Born in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1647, John de Brito belonged to the Portuguese aristocracy. His father was governor of Rio di Janeiro, and when John was nine years old he was made a page in the Portuguese court of Prince Peter III.
The Brito family was known for its piety. When John was eleven years old, he became deathly ill. His mother prayed to Saint Francis Xavier for her son's recovery, and promised the Saint that if John recovered, he would wear a cassock for one year.
It is hardly surprising, then, that on December 17, 1662, John entered the Jesuit novitiate. He made his profession of vows in 1664, and was sent to Evora and then to Coimbra for his studies. Around 1666, he became very interested in the life and mission of Francis Xavier; in 1668 he wrote to Father General Oliva asking to be sent to the missions in the East. But first, John had to complete the usual program for Jesuit scholastics: philosophy studies, teaching for one year, and then theology studies. The probable date of his ordination is February 5, 1673.
Over his mother's objections, John was sent to India, and arrived in Goa in early September 1673. His superiors asked him to teach philosophy, but he replied, "I came to India, not to seek the laurels of science, but those of martyrdom." He quickly learned that most of the Christians in India were of the lowest caste, so he began working with members of the higher castes in the hope that Christianity would have a strong foothold in the whole of society. As an aid to being able to approach people of all castes, John dressed as an Indian ascetic, fasted, and lived in a small hermitage in the blazing plains of Madura, rivalling the austerity of the Hindu ascetics.
Within twelve years John had converted so many people to Christianity that the Brahmins, the highest caste, sought to kill him. He was captured, imprisoned and tortured and then, unexpectedly, he was released in August 1686.
Later that year, he was called back to Portugal to report on the Jesuit missions in India to both his fellow Jesuits and to members of the royal court. His childhood friend was now King Peter II, who asked John to remain in Portugal to tutor the royal sons.
Four years later, though, Peter was back in Goa, in the territory of a raja who had threatened to kill him. But at this time, (1693) seriously ill, the raja asked Father Brito to baptize him. After the raja renounced his many wives, John did so. One month later, on February 4, 1693, the uncle of one of the former wives executed John Brito.
On May 18, 1852, John de Brito was beatified by Pius IX; he was canonized by Pius XII on June 22, 1947.