John de Britto was born in Lisbon in 1647 from parents who belonged to the Portuguese aristocracy. He was set and he would have lived his life in the court if he had not fallen seriously ill. Devoted to Saint Francis Xavier and in exchange for healing, his mother vowed to make him wear for a whole year the robe of the Society of Jesus which the young John wore while attending court. He endured numerous jokes but remained exemplary in his behavior, and at sixteen, he entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus. His heart dreamt of the East, following in the footsteps of his patron saint and model, Saint Francis Xavier. In 1673, after his priestly ordination, he was finally destined to serve the missions of India. When he arrived in Goa, John visited the tomb of Saint Francis Xavier in the Church of the Jesuits and confirmed his vow to work for the conversion of the Indian inhabitants. He studied the local languages and after refusing to become a professor of theology, he reached the destination determined by his superiors: Colei, in the kingdom of Gingia.
Overcoming a new serious illness by the intercession of Saint Francis Xavier, he worked from 1674 to 1679 in Colei, Tattuvancheri and other places in the kingdoms of Tangiore and Gingia, and from 1685 to 1686 he was the superior of the mission. Having learned that no missionary had reached the kingdom of Maravà, east of Madura, for eighteen years, he wanted to go there personally, and within three months he baptized over two thousand people, spending entire nights confessing and baptizing. To solve the problem of the castes and to be able to attend to the evangelization of everyone, he adopted the method of assimilation with which his friend and predecessor, Father Baldassare da Costa, had achieved spectacular successes. He became pandara-suami, that is, ascetic and penitent. Thus, he enjoyed the privilege of dealing with all social conditions, even living with the pariahs, members of the low caste.
His missionary action had attracted numerous antipathies from the powerful locals that caused him to be arrested. He was also tortured, but after speaking directly with the king he was freed. In 1686, John returned to Europe because he was summoned to Rome and the Superior General to be appointed procurator of the mission. However, the attempts to hold him back, even the offer of the episcopate, did nothing. In fact, in 1690 he returned to India preferring not to abandon the neophytes. In 1693, he was again taken prisoner in the kingdom of Maravà where he had converted and baptized Prince Teriadevem, thus obliging him to live in monogamy. However, the princes who were relatives of the rejected brides wanted revenge, and to prevent the churches from being burnt down and the Christians’ houses being plundered, John de Britto handed himself over to the warders. After having been subjected to harsh torture, he was beheaded.
He was declared a saint by Pius XII in 1947. During the apostolic pilgrimage to India in 1986, St. John Paul II said in the homily of the Eucharistic celebration in honor of Saint John de Britto: "Saint John de Britto’s life faithfully reflected the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for it was a life of service unto death. Today it challenges all of us to continue with fresh vigor the Church’s role of loving service to humanity. The immense and tender love of Jesus Christ for the poor and the downtrodden, for sinners and the suffering, remains a challenge for every Christian. Christ’s unrelenting stand for truth is a compelling example. Above all, the generosity shown in his suffering and death, as the culmination of his service to humanity and the supreme act of Redemption, is the example for us. We are called to serve."