A Portuguese Jesuit was a poet and a scholar … and also led to the baptism of a million people!
Joseph de Anchieta was born on March 19, 1534, in San Cristobal de La Laguna in a city called Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Joseph’s dad was a wealthy landowner who had escaped to Tenerife after participating in a plot to overthrow King Charles V.
The rebellion had failed but his dad, Juan Lopez de Anchieta, managed to hold on to his wealth and the family was still well off. His mom, Mancia Diaz de Clavijo y Llarena, came from a Jewish family. She was the daughter of Sebastian de Llarena, a Jewish man, who had converted to Christianity and was related to Ignatius Loyola.
Joseph went off to study in Portugal when he was 14 years old. He was accepted into the Royal College of Arts in Coimbra. When he turned 17, he applied to the Jesuit College of the University of Coimbra as a novice. Joseph was an intensely religious young man and while he was a novice, he almost destroyed his health by his excessive sacrifices trying to please Our Lord. To make matters worse, he became very ill with a spinal condition that would torment him throughout his life.
At the age of 19, Joseph traveled to Brazil as a missionary. He was among the third group of Jesuits sent to the New World. The journey was fraught with mishaps and even a shipwreck, but finally they arrived in Sao Vicente. This was the first village founded in Brazil 20 years earlier and it was now 1554. They were led by the second governor-general nominated by the Portuguese crown, Duarte da Costa. It was here that Joseph and his companions had their first contact with the native Tapula Indians.
Later in the year, Joseph and 12 of his Jesuits companions were sent to a plateau in the Serra do Mar, where they established a small mission. Joseph and his friends immediately went to work teaching the local people and sharing the message of the Gospel. Joseph began teaching Latin to the natives while simultaneously learning their own language.
He began compiling a dictionary and a grammar book, a custom the Jesuits generally maintained after making contact with a local population. Soon the mission was being called the Jesuit College Sao Paulo of Piratininga. The mission was growing faster than expected. It was also beginning to prosper.
However, the Portuguese colonialists were causing considerable trouble. They were killing the native peoples and destroying the villages of the local tribes. Joseph de Anchieta was wholly opposed to the actions supported by Duarte, and started peace negotiations. His knowledge of the language was crucial and he managed to gain the native’s confidence and peace was established. It was a fragile peace and it was broken a number of times before a final peace was established with victory over the French in 1567.
With the permanent peace established, a Jesuit college was founded in Rio de Janeiro and put under the direction of Joseph’s best friend, Manuel da Nobrega. He died in 1570 and Joseph took charge of the college. Besides administering the school, Joseph de Anchieta, in poor health, traveled by foot and by boat for the next 10 years from Rio de Janeiro to Bahia and other cities continuing to spread the message of Christianity.
Joseph de Anchieta is honored as the founder of Brazilian literature, and he and his friend Manuel da Nobrega are called the Apostles of Brazil. Many places in Brazil are named after Joseph, including roads, hospitals, institutions, and schools. He is the first playwright, the first grammarian, and the first poet to be born in the Canary Islands. He was also a music composer, a dramatist, and a poet. He is the Brazilian patron of literature and music and, to top it off, was an excellent physician and surgeon!
Joseph de Anchieta passed away on June 9, 1597. He was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II on June 22, 1980. He was canonized by Pope Francis on April 3, 2014.
There are many legends that form part of devotion to St. Joseph de Anchieta. One tells how he was about to be attacked in the jungle by a snarling panther. Joseph looked at the panther and began to preach. The panther relaxed and walked away. To this day, a popular devotion is to pray to St. Joseph de Anchieta for protection against animal attacks.
St. Joseph de Anchieta, pray for us.
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