José de Anchieta was a Jesuit missionary, poet, and the first Brazilian author. He was canonised by Pope Francis on 3 April 2014. Known as the ‘Apostle of Brazil’, St José was described by Father General Adolfo Nicolás SJ as ‘inspiring and extremely relevant to this day’.
José was of ‘medium height, lean, with a strong and decisive spirit, bronzed features, bluish eyes, ample forehead, large nose, thin beard, and with a happy and friendly face’. He spent 44 years traversing Brazil and carrying the good news of the Gospel to its peoples.
The third of ten children he was born in Tenerife (Spain’s Canary Islands) in 1534. Early in life he was sent to study at the University of Coimbra (Portugal) and his vocation to religious life was born there. Admitted to the novitiate of the Society in Portugal in1551, Anchieta contracted serious bone tuberculosis when he was 17, causing a visible curvature of his back. His anguish at being considered useless for the apostolate was alleviated by the consoling words of Simón Rodrigues, founder of the Portuguese Province: ‘Do not be sad about that deformation. God loves you the way you are’. Besides, he was encouraged by letters from Fr Manuel de Nóbrega in Brazil that proclaimed the health benefits of the climate for any type of illness. And so Anchieta, directly after pronouncing his first vows, headed there on 8 March 1553, at the age of 19.
It is a paradox that this young Jesuit, who was supposed to be physically fragile, now embarked on intense apostolic activity for the next 44 years until his death aged 63. ‘It is not enough to leave Coimbra’, he wrote to his brothers there, ‘with a fervour that soon withers before even crossing the equator and desiring to return to Portugal. It is necessary to have the saddlebags full to last till the end of the day’.
Fr General Nicolás wrote: “The challenges of our mission today increasingly demand ‘the revitalization of the apostolic body’ of the Society. The spring from which Anchieta drew apostolic vitality was his profound spiritual experience. The solidity of his reputation as a saint and miracle-worker rests on his love, prayer, humility and service’. A Jesuit who knew Anchieta wrote of him to be ‘a man faithful, prudent, and humble in Christ, very well-liked by all, about whom no one has a complaint, nor is it possible for me to find a word or action in which he has done something wrong’. A sincere friend of all, Anchieta knew how to combine kindness with rigour and firmness, as St Ignatius desired in every good superior. In spite of his very visible illnesses, his time as provincial was dynamic and fruitful.
As mentioned, he travelled constantly and he gave himself to a profound study of the Tupi language, which at the same time allowed him to do great missionary and catechetical activity. Named provincial in 1577, he continued his visits of Jesuit houses and communities. For the people he was a father and a healer of the sick and those who suffered as well as being a counsellor of governors and at the same time a friend and defender of the local people.
In 1595 he became free from responsibilities of government but there only remained two years of life. He used them in part to write a History of the Society of Jesus in Brazil, a work of which only fragments remain.
Fr General Nicolás continues, ‘Anchieta was not moved to carry out his itinerant life by any spirit of adventure but rather by a spirit of availability for the mission, of spiritual freedom and of promptness to search and find in each moment the will of the Lord. A true apostolic fire accompanied him to the very end’.
With Fr Nóbrega, José de Anchieta took part in the founding of Rio de Janeiro and he wrote a work in Latin about it. He also wrote a religious drama entitled Pregação universal (Universal preaching), inspired by the indigenous reception ceremony for illustrious people and here he introduced into the Tupi language the technique of verse and stanza typical of the Portuguese theatre. He knew how to place at the service of the mission his gifts as a humanist: his mastery of grammar, his taste for the Latin classics, and his skill in the art of oration. With great fruitfulness he composed in Tupi the ‘Dialogues of the Faith’ (a catechism for the people in Christian doctrine) and he adapted short writings as a preparation for baptism and confession. He also completed a Tupi grammar.
Always an agent of reconciliation, he became profoundly involved in the dialogue with the Tamoyo Indians up to the point of being taken as a hostage and of living among them as a prisoner for five months. When peace was established with the Tamoyos and he was given his freedom, he wrote a long poem to Mary in the sand since he had no paper. He then memorised what he had written and transcribed it later. Popular folklore, adapted as religious music, aided him for the presentations of dramas in Portuguese and in Tupi. His activity in enriching the pastoral and catechetical ministry among the people with festive theatrical presentations was incessant. He considered getting close to the indigenous psychology indispensable. ‘We have many reasons for being grateful to Pope Francis for placing José de Anchieta before the world as a new and outstanding example of sanctity’, wrote Fr Nicolás in 2014. ‘For the Society of Jesus it is an occasion to renew with intensity the search for those horizons which he pursued and which are always new: sensitivity in the face of ethnic diversity and religious, cultural, and social pluralism; the untiring development of a fresh creative freedom and a responsible capacity for improvisation; the constant search for inculturated expressions of the Christian and evangelising experience.”
by Fr David Harrold-Barry, S.J.