John De Britto


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Portuguese martyr. He joined the Jesuits from his noble family in 1662, was ordained priest in 1673, and left for Goa soon afterwards with sixteen companions. He spent virtually all the rest of his life in southern India. He followed the example of the famous Jesuit Fr. de Nobili in living, as far as possible, in an Indian way, wearing Indian robes, abstaining from animal food, and respecting (except for sin) the varied taboos of caste.

He was placed in charge of the Madura mission in Madras, where he long laboured in the intense heat. Contemporaries testified to his austerity and courage which bore fruit in numerous conversions. The turbulence of the area was a further hazard and at least once he and his companions were tortured for refusing to pay honour to the god Siva. Recalled to Lisbon, he was exhorted to remain in Europe, but chose instead to return to Madura.

A convert to Christianity, who had formerly been polygamous, put away his wives. One of them complained to her uncle who was Rajah of Marava, blaming John for her misfortune. A persecution of Christians followed and John was imprisoned. He wrote to his superior: ‘I await death and await it with impatience … It forms today the most precious reward of my labours and sufferings.’ On the following day he was beheaded at Oriur because he had taught ‘what was subversive of the worship of gods of the country’. He was canonized in 1947, a pioneer of missionary techniques which have been followed in our own day. Feast: 4 February.

J. Bertrand, La Mission du Madure (1850), of which vol. 3 contains several of De Britto's letters. Lives by A. Bessières (1947) and M. Trullas (1950); see also B.L.S., ii. 50–1;Bibl. SS., vi. 989–93.

Subjects: Christianity.

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