He’s been likened to a kind of missionary Indiana Jones, bridging the gap between Portugal and Brazil. With a complete collection of his work soon to be published, UP remembers one of the literary greats of the Portuguese-speaking world.
“To be born, Portugal; to die, the world. To be born, little land; to die, the whole world”, perhaps no words more fitting for an article such as this. These particular lines decorate, in big, bold letters, a tiled wall just off Lisbon’s Sé Cathedral, marking the street where Vieira was born. The 17th-century Jesuit priest realized that we are not defined by our birthplace, but that, for many of us, the whole world can be our home. Vieira divided his life between Brazil and Portugal, whilst also spending periods, some of them extended, elsewhere in Europe.
His gift for words led Fernando Pessoa to call him the “Emperor of the Portuguese language” and is why his sermons continue to be taught in schools. However, his fine words would have all been in vain if he hadn’t also been a man of action. This great orator travelled the world as a missionary, a diplomat, a theologian and as a prophet seeking a world different from that which he encountered at every turn. He fought injustice, striving for equality amongst men.
Born in 1608, by 1614 he had moved with his family to Bahia in Brazil, where his father had been posted as a registrar. Educated in Bahia, it was from within the colleges of the Society of Jesus that Vieira would radicalize the Jesuit model of vita in mundo, dreaming of a social revolution. He used his sermons to deliver fierce criticisms of vested interests and to condemn corruption. He defended the rights of the indigenous peoples, whose native languages he learnt and opposed the tyranny of slavery, even managing to bring about the Portuguese abolition of the enslavement of the indigenous population. He advocated a return for the expelled Portuguese Jewish community and denounced as unchristian a society which discriminated against New Christians (Muslim and Jewish converts) and held religious trials – the Inquisition. All of which meant that it came as no surprise when, years later, the same inquisition brought a case against him. Interestingly, Vieira was also responsible for the first attempt in Portugal to close the Inquisition’s Holy Office, between 1675 and 1681.
The Restoration of Portuguese independence in 1640, led to Vieira’s return to Lisbon, while his appointment as royal preacher by Dom João IV initiated a career that would take him, once again, overseas. The 1640s was marked by a series of journeys to other countries and continents, but predominantly in a Europe clearly making progress. Vieira had become one of the most important travellers of the 17th century. His mission was hugely difficult: to consolidate the fragile Portuguese independence, safeguarding not just the country, but also its colonies against covetous, more powerful nations.
At the end of the 1670s, free of the Inquisition and after a few years in Rome, he returned to Brazil. Disillusioned with the Portuguese Court and still harbouring his lifelong dream of evangelising the indigenous people, he would die there in 1697.
His cherished ideal of a Fifth Empire (a union of peoples, beliefs and traditions) never came to pass. However, not even this could cause Vieira to lose belief in his own prophecy. From his long and full life, divided between Europe and the New World, there remains, as there should, an echo of hope and action, serving as a lesson for the human condition: “We are what we do. What we don’t do, doesn’t exist. Therefore, we only exist on days when we do. On the days when we don’t do, we simply endure”.
The reader might wonder how such an important figure could have remained so anonymous until only a few decades ago, when there was a sudden surge in his popularity as an author: on one hand, a certain anti-Jesuit prejudice had to be overcome which, until the last century, had raised its head at certain key moments in history; on the other, both the ideas and style of Vieira have always been controversial, and lastly, never before had his complete works been published. The University of Lisbon recently involved itself in this endeavour, with the goal of publishing 30 volumes in record time: by September, 2014, making it the biggest editorial undertaking of its kind in the history of Portuguese publishing. Unpublished texts are still being unearthed and, incredibly, will probably represent at least a third of the complete collection. The “Vieira Global” project will include a multimedia Vieira dictionary and a selection of texts translated into 12 languages. According to the coordinators of the project (José Eduardo Franco and Pedro Calafate), making it available to the wider public will bring about “the deserved democratisation of Vieira”. Dozens of Portuguese and Brazilian specialists, researchers and several other groups are lending a hand, with Círculo de Leitores as publishers and Santa Casa da Misericórdia as patron. They all share the goal of making Vieira the global author that he always wanted to be.
text Mariana Gomes da Costa illustration João Alvim
web design & development 262media.com