against the French in 1567.
With the coming of peace, a Jesuit college was founded in Rio de Janeiro under the direction of da Nóbrega and Anchieta was invited to join him, succeeding him after his death, in 1570.
Despite his precarious health and the hardships of travelling by foot and boat, for the next 10 years Anchieta travelled widely between Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, Espírito Santo and São Paulo, consolidating the expanding missionary work of the Jesuit missions. In 1577 the fourth superior general of the Jesuits, Everard Mercurian, appointed Anchieta provincial superior of the order’s members in Brazil.
With his health in decline, Anchieta asked to be relieved from his respnsibilities in 1591. He died in his country of adoption on 9 June 1597, at Reritiba, Espírito Santo, mourned by more than 3,000 native peoples, who so much valued all he had done for them both spiritually and in the promotion of their human dignity.
During and after his life, José de Anchieta was considered to have almost supernatural powers. Many legends formed around him, such as when he supposedly preached to and calmed down an attacking jaguar. To this day, a popular devotion holds that praying to Anchieta protects against animal attacks.
José de Anchieta is celebrated as the founder of Brazilian literature and, with da Nóbrega, Apostle of Brazil. He has given his name to two cities, Anchieta, in the State of Espírito Santo (formerly called Reritiba, his place of death), and Anchieta, in the state of Santa Catarina, as well as many other places, roads, institutions, hospitals, and schools.
He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980. .
In the Jesuit tradition, Anchieta kept in constant touch with his superiors in Europe, communicating mainly by letters, writing in perfect Spanish, Portuguese, Latin and Tupi. He also wrote theology, religious instruction, drama poetry, and the first published work on the Old Tupi language.
He was a writer of music and a dramatist, teaching Christianity to the local people through music and theatre. He wrote a famous poem to the Virgin Mary, allegedly writing it every morning on the wet sand of a beach at Iperoig and committing it to memory until he could much later transcribe its more than 4,900 verses to paper. Because of all this, Anchieta is the patron of
literature and music in Brazil. He was also a keen naturalist, describing several hitherto unknown plants and animals, and was an excellent surgeon and physician.
His clear and detailed reports help us now to understand the lifestyle, knowledge and customs of the native peoples and Europeans during his time, as well as the marvels of Brazil’s wildlife and geography.