ST. JOHN DE BRITTO SHRINE, ORIYUR, RAMNAD DISTRICT, TAMILNADU, INDIA, PIN CODE 623 406.
The Red Sand Saint
St John de Britto - A Saint for Our Times
A Saint with a caring heart for the poor
A Saint fearlessly upholding family values of fidelity and bonding
A Saint sealing his firm faith in the Risen Lord with the blood of martyrdom
Reach India and win fame, glory and riches. That was the ambition of every western navigator of the late fifteenth century, after the land route to India had been blocked by Turks in 1453. The first navigator who reached India was the Portuguese Admiral Vasco da Gama. He and his sailors started their epic voyage from Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Lisbon became famous for another reason also. It was in this city that our martyr, the red sand saint, John de Britto, was born.
John de Britto hails from a Portuguese ducal family known for its deep piety. He was born on 1 March 1647. He was chosen together with his two brothers to be the companions to the prince in the court. When he was eleven, he was at deathbed due to a fatal illness. When all hope of recovery was lost, his saintly mother prayed fervently to St Francis Xavier: “If my son gets cured, I will make him wear a long cassock like St Francis Xavier.” A miraculous recovery resulted. In gratitude his mother fulfilled her and made John wear the Jesuit cassock for a year.
Britto had a burning desire to become a Jesuit just like St. Francis Xavier. He joined the Jesuit novitiate in 1662 in Lisbon. He was sent to the theologate in Coimbra where Fr. Balthazar de Costa who had earlier worked in India, explained about the mission in India. Britto was inspired to set out to India as a missionary. From the beginning of his Religious life, he had a clear vision about his future as an Indian missionary following the footsteps of St Francis Xavier. Reaching the Indian shores in Goa he completed his theological studies. He was ordained in 1673. He learnt Tamil in Ambalakat. After his tertianship at Ambalakat, he set out as a missionary to Kolei, known today as Kottagaipatti. The Parish of Kolei under the direction of Fr. Freyre was his first love. He loved the poor and the downtrodden. He was known as Arulanandaswamy, the Tamil equivalent of John.
He work was blessed with a good harvest of souls in the Thanjavur region. However, his mind was set on going to the barren, perennially sun-scorched frontiers of Marava. He set out for the Marava land in 1686. While he tasted initial success in his ministry, he had to face the wrath of the chief minister of Marava who had him arrested and tortured so that he would not preach any more his new religion.
He was, however, set free later with severe warning by the Raja of Marava, King Sethupathi. On 8 September1687, he went back to Portugal but as a Tamil sanniyasi (priest). He desired to come back to the Marava land. On 2 November 1690, he returned to Goa.
About this time Thadiya Thevan, one of the Marava princes, was down with a deadly disease. He had come to know of Britto's healing power. He beseeched: “Please send me at least one of your disciples even if you are not able to come.” Britto sent a knowledgeable catechist to cure him. The prince was miraculously cured. He persisted in asking to be baptized. The Christian faith does not allow a man to have more than one wife (monogamy). Thadiya Thevan readily dismissed all but one wife. Among the four dismissed, one was Kadalayi, the cousin of king Sethupathi. She complained to the king who ordered the immediate arrest of Britto.
Britto was arrested along with his disciples. He prayed earnestly for his martyrdom. In the prison-cell, he exhorted his disciples citing the lives of the saints which he used to read in the breviary to foster courage in suffering and perseverance until death. The saint was sentenced without trial. Thadiya Thevan, the new convert, demanded an open trial. But the Hindu priests having obtained the green signal from Sethupathi (the king), performed few Hindu pujas, one after another rituals, which they thought would cause Britto's death, but to no avail.
At the end of the trial the Raja, overtly decided that the missionary and he alone must be exiled but covertly gave orders to send John de Britto to Oriyur to be executed. The Raja feared an uprising on the part of the now strong Christian community, more so, now that Thadiya Thevar had joined them!
On Tuesday night 3rd February, John de Britto took a piece of cloth, tore it up in pieces and bound himself as if wearing a pair of underpants. The guards got a shock as to why the swami bound himself so tightly. When asked, pat came the reply: “In order to go promptly to the place to be executed.” One of the guards bore witness that the swami hurried along the road to the place of execution, then turned towards the east, bowed his head without being told and offered it to be chopped off. As the head was cut off, to the wonder of all, his body leapt and fell backwards. The executioners, far from having been satisfied with it, cut off the hands and the feet. Together with the trunk, they put the limbs on two stakes and left them as food for the birds of the air and wild animals!
After the execution, the area experienced unseasonal rain for eight days causing the body to fall from the stake. Wild beasts left only a few bones! The sand in this zone miraculously became red. The pilgrimage to Oriyur began soon after the martyrdom. Britto was beatified by Pope Pius IX on 8 April 1862. He was canonized by Pope Pius XII on 22 June 1947. Wednesday (the day, 4 February 1693 he was beheaded) is dedicated to St John de Britto.
Martyr’s blood is the powerful seed of faith
Thus did the life of John de Britto end far away from his native Portugal. Was this the end or the interval for a dream for which John de Britto left his home and hearth in Portugal and a dream which unraveled with vigour and vitality under divine providential dispensation? Did not Christ say, “ A grain of wheat remains a grain unless it falls to the ground and dies, but if it dies it bears a rich harvest?” That is what happened in the case of John de Britto. Because of his martyrdom, the community he endeavoured to establish at the beginning amidst great opposition began to flourish since then. Surely, the hand of God was with the Christian community of Arulanandar Swami all his life and after his life.
To pray to this Saint is to hope for the impossible to happen!
Located at Oriyur village, 450 kms south east of Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu, India, is the Britto Shrine to which many pilgrims go to pray for a child, for family reunion, for healing, etc. Forty percent of devotees being non-Christians, the Tourism Department of the Tamil Nadu Govt. has recognized this Shrine as a sacred tourist spot.
Next to St. Thomas the Apostle, John is the only martyr-Saint of the Indian Church to date. Like his great Italian Jesuit missionary predecessors - Roberto de Nobili, Constantino Beschi and Giacomo Tommaso de Rossi – John has become an icon in the Tamil Catholic Church.
St. John de Britto is the patron saint for Madurai archdiocese, Sivagangai diocese, the second patron saint for Kumbakonam diocese and Carmalite Sisters and the patron Saint for Jesuit Madurai Province and Portugal Jesuit Province. He is a great inspiring role model for many Catholics in Tamil Nadu. Tradition has it that the soil of his martyrdom site turned red miraculously. Hence, people still call him the Red Sand Saint.
Oriyur remains a pilgrim centre of Tamil Nadu and neighbouring States. Many pilgrims throng the shrine from various dioceses. Many miracles take place through the intercession of St.John de Britto and devotees come in large numbers to thank the Lord for the favours received and the blessings showered.
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Followers of St. John de Britto!