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St. John de Britto
A Saint martyred for the Christian faith
A man of God for the last and the least in society
Born on March 1, 1647 in Lisbon, John de Britto was brought up as a page to the Prince of Portugal. His father Don Salvador de Britto, the king’s viceroy in Brazil, died when John was four years old. At the age of 15 in 1662, he bade good bye to his mother and entered the Jesuit order. Having completed his religious studies in Portugal, he came to India in 1673. Eager to spend the rest of his life in Tamil Nadu, he learnt Tamil, became an Indian sanyasi with a saffron robe and turban, replaced his Portuguese name with a Tamil one ‘Arulanandar Swami’, gave up meat altogether and ate only rice and vegetables. He preferred to labour among the low castes and outcastes. His missionary work as a foreign sanyasi infuriated the royal authorities of the Marava Kingdom(near Madurai) where he toiled. Eventually this led to his martyrdom, as succinctly, courageously and beautifully expressed in one of the two letters he wrote on 03 Feb. 1693 – the night previous to his day of martyrdom - using charcoal powder and water as ink and a piece of straw as pen. In this letter, addressed to Fr. Laynes, his Mission Superior, John says:
“On the last day of January, I arrived at Udaya Deva’s palace). The journey was full of hardships. Udaya Deva sent for me the same day. I had a long conversation with him about religious matters. Then I was brought back to prison where I find myself still in constant expectation of death, which I shall endure, for God. The hope of obtaining this happiness led me twice to India. It is true that to seek after and secure such happiness has cost me dear, but the rewards I hope from God is worth all these and still greater sufferings.
“The crime I am accused of is none other than that I preach the true religion and that, therefore, the idols are no longer worshiped. What an honour to suffer death for such a crime! Soldiers guard me closely; hence I can write no more. God bless you. I beg your blessing and recommend myself to your holy sacrifice……. From the prison of Oriyur, February 3. 1693 - John”.
(Note: Udaya Deva was the younger brother of the Sethupathi King, who ruled the then Marava Kingdom, holding the fort at Oriyur bordering the neighbouring kingdom.)
In the forenoon of that fateful day of 04 Feb. 1693, Arualandar Swami was led away from the prison to a sand dune. At a distance he saw a stake already planted in the dry sand. He knelt down at its foot and prayed for some time. Then he got up and walked towards Perumal, the executioner and knelt down. Hanging from the Swami’s neck was a reliquary which Perumal cut and then with one swift blow severed the head of the Swami. 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”?
This has been evidenced in the case of John de Britto. One is amazed at the long and arduous travels he joyously undertook in those days along the length and breadth of Tamil Nadu as well as part of Kerala to preach Christ and bear witness to his mission. One is also struck by the steadfastness of his faith amidst various forms of persecution he underwent for love of Christ. Indeed, this inspired his disciples to follow his footsteps in bearing witness to Christ amidst similar sufferings. Above all, what draws us to John de Britto is the martyrdom he willingly and courageously embraced for the love of Christ. No doubt, the community he endeavoured to establish has spread its roots deep and flourished phenomenally in later times. Fr. A. Cyril SJ
The Three Churches at Oriyur
The Shrine complex dedicated to this martyred Saint has three Churches: Church of Our Lady/Martyrdom Church, the Beatification Church and the Canonization Church. Standing close to each other, they testify that the blood of the martyrs brings to our memory the tears of God’s love for the liberative redemption of humanity. These sacred churches are situated in the simple and serene rural setting of Oriyur. Though not equipped well with basic facilities such as water, roads and rooms for stay, the shrine continues to attract devotees. Many of them are simple and poor, and hail from rural areas. In life, it was John de Britto who went in search of those rejected by society to comfort them with the message of Christ. But after his death, it is they that flock to him in search of the solid rock of faith to which they can anchor their life and struggles. Indeed, over the years, people of all beliefs and social background have found in John de Britto a guru (teacher), a healer and a mediator with God.
The oldest of them was put up in 1734, that is, forty-one years after the martyrdom. The Sethupathi who was responsible for the beheading was no friend of the Christians. He never allowed any church to come up on the site of the martyrdom. He rather unleashed a devastating persecution of Christians putting them in prison and setting their churches on fire.
Fr. Laynes, the Mission Superior to whom John de Britto (Arulanandar) wrote his last letter, on hearing of the tragedy at Oriyur, wanted to see the scene of the martyrdom and if possible collect the relics of the martyr. But when he reached the northern frontier, the local Christians would not allow him to cross the Pampar lest he also should meet with the same fate. He remained with them for a few days and gathered all the details of the martyrdom from them. The local Christians disguising themselves as travelers and hunters raided the mound and succeeded in getting some bones and the skull of the martyr. Some others removed the stake. These relics were handed over to Fr. Laynes. They were first taken to Pondicherry and then to Mylapore. Later they were taken to Goa and from Goa to Lisbon.
A. The First Church – The Church of Our Lady of Velankanni/Martyrdom Church
Since Arulanandar was martyred on a Wednesday his devotees began to trickle to Oriyur on every Wednesday. The first pilgrim to visit the place was Perumal, the executioner. As long as he was alive he used to come here every Wednesday and standing on the spot of the execution weep for his crime. Since then there was a regular flow of pilgrims to Oriyur. Permission to put up any church on the site of the martyrdom was denied at first. However, when Muthu Vijaya Renganatha ascended the throne of Ramnathapuram he granted permission to put up a thatched shed at Oriyur. He even endowed it with a free gift of twenty acres of land that has remained free of taxation down to this day. It is said that the Sethupathi’s own brother-in-law carried mud and bricks on his head for the construction of this shed as a gesture of reparation.
That thatched shed was pulled down and the present structure with its Portuguese facade was put up in 1770 by an Italian missionary Fr.James thomas de Rossi,SJ., known in Tamil Nadu as Chinna Savariar or Xavier the Junior. In this shrine is kept a very captivating statue of Arulanandar offering his neck in humble submission to the
executioner. A plaque kept below it carries the inscription both in English and in Tamil “St. John de Britto was beheaded here.”
The tradition in the Catholic Church is that churches to worship God would be named after saints only. When our martyr died on February 4th 1693, Catholic Church did not officially proclaim him as a Saint yet. So it was dedicated to Our Lady of Good Health and the feast is celebrated on September 8 every year.
B. The Second Church – The Beatification Church
About fifty feet north of this Church stands another Church built in Romanesque style. This was put up in 1890 on the exact spot where Arulanandar’s body was impaled on the stake. Here you will find a part of the stake and fixed on the right wall and the crucifix which the saint always carried with him. In these two shrines are kept at present forty-six paintings that depict important events in the life of the saint.
C.The Third Shrine - The Canonisation Church
The third and the biggest shrine at Oriyur is of recent origin. It was put up to commemorate the canonization of John de Britto on June 22, 1947. Though its foundation was laid in 1948, the shrine could be completed only in
1960. Whether you approach Oriyur from Devakottai in the north or from Ramnathapuram in the south the two tall towers of this shrine are visible from far, above the palm line. The altar was modified and rededicated on Jan 26, 2009 by the Bishop of Sivagangai. A beautiful 5 feet wooden statue of St. John de Britto which came from Portugal attracts many pilgrims now.
Rani Devi’s Grave
There is yet another place the pilgrims would like to visit. That is Rani Devi’s tomb. Rani Devi was the wife of Udaya Thevar, the Governor of Oriyur. She had great admiration for the Christian Sannyasi and hoped that he would cure her husband of his leprosy. Not unlike Pilot’s wife she pleaded with her husband to have nothing to do with that just man and spare his life. But her request went unheeded. As a gesture of reparation for the crime of her husband, she wanted her ashes to be scattered over the place of the saint’s martyrdom. She died in 1695, that is two years after the death of the Saint and according to her last wish; her ashes were taken to the sand dune at Oriyur and sprinkled over the place of the Saint’s martyrdom. Rani Devi’s wish was that the feet of the pilgrim who come there might trample over her ashes. Today all that we find here is a tombstone just a hundred feet from the place of impalement with the inscription “Rani Devi’s Grave.”
The Feasts and Celebrations
In fact, Providence has Britto linked marvellously with India. He was born exactly 300 years before our Independence, in 1647, in Lisbon the Capital of Portugal. The Novena to his Feast of Martyrdom begins right on 26 January, Our Republic Day!
Three solemn feasts are celebrated at Oriyur annually: the Feast of the Martyrdom of St.John de Britto with Novena (nine days) in preparation; the Commemoration of his Canonization on 22 June with a three days Vigil preceding; and the Feast of our Lady of Health (Velankanni Matha) on 8 September also with a Novena. Thousands come to attend the big feasts and join the Diocesean Pilgrimages of Sivagangai and Madurai. A constant train of pilgrims come and go around the year, especially on Wednesdays and week-ends. They confess their sins; commune with God; sing the hymns; and hear the messages broadcast. Every one gets a blessing. They carry the Good News with them, to proclaim which Britto came and shed his blood here. Saints inspire us to imitate them; they commune with us and keep us company on life’s pilgrimage; and they intercede for us before God. Fire burns out the dross and it gives us light and warmth.
The fire that burnt in the veins of Britto, kindled the sands of Oriyur and turned them blood-red. Healing powers are claimed for this sacred soil. And shall we let grass grow under our feet upon this soil? We shall truly honour Britto if we live for that equality and fraternity for all irrespective of caste, creed and colour - a simple life of humble pursuit according to the demands of our holy Faith, in duty well done and gladly too, taking death also in the stride. This will be a living response to the message of the Gospel proclaimed by St.John de Britto in life and in death.
"The most intimate characteristic of John de Britto's being and his personality is the capacity to love, to love to the end, to give himself with that love that is stronger than death and extends into eternity. The Martyrdom of Christians is the most sublime expression and sign of this love, not only because the martyr remains faithful to his love to the extent of shedding his blood, but also because this sacrifice is performed out of loftiest and noblest love that can exist, namely love for him who created and redeemed us, who loves us as only he can love and expects from us a response of total and unconditional donation, that is, a love worthy of our God" (From the Homilies of Pope Paul VI).
Third Centenary Celebration
February 4, 1993 was a red letter day in the annals of the Oriyur Shrine for it was the three hundredth anniversary of John de Britto’s martyrdom. Hence the day was celebrated with extraordinary grandeur. More than twenty thousand people from all walks of life, not only from Tamil Nadu but also from the neighbouring State of Kerala took part in it.
Sakthikulangara, near Quilon is perhaps the only parish in Kerala which is dedicated to St. John de Britto. From this parish alone one thousand five hundred pilgrims came to participate in this year’s feast. They contributed substantially towards the expenses of the interior decoration of the church, the illumination of the two towers and especially for the wedding expenses of ten poor couples.
Another special feature of this year’s celebration was that a group of twenty-seven people, ladies and gentlemrn, representing both the Diocese and the Society of Jesus came all the way from Lisbon, the home town of the Saint, under the guidance of the Rt. Rev. Albino Cleto, the Auxiliary Bishop of Lisbon.
The Solemn Eucharist was concelebrated by five bishops and about a hundred priests. The chief celebrant, the Rt. Rev. Edward Francis, the first Bishop of Sivagangai called it a Red Sand Day ! Rt. Rev. Leon Dharmaraj, Bishop of Kottar, recalled in his homily with what untiring zeal the Saint had spent himself for the people of Tamil Nadu and called upon all of us to emulate his missionary zeal. It was this zeal that made him travel the length and breadth of Tamil Nadu at a time when the modern modes of transport were not even thought of and when the only way to cross the many rivers was to swim.
As a conclusion let me quote from the encouraging letter that Rev. Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the Former Superior General of the Jesuits, wrote to the Superior at Oriyur on the occasion of the tercentenary: "May St. John de Britto who crossed the oceans and transcended cultural barriers to evangelize the people of Madurai (Mission) by incarnating himself fully in their milieu, obtain for us a spark of the zeal that burned bright in his heart" (Peter - Hans Kolvenbach, the former Superior General of the Society of Jesus).