An extraordinary new saint
On 3 April, Pope Francis canonised the Jesuit Joseph de Anchieta, a remarkable figure by any standard. His sainthood rests less on his extraordinary achievements than on the sort of man he was. As in the case of St Peter Faber, the decree took the form of what the Vatican terms an ‘equivalent canonization’, in which the Pope inserts the name of the new saint in the universal calendar of saints without verifying a miracle performed through his intercession and without holding a formal canonization ceremony.
Some of his genius may be the gift of his mixed blood: Basque, Castilian, and Jewish. His father, after an unsuccessful revolt against Emperor Charles V, retreated to the Canary Islands where José was born, the third of ten children. He was to be to be credited later as the first playwright, first grammarian and the first poet born in the Canary Islands. Through his book “The Art of Grammar”, he was also the first person to give a written orthography to the Old Tupi language most commonly spoken by the indigenous people of Brazil. It is recognized as the first compilation of an indigenous language made in the Americas; he is considered the father of Brazilian literature. He was also a respected surgeon, physician and naturalist; he described several new plants and animal species.
What did he look like? Of medium height, lean, with a strong and decisive spirit, bronzed features, bluish eyes, ample forehead, large nose, thin beard, and with a happy and friendly face. But shortly after joining the Portuguese Jesuit Province, he contracted serious articular bone tuberculosis, which at the age of 17 caused a curvature of his back (he was almost a hunchback). It was the sort of visible deformity that had driven Ignatius Loyola, a distant relative of José, to rethink the meaning of his life. José was consoled by Fr. Simón Rodrigues, founder of the Portuguese Province: “Do not be sad about that deformation. God loves you that way.”
Despite his curved spine he walked the rugged terrain of Brazil for 44 years, a life of astonishing physical effort. Before his death at the age of 63 (18 of them as Provincial of Brazil), he had been a co-founder of the cities of Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro. He drew his apostolic vitality from his profound spiritual experience. The solidity of José’s reputation as a saint and miracle-worker rests on his love, prayer, humility and service. Ingenuity too: when he composed a poem to the Blessed Virgin, and had no paper to record it, he is said to have written some couplets every morning on the wet sand of a beach at Iperoig and committed them to memory, until he could much later transcribe its more than 4,900 verses to paper.
During and after his life, José de Anchieta was considered almost a supernatural being. Many legends formed around him: he is pictured facing a wild jaguar, referring to an occasion when he supposedly calmed an attacking animal by preaching. To this day, a popular devotion holds that praying to Anchieta protects against animal attacks. Although he travelled to Brazil with Portuguese colonists, he was critical of their lack of respect for the indigenous Indians, whose cause he defended when tensions arose. He expressed his respect by mastering Tupi, the language most used along the coast of Brazil, and studying their culture. He composed in Tupi the “Dialogues of the faith” (a major catechism for the instruction of the Indians in Christian doctrine), adapted short writings as a preparation for baptism and confession, and completed the first grammar of Tupi.
The Jesuits, and the people of Brazil, are deeply grateful to Pope Francis for giving us, in Saint José, a model of how to walk and work “on the frontiers”.