The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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February 2, 2001 Issue
Saint of the Day

To bring others to Christ, it may help to dress like the locals

St. John de Britto tried to fit in -- to a point


By Tony Staley
Compass Editor

When someone moves to a new area, probably the best way to become part of the community is by blending in. That means cheering for the local sports teams, joining community groups, dressing as others do and following local customs. Doing otherwise almost guarantees that one will always stay an outsider.

St. John de Britto took that lesson to heart and, as a result, found great success as a missionary to India.

John was born into a noble family in Lisbon, Portugal, on March 1, 1647. His father was governor of Brazil and John was a friend of Infante Don Pedro, who later became the King of Portugal.

From his earliest days, John enjoyed hearing stories abot St. Francis Xavier and other Jesuit missionaries and wanted to be like them. When he was 15, John realized his wish and entered the Jesuits. Following his ordination, he was sent in 1673 with 16 other Jesuits as missionaries to Goa, a Portuguese state in western India.

For the next 20 years, John worked as a missionary in India in Malabar, Tanjore, Marava and Madura and served as superior of the Madura mission. He traveled extensively on foot in throughout the equatorial region.

Much of his success in India is attributed to his willingness to follow the example of an earlier Jesuit missionary to India, Roberto de Nobilis, who adapted to the local culture as much as possible.

John ate local foods, abstained from meat, dressed like an Indian holy man and followed their customs, despite the physical problems he experienced because of his own fragile health. He explained the gospels in ways that could be understood by Brahmans - the highest Hindu caste in India.

Despite his success, John eventually ran into problems among some Hindus when he refused to honor Siva, the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration. As a result, he and some of his catechists were attacked in 1686 and tortured for several days.

Shortly after, he returned to Lisbon. Despite considerable pressure to stay in Europe, John went back to Madura in 1691. In 1693, he was arrested. A local prince, Rajah Raghunatha, ordered his beheading on Feb. 4 - the day we celebrate his feast day - for proclaiming teachings opposed to local gods.

As he was waiting in front of a large crowd for the beheading, John told the hesitant executioner, "My friend, I have prayed to God. I have done what I should do. Now do your part. Carry out the order you have received."

St. John de Britto was beatified in 1853 and was canonized in 1947.


Sources: All Saints, Butler's Lives of the Saints, Dictionary of Saints, Lives of the Saints and 365 Saints


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