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Catholic Heroes… St. Joseph Of Anchieta

June 20, 2019 saints No Comments


At the delta of the Benevente River on the coast of Brazil lies the city of Anchieta. With a population of 30,000, it is about 200 miles northeast of Rio de Janeiro. Famous for its long sandy beaches, Anchieta houses the Espirito Santo state government offices which overlook the Atlantic Ocean. More than four centuries old, this building once served as a Jesuit school and held the body of St. Joseph of Anchieta before his remains were transferred back to Portugal.
Like St. Peter of St. Joseph of Betancur, Joseph Anchieta was also born in the Canary Islands. His family was wealthy and lived in San Cristobal de La Laguna on Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands. Joseph was born on March 19, 1534, and was baptized on April 7 at Our Lady of Remedies Church — now the La Laguna Cathedral.
His father, Juan Anchieta y Zelaiaran, had escaped from Urrestilla, in the Basque Country, in 1525 after engaging in a failed rebellion against Emperor Charles V. Juan was distantly related to the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola.
Mencia Dia de Clavijoy y Llarena, Joseph’s mother, came from Castille. She was of Jewish heritage from a family that converted to Christianity and she also was a descendant of the conquerors of Tenerife.
Their son, Joseph Anchieta, demonstrated such great intelligence in his early education and formation that he was sent to the University in Coimbra, the Jesuit College, arriving on May 1, 1551. The future father of Brazilian literature exhibited his skill by his outstanding achievements in linguistics and language.
At the same time, he also made great strides in his spiritual life. Shortly after his arrival, he made his perpetual vow of chastity before a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Joseph entered the Jesuit novitiate, becoming known for his humility and obedience. However, he nearly ruined his health by fasting and overuse of “the discipline.” Thus he had to relax his advanced philosophical studies when he became seriously ill.
Joseph’s austerities also led to the development of scoliosis which caused him pain for the rest of his life, but did not deter him from any apostolic endeavors. He persevered in the Jesuit formation and excelled in Portuguese, Latin, and his native Castilian language.
Hoping to improve Joseph’s health, the Jesuits eventually decided to send Joseph to Brazil in the third contingent to arrive there from Europe. Joseph arrived at Bahia on July 13, 1553 and began recording his impressions of the Brazilian culture and its peoples.
The superior, Fr. Manuel da Nobrega, instantly recognized the gifts of Joseph, making him his personal assistant.
Six months after Joseph’s arrival, Fr. Manuel de Paiva celebrated Mass on the Piratininga Plateau, about 300 miles south of Anchieta on January 25, 1554, the feast of the conversion of St. Paul. A mission was established there with Joseph becoming a prominent influence in the development of the mission, establishing schools, and aiding the Church in what would later become known as the great city of Sao Paolo.
The school soon became a college. From there Joseph traveled throughout the countryside, preaching and dispensing the sacraments, always walking to his destination despite his physical ailments.
Joseph met his goal to honor God and save souls by organizing the nomadic peoples into villages where they raised their own food and learned trades. He also developed medical skills, performed minor surgeries, and learned the art of their herbal medicines.
As a skilled linguist, he soon learned the nuances of the native language and wrote a grammar book for it — the first of its kind. This book became compulsory study for all Jesuits coming to Brazil. As time passed, he became the father of Brazilian literature because of the many plays and poems he composed in the native tongue. These were great aids in evangelizing the peoples.
With the arrival of ambitious Portuguese, tensions between them and the Brazilians began to escalate. The Jesuits’ struggle to regularize the marriages and prevent the cannibalism that was part of the culture did not help either.
The Jesuits and Joseph also had a conflict with the governor, Duarte de Costa, especially between 1553 and 1558 because of the way the Portuguese men were treating the Brazilians. Frequently, they enslaved the people and openly kept the women as their concubines.
Nevertheless, when the French attempted to colonize Brazil and the French Calvinists tried to gain a foothold in the hearts of the people, Joseph assisted the governor in resisting their attempts. He served as an interpreter, and he was present at the final victory in 1567. This battle site then became Rio de Janeiro, of which Joseph is also considered the founder.
Having been ordained in 1566 by Bishop Pedro Leitao, Joseph stayed in Rio de Janeiro and once again organized the peoples, spread the Gospel, and established another Jesuit college.
When the Jesuit provincial Fr. Nobrega died, Joseph succeeded him in 1570. He again traveled extensively on foot between Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, Espirito Santo, and Sao Paulo.
Years of trudging through the jungles and wading through the rivers on endless treks to serve the Brazilians weakened his health. Finally, in 1591 Joseph requested retirement from his responsibilities.
Fr. Joseph Anchieta spent his final days in Reritiba in the state of Espirito Santo. When he died on June 9, 1597, more than 3,000 native Brazilians came to pay their respects. Today, the country of Brazil has more Catholics than any other country in the world.
Over the years, the people of Brazil had developed a great love and respect for the Jesuit who labored so tirelessly and lovingly to provide a better life for them in so many ways. He held a deep respect for their dignity, shown by his immersing himself in the language and their customs.
Not only did he cure many of their illnesses, but he took the time to listen to them, observe them, and stay with them in their simple abodes. He carefully recorded all that he observed, leaving behind him a legacy and documentation which anthropologists and naturalists still consult to this day.
In addition to the grammar book he wrote, he also authored many plays and poems for the Brazilians. He is considered the founder of both Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo. The city of Reritiba was renamed Anchieta, and, when Joseph died, his remains were placed there until they were later transferred to Portugal.
Pope St. John Paul II beatified Fr. Joseph on June 22, 1980 at St. Peter’s. On April 3, 2014 Pope Francis canonized him at the Vatican. His feast is celebrated on June 9.
Dear St. Joseph of Anchieta, with great patience and charity you converted many pagans when you traveled so far from your native land. At great sacrifice you worked for the salvation of many souls despite your physical challenges and other obstacles. Like Christ consoling the women of Jerusalem, your first thought was for others. Help us to set aside our own concerns to work for the eternal Kingdom. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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