Saint John de Brito

St John de Brito, Priest; Blesseds Rodolf Acquaviva, Priest, and companions; Francis Pacheco, Charles Spinola, Priests and companions; Jacques Berthieu, Priest – all ‘Jesuit Martyrs of the Missions’ (Memorial)

Today the Society of Jesus commemorates one saint and 44 blessed.

John de Brito, a priest, was born in Lisbon in 1647 and died in Madura in the southern region of Tamil Nadu (India) on this day in 1693. Against the strenuous objections of his aristocratic family, he volunteered for the missions in India in 1673. There he studied the complex Indian caste system, and found that most converts belonged to the lowest caste. He realized that for Christianity to have a lasting influence in India, higher caste members must also convert. He established himself as an Indian ascetic, a Pandara Swami, lived as they lived, dressed in saffron cloak and turban, and held retreats in the wilderness in southern India where interested Indians could visit him. In time he was accepted as a Swami, his reputation grew, and he converted as many as 10,000. His success in converting Indians to Christianity brought the ire of Brahmins, the highest Indian caste, and they decided to kill him. John and his catechists were imprisoned, tortured, and ordered to leave the country. When he refused, the rajah ordered John executed. He was dismembered and beheaded on 11 February 1693 in Oreiour, India. He was beatified on 21 August 1853 by Pope Pius IX and canonized in 1947 by Pope Pius XII.

 Rudolph Acquaviva, born in Italy in 1550, and four companions died near Goa on the west coast of India on July 25, 1583. Rudolph Aquaviva was the son of the Duke of Atri, related to the family of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, and nephew of Claudio Aquaviva, the fifth general of the Jesuits. After being ordained priest at Lisbon he was sent to Goa, in India. He was one of two chosen for the mission at Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra, and worked till 1583 to convert Akbar and his subjects but without success. He was then put in charge of the Salsette mission, north of Bombay. With four companions he set out for Cuncolim, the heart of Hindu opposition. They were met with armed force by the villagers. Rudolf and three companions were killed praying for their murderers.  One of them, Francis was found living the next day.  He was given a chance to venerate an idol and, on refusing, was tied to a tree and shot with arrows.  They were beatified on 2 April 1893 by Pope Leo XIII.

Francis Pacheco, Charles Spinola, and 32 Jesuit companions, among whom were 23 Japanese and Koreans, died in Japan between 1617 and 1632. Francis Pacheco, a Portuguese (1565-1626), was a missionary to China and Japan. On his third entrance into Japan made in disguise, Francis was captured by the Shogun’s many spies and put in a prison with other Jesuits, catechists, and lay people. Among them were some young men preparing to enter the Jesuits.  With martyrdom imminent, Pacheco allowed them to make their vows. In 1626 they all suffered martyrdom at Nagasaki. Francis was the most experienced of all the 33 Jesuits martyred in Japan during the great persecution between 1617 and 1626 when thousands of Japanese both denied their faith while others gave their lives for it.  The laymen were executed last in the hopes that they would change their minds, but it only strengthened their resolve.

James Berthieu, a Frenchman born in 1838, died in Madagascar on June 8, 1896.  He was born in the Auvergne in 1838 and ordained a diocesan priest in 1863. With his bishop’s permission he entered the Society of Jesus in 1873.  Before the end of his novitiate he was appointed to the missions in Madagascar where he took his first vows. For the next five years he engaged in the ordinary pastoral duties of catechising the children, administering the sacraments and tending the sick on the island of St Mary off the Madagascar coast. In 1880, however, the French government closed the Jesuit schools and forced the Jesuits into exile. Eventually, when peace was more or less restored in 1885, he reopened a mission at Ambrositra. A few years later he went to evangelize the Merina people in the district of Anjozorofady, a short distance north of Tananarive. In 1886 another rebellion broke out a short distance from his mission and Fr Berthieu ordered his villagers to flee. He and his people headed for the capital of Tananarive.  On their way, however, they were attacked by one of the tribes and forced to scatter. Within a few days Fr Berthieu was captured and led away to a village where the chief tried to get him to apostatize, but without success. Finally, the chief said to him: “Renounce your villainous religion and stop deceiving these people. We will then accept you as our leader and counsellor and we will not kill you.” His response was simple: “I cannot consent to that. I prefer to die.”  Thus, in the village of Ambiatibe, 60 km from Tananarive, he was killed. They took his body and threw it into the river, never to be recovered. It was 8 June 1896. During the last session of Vatican II (1965), Pope Paul VI proclaimed Fr. James Berthieu a martyr to the faith.

All of these martyrs are remembered for the missionary zeal that led them to proclaim the Word of the Lord fearlessly in foreign lands and to give their lives in witness for the faith.

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