Fanatics of Christ

Brazil is celebrating the lives of two missionaries who died centuries ago. They are José de Anchieta and Antônio Vieira, fundamental figures of Brazilian history and literature. Living a century apart and watching the world from a different perspective. Anchieta and Vieira represented an element of union, weaving the fabric of the Brazilian nationality. They were also a well of contradictions. Considered a father by the Indians who were converted, Anchieta defended the decimation of the Indians, since "these are so untamed and bestial people that only extermination could solve the problem."

Cecília Prada

The coincidence in 1997 of two events—300 years of the death of priest Antônio Vieira and 400 years of that of priest José de Anchieta—allows us to take a more profound look at the role that Society of Jesus had on the colonization of Brazil and incites us to remember the life and legacy of these two important figures in Brazilian history and literature.

The circumstances of the everyday of colonization, established to implement the Christian Kingdom of the Iberian civilization in the New World, included a difficult struggle against the wild landscape and the customs of the Indians, and traced for both those men a common pedestal provided by the rigid military treatment of the Catholic Church necessary to the undertaking of the Counter-Reformation.

The so-called "Soldiers of Christ" literally brought the cross and the sword to the colonies of America in the early 16th century and did not hesitate to wield them against the "savages" and the Protestant "heretics" who threatened the consolidation of the Portuguese and Spanish interests and the integrity of consciences with their free examination, and the new Renaissance culture.

The question that all the researchers of the colonial period pose is what would have happened to Brazil if the Dutch and the French had not been repelled. Those who simply lament this fact, aspiring for a Latin America more like the North, endowed with a safe capitalism and a superior economical and cultural development, forget that from the beginning the countries of Iberian civilization and especially Brazil were marked by specific contradictions, a shock of various cultures and a larger gamut of influences.

No big cultural group was transplanted to Brazil to the likeness of the North American pilgrims. The Brazilian colonial society wasn't just a culture of transplantation but one of elaboration and integration, of constant conflict and rude domination established by a real mob of adventurers and expatriated .The colony was, from the very beginning, a land of exile, no man's land because it belonged to all.

In this context, the priests of the Society of Jesus and mainly Anchieta and Vieira, represented an element of union, weaving the fabric of our nationality with their vision of the world and their iron-like dogmatism of a renitently medieval Catholicism which contributed to the sustenance of an immense territory subject to a sole king and the same language, integrating the autochthonous elements like the Tupi-Guarani and concretely amplifying the territorial limits with its missionary work.

Padre José

The element that stands out in the iconography of Anchieta is his extreme physical fragility allied with a strong spirit. Small and thin, ill and hunchback, victim of the tuberculosis that he'd gotten by exaggerating his asceticism and devotion, José de Anchieta seems to face us still today from the depths of time, with that determined glaze of the solitary and fanatic; a veiled figure of immense humbleness and blind obedience to the dictations of the religion and of the Society, a kind and mystic "saint," who was also known by the contradiction between his thinking and his action, a man of his time and its ideology.

No better portrait was made of him than the one in 1582 by Diogo Flores Valdez, commander of a Spanish ship docked in Rio and to whom Anchieta supplicated the release of a prisoner. Valdez then ordered: "Free yourself and do as priest Anchieta demands because God will not ever want me to do otherwise of what he says and because the first time I saw him I thought I had never seen something as abject and despicable, but looking well at him, never in the presence of any majesty had I felt more lessened than as I did before him."

Born in 1534 in the island of Tenerife in Spanish territory, he assumed Portuguese nationality after joining the Society de Jesus as a novice in Coimbra. His ideal in life was martyrdom and his great patron was São Francisco Xavier, a martyr in China. His coming to a wild land populated by cannibal Indians was the challenge that fascinated him— to give his life for the "conversion of Brazil". The courage he always demonstrated in the face of the Indians and of the dangers of all sorts was nothing for that young man who supplicated daily so God would let him die in the name of his faith.

To his great disappointment, God didn't answer his prayers. When he felt close to death at 63, retired by then in the indigenous village of Reritiba, he was still planning to join other priests to "some entrance to the back country... since I don't deserve to be a martyr by any other way, death will at last find me abandoned in any of these mountains where I can give my soul in favor of my brothers."

Many of the Indians whom he helped "civilize" considered him as a father. Nevertheless for so much abnegation and so much true, undeniable love, we find opposed in his biography numerous examples of attitudes and ideas extremely adherent to the luso-hispanic politics of domination, taken to effect by the Society of Jesus. In his letters to his superiors he does not even hesitate to ask that the king send men and arms to exterminate the Indians, since "these are so untamed and bestial people that only extermination could solve the problem."

He also registered on his letters scenes from the daily life in the village of São Paulo and from which we can draw that the good Indian was only the one who obeyed and served the priests, often times after being spanked and tortured. Sometimes the subjection was taken to the extreme where they were forced to conduct a chaste life with Christian matrimony.

Fanatics obsessed to save their souls, the good priests considered benevolent work to separate young Indian boys from their families and took pride in the fact that many of them "didn't even seem to desire to speak to their mothers again." To the rebels and fugitives there ensued a real hunting party with punishment that included whipping and torture.

Undeniably, it is to the strong and indestructible personality of Anchieta that we owe the founding of the city of São Paulo. In 1563 the priest Diogo Laynez, general of the Society, already said of him: "since its founding in 1560 and for three more years, the school (nucleus of the settlement) has been nothing but Anchieta"

To the task of teaching Anchieta added that of community leader, accomplishing all sorts of jobs, healing the sick, teaching carpentry and cabinetry, contracting work and organizing armed resistance to the attacks of wild Indians. Anchieta is the figure of major salience in the first part of the history of Brazilian civilization, exerting also a relevant influence in the foundation of Rio de Janeiro and various other population nucleus as the actual city of Anchieta in the state of Espírito Santo and also on the foundation of various other schools all over the country.

Antônio Vieira

A century later, another novice from the Society named Antônio Vieira would vow to consecrate his life to the evangelization of the Brazilian silvicolous. But unlike Anchieta, he would take a different course in his ecclesiastic career according to orders of his superiors, diving deep into the philosophy and becoming an element of extreme importance in the high diplomacy of the Portuguese court of Dom João IV, and always serving the interests of his congregation and of the Church. He was nevertheless able to conciliate, during the course of his long life, the splendor of intellectual life with the missionary practice. A man of thought, luminary of the baroque oratory, but also a man of action.

Born in 1608 in Lisbon and deceased in Bahia in 1697, he came with his parents to Brazil when he was 8 years old and spent more than 50 of his 89 years in Brazil. He had an extremely adventurous life, marked by many hazards—shipwrecks, political and religious persecutions, condemnations and incarcerations. The bold themes he approached in his sermons, defending the cause of the Indians and his indignation against the treatment of the slaves and the defense of the Jews, marked long conflicts with both Brazilian colonizers and the dreaded Inquisition.

The worst period in his life was that spent imprisoned in Lisbon (1665-1667) by order of the Portuguese crown. In 1681 he permanently returned to Brazil and while the Inquisition ordered the burning of his effigy in Coimbra he retired to Quinta do Tanque in Bahia where he continued to write new books and edit his sermons, and where he finally died in 1697.

The shadow
of the frock

The humanistic culture of the Society of Jesus was transplanted to the colony in the form of teaching and the literary talent of Anchieta and Vieira marked the beginning of our literature. As Jamil Almansur Haddad says, "The Brazilian literature was born associated with the Jesuit pedagogy and it proceeded amplified over our literature at the shadow of their frock and it was essential to the evolution of our thought."

One or two years after his arrival in Brazil, Anchieta was already writing a grammar book of the most common language used in Brazil (Abanheega, the root language of Tupi ) to facilitate communication between Indians and missionaries.

According to the historian and priest Hélio Viotti "in the opinion of the scholars of today, his grammar is the best of all that were written during colonial times and that better corresponds to the modern scientific demands."

In the composed autos ( religious drama), some in Portuguese, some in Tupi, Anchieta followed the tradition of the medieval religious theater and tried to instruct the curumins (Indians) into the faith.

Of all his eight autos the most important is Na Festa de São Lourenço of 1583. But it is in his poetry that he reveals his best qualities, especially in the great Latin "Poema à Virgem (Poem to the Virgin), which he began to write on the sands of the Iperoí beach in 1563 when he was a prisoner of the cannibalistic tribe of Tamoios.

Of equal importance are his chronicles and historical account of the time. In the letters he wrote over 40 years to his superiors and in other writings about the captaincy of São Vicente, he traces a complete picture of the habits and historical episodes and gives us a detailed description of the Brazilian flora and fauna.

The Brazilian Academy of literature published in 1933 a volume that embraces all these writings—Letters, information and historical fragments and sermons.

In regards to Vieira, his brilliant style still traces the norms of good writing and oral practice. His oratory is the baroque triumph and at the same time a reflection of the colonial daily life. The "Sermão da Sexagésima" proffered in 1655 in the Real Chapel of Lisbon is still required reading for the students of Portuguese literature. The orator identifies in it the style, rhythm and unity of the subject-text, defining that the voice of the orator must be like "a thunder that scares and makes the world dread."

Equally renowned is the "Sermão a Favor das Armas Portuguesas Contra as de Holanda" (Bahia, 1634) in which he dares apostrophize God—"Why dost thou rest, my lord?" for allowing the victory of heretics in catholic territory. In "Da Primeira Dominga da Quaresma"( Maranhão, 1653) he tries to persuade the colonists to free the Indians "because it is better to survive on one's own sweat than on the blood of others. Oh, farmlands of Maranhão, if these mantles and coats were twisted they would cast blood."

His effort in favor of the Indians was not just in words. In 1654 he traveled to the court and put pressure on the king Dom João IV until he prohibited the enslavement of the natives a year later. He was also committed to denouncing the abuses of black slavery. In the Sermon XIV of the Rosary, Vieira addresses the slaves and compares their sufferings to that of Christ calling the life of those slaves working on the sugar-mills "sweet hell". But also a man of his time and compliant with the ideology of his period, he skillfully balances his accusations with an exhortation to "patient suffering" aiming for the pleasure of eternal life.

It is to Alfredo Bosi, literary critic and professor of the University of São Paulo (USP) to whom we owe the evaluation of the talent of Vieira. In História Concisa da Literatura Brasileira", Bosi says of the baroque master: "There is a Brazilian Vieira, a Portuguese Vieira and an European Vieira and this richness of dimensions owes not only to the supranational character of the Society of Jesus, which he incarnated so well, but to his human stature in which does not seem an exaggeration to recognize traits of a genius."

Sublimated Love

The inspiration for the most important poem of José de Anchieta "De Beata Vergine dei Matre Maria," was born, according to Anchieta, of a great effort of sexual sublimation. The poem was an extensive mystic work in Latin which constituted the first poetic document in Brazilian's literary history.

In 1563, Anchieta confronted terrible dangers in the four months he remained as a hostage of the cannibal Indians, initially with Manoel da Nóbrega and later alone, and escaped from being butchered for 3 or 4 times, mainly for being considered a sorcerer by the Indians.

In their devotional rituals and on the celebration of the sacrifice of the mass, the Jesuits were able to achieve such a great level of concentration that inflicted a great impression on the Indians, leading them to believe that the Jesuits should be extremely powerful men since they were able to speak directly to God. Some witnesses narrate how the "saint" Anchieta had raised off the ground during his prayer in the hut of the cacique, causing spread fear among the Indians.

But if that very thirst for martyrdom that had brought him to Brazil gave him the courage to expose himself so blatantly, it was another temptation, a lot worse in his view, that was consuming his moral strength- the carnal sin. Constantly circled by the nude Indian women, naturally offered to the travelers by their own will or for the tribal obligation of offering good hospitality, Anchieta considered this his "worse probation" like he would tell later himself in his letters to his superiors.

Two things served as a defense to resist the power of a woman: the mental training given by the spiritual exercises of Loyola, which methodically induce the practitioner to terrible visions of the divine punishment, and the extraordinary devotion to Virgin Mary—the "other woman", the Mother, the Purest, the Undesirable.

Walking on the beach, the 29 year old missionary would then substitute the vision of the Indian women for the Immaculate Concepion and wrote sophisticated mannerist verses on the sand, which he would later memorize, and two years later would organize and publish.

This article was originally published in Portuguese by magazine Problemas Brasileiros, which you can read at  

Translated by Rosemary Gund, freelance translator and student of Italian culture and literature at San Francisco State University —