June Saint: St. Joseph de Anchieta
It should come as no surprise that St. Joseph de Anchieta was attracted to the Jesuit order; on his mother’s side, he was related to St. Ignatius of Loyola.
Born to a well-to-do Spanish family in 1534, Joseph was sent to study in Portugal at the age of 14. An intensely religious young man, he sought admission to the Jesuit College of the University of Coimbra as a novice when he was 17. It was while he was studying there that he developed a painful affliction in his spine that he would suffer from for the rest of his life.
In the hopes that the milder climate might help his back, Joseph’s superiors sent him to Brazil with a group of Jesuit missionaries. Though his physical health did not improve, it was here that his spiritual and practical talents emerged. A gifted linguist, he soon learned the language of the native Tapuia peoples, compiling a dictionary and grammar which was used to help the Europeans communicate with and teach Christianity to the Tupi. He also wrote and produced a play which was designed to not only entertain the people, but teach them as well. Music and theater, he thought, were effective ways to form a connection with the indigenous Brazilians.
Sadly, not all Portuguese contact with the natives was peaceful. Though vehemently opposed to the killings and ransacking of villages that were taking place, Joseph himself became a willing hostage of the natives. For five months he was held and many times threatened with death, but during that time he also managed to compose a Latin poem in honor of the Blessed Virgin. With no paper to write on, Joseph would write his verses on the wet sand and memorize them. When peace was finally reestablished, he was able to commit his poem to paper – all 4,172 lines of it.
Joseph’s knowledge of the Tupi language and the trust he gained while in captivity were crucial to the eventual peace. Soon after, a Jesuit college was founded in Rio de Janeiro, and Joseph, despite his poor health and the difficulty of travel, spent the next 10 years expanding the missionary work of the Jesuits throughout the region. He continued to write plays for the people and, because of this, he became known as the Father of Brazilian national literature. His writing still helps us understand this time in the history and culture of Brazil.
He was also known, both during and after his life, for his almost supernatural abilities. He was credited with having healing powers as well as calming effects on wild animals. To this day, a popular devotion in Brazil holds that praying to him protects against animal attacks.
St. Joseph de Anchieta died on June 9, 1597, and was canonized on April 4, 2014, by Pope Francis. The patron of catechists, those who suffer scoliosis and co-patron of Brazil along with Our Lady of Aparecida, St. Joseph of Anchieta’s feast day is June 9.
Sources for this article include:
Campbell, Thomas. “Joseph Anchieta.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907.
“Saint José de Anchieta.” CatholicSaints.Info. Nov. 15, 2019.