Why the Red Sash?

Source: District of Asia

Priests living in the territory of the old Madurai province have the privilege of wearing a red sash in honor of St. John de Britto (whose feast we celebrate today, Feb. 4). People are always curious to know about this feast, but very often they end up with only this meager information. It is not just veneration of the Saint that the Church expects from her priests, but that they imitate him.  When God gives a saint to a province, it is not only for our admiration but more as a model to imitate. St. John's martyrdom is a great grace. The same grace may not be granted to us, but the path of this great Jesuit Martyr is to be our path, and it is well for us to have a quick look at his footprints. What follows here is a condensed version of an article by Père Saulière (The Clergy Monthly, Vol. XI [1947] July, pg.1-17). Père Saulière’s work on the life of St. John de Britto (titled Red Sand) is warmly recommended.  - Fr. Therasian.

In that awful combat which for 40 years he fought against flesh and blood, none but a picked soldier of Christ could have kept his seat so firmly, held the reins so tightly, spurred nature so mercilessly, ridden so relentlessly and died so gloriously.

But that battle was all spiritual and there was no glamour in it. “Non nobis, Domine”, sed Nomini tuo da gloriam”. And this absence of glamour was to be one of the characteristics of his life. In spite of occasional and short appearances in the limelight as Superior or Procurator, he played his part on a modest scale as a superior of the mission. In God’s army he was neither commander-in-chief nor captain, or cadet, but just a soldier of Christ.

It was a tremendous comfort to work with him, and under him. Under him? Who ever felt he was under Fr. John – he was either ahead breaking the way, clearing the jungle for them, or by their side cheering them with his infectious smile, praising the good things they did, doing what they left undone, giving them all the credit, and declaring that they were his masters in virtue.

He did not found any society, nor initiate any reform, nor inaugurate any movement, nor indulge in any intellectual speculation, but he cheerfully threw himself into the work God had assigned to him, and forged ahead. He was just a missionary, such as you can meet any day on the plains of Ramanathapuram or Coimbatore, or the plateau of Madurai. As a young priest he came to a mission filed which was ripe for the harvest. He saw the reapers toiling with bent backs to gather the sheaves, and at once his heart went out to them.

Without stopping to lecture them on the way such things were done at home, or to criticize and condemn old methods, or advocate new ones, or looking for an easier way of doing things, this spare little man brought up among the delights of a royal court girded himself to the task, and taking his place, the last down the line of the reapers, he began with a courage that roused admiration to ply the old sickle as vigorously as any trained harvester.

His presence was not long in being felt. Not that the work progressed now with miraculous speed, nor that friendly clouds came hovering over the reapers to protect them against the direct rays of the tropical sun. The hardships remained the same, but somehow a new courage was infused into the hearts of the workers and a note of cheerfulness rang through their song. He was a superb missionary, zealous, hard-working cheerful, and most obliging. When you were in trouble he always happened to pass your way, ready to put his shoulder to the wheel, to speak the word that would cheer you up, and before you could thank him he had hurried away to attend to his Father’s business.

We know that vice is contagious, but so is virtue, though perhaps in a lesser degree. Fr. John’s virtue was highly epidemic and catching, it caught not only his religious brethren but even his flock. At his contact those humble peasants of South Arcot, Tanjore and Ramanathapuram, no less than the genial ruffians who commanded the troops of the Setupathi, felt a strange longing for higher things and rose to an undreamed-of level of spirituality.

His virtue was not of the aggressive type which repels, and makes you feel like a worm and leaves you there. It was amiable and cheerful, uplifting and winsome. You might be just an old trooper with an unedifying past, or a degraded outcaste – that did not matter, you had but to move intimately with St. John, and you were gripped by such an intense love of God, that you would thirst for martyrdom and fling yourself under the axe of the executioner. His friend Monsieur Martin, the Governor of Pondicherry, wrote that Fr. John made virtue lovable.

No one was more convinced that he was of the intrinsic value of Christianity, yet no one took more trouble to present it in a way acceptable to men. He knew that no message, not even God’s message, would go through if it were delivered with scornful disgruntled lips. His cheerful face and his perennial smile no less than his loving appeals told everyone who saw him that the yoke of the Lord is sweet and his burden light. Few Saints have cultivated to so high a degree that beautiful thing which St. Berchmans called “Bene sentire de omnibus”, thinking highly of all.

The fatigues of his apostolate were tremendous, but they never depressed him, they never damped his cheerfulness; he had disappointments, but he never despaired; he suffered much from the wickedness of men, but he never ceased loving them. They could rob him of his poor belongings, but they could not rob him of his faith in them, nor of his fascinating smile. He was so humble that the wonder which God’s grace achieved in him were hidden from men and were revealed in their full blaze only on his last days.

Even his companions who loved and revered him had but a faint idea of his spiritual statue. Had he not met on his path Raghunatha Tevar, had he been denied that supreme clash with the powers of evil, he would have passed down to posterity as one of the unknown heroes of our missions’ epopee. He would have been no less great in the eyes of God who knew what He had put in his heart – the conquering faith, the unconfused hope, the boundless charity, - and who had watched their prodigious growth. But we should have missed his message. God who wanted to give us a model of all missionary virtues permitted that final encounter not that he might stand before us as a spiritual giant, a signpost on the road to heaven which none could fail to notice. Because of his glorious martyrdom we cannot pass by him. We are compelled to stop near his blood-drenched stake and count the rungs of the ladder by which he rose to such heights.  AMDG