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A guidebook for reading Antonio Vieira

Book has 1,178 annotations to help one navigate through the sermons of the Portuguese priest

CATARINA BESSELLFor today’s readers, an index of the most notable things will seem unusual, but it was common in deluxe editions at the time Antonio Vieira (1608-1697) lived and published his sermons, a masterpiece of the Portuguese language. In each of its 15 volumes there was a glossary, included as an appendix, which listed the most relevant sentences, as chosen by the preacher himself. Forgotten for years, the indices have now been published by Hedra from Sao Paulo, in a new edition that collects them all in one volume.

The task of discovering their links and arranging them into annotations was the responsibility of Alcir Pécora, one of the foremost specialists on the Portuguese priest. The 1178 entries lead to 8364 accredited sources, in other words the sentences that serve as examples, followed by an indication of the sermons in which they are found and the other terms with which they are associated. Literary critic and professor of literature at the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP) since 1977, Pécora has organized various works by Vieira, like the sermons themselves, into two volumes, which bring together a selection of 50 that have been published by Hedra over the last decade. He is also the author of studies on the preacher, such as “Teatro do Sacramento: a unidade teologico-retórico-política nos “Sermões” de Vieira [Theater of the Sacrament: the theological-rhetorical-political unity in the “Sermons” of Vieira], published by Edusp / Editora Unicamp.

The book serves, therefore, as a large map of the Sermons and also stands as an independent work, since most of the sentences in The Index of the Most Notable Things serve as aphorisms, i.e. they can be read alone, “as brief, terse and fulminating forms, which in themselves contain an ingenious maxim that has a philosophical, practical and moral reach,” as Pécora describes them. In general, the terms containing various references to “God,” “!Christ” and “Mary,” as one might expect, are those that are most cited.

The beauty in the sentences immediately reveals itself: “God gave life to Adam with a breath, because the life of man is but wind” (annotation: “Adam”), “For losses for which there is a remedy, one is diligent: for those for which there is no remedy one suffers the pain” (annotation: “Diligence”), “Nobody is or can be happy with their soul elsewhere” (annotation: “Happiness”). Their beauty, however, does not compete with that of a sermon when it is read in its entirety, points out the expert. While on the one hand, says Pécora, the indices are the book of maxims that the priest did not bother to write down, “the annotations are like scaffolding, a system of traffic signs, warnings and alerts. The sermons are all the buildings,” and Vieira’s objective “is not just to fill one with wonder, but to make that wonder work in favor of his purpose, which was always uplifting, in his project of universal conversion,” he says. At the beginning it is not very easy to use the index, but after one starts becoming familiar with it is “a stupendous door to understanding the sermons,” he adds.

During the time of Antonio Vieira, its use was frequent, explains Pécora. For his fellow priests, those pages served as a preaching school. They found in them the main themes and arguments, biblical references and phrases of impact to illustrate them. For the faithful the work was important because it presented the fundamental themes of learning and religious practice. For the literate person, there is immense pleasure in reading definitive sentences on the major themes of the period.

It took 13 years to organize the work and it is not without a feeling of relief that Alcir Pécora has concluded it. He relates that, in addition to contingencies, such as the theft of two laptops, where he had described various European indices, especially Italian ones from the same period, the greatest difficulty was dealing with the amount of data involved. The reference system of these indices, with three different publishers of the Sermons, was different in each volume. “Standardizing all this in an understandable way was a saga, and I could never have done it on my own,” he explains.

The outcome of the undertaking depended on the ideas that Jorge Sallum, Hedra’s editor, had for solving the remission problems in an economical and understandable manner. Sallum says that the solution was to organize the contents as a database. “It’s something that seems very distant from the Sermons, but it has similarities with the structure of the text, since the computer only organizes a mass of information, whose order is already fully provided for by the Jesuit,” he states. When he began the operation he discovered that various sentences were virtually identical and that many were repeated. He noted, therefore, that there was a natural link between the annotations that were more related to his writing than to the use that previous editors had wanted the text to have. “That, plus the total number of annotations, was a revelation to Alcir Pécora, who immediately began to work on his reading hypotheses,” recalls Sallum.

The fact that the indices were forgotten by generations of editors and specialists who were not concerned with studying them, is nothing if not surprising. On the part of editors and readers, Pécora speculates that the indices stopped being of interest when this kind of rhetorical procedure, which is based on imitation, emulation and particularly the orderly teaching of preaching, went into decline in the face of the new romantic-bourgeois prospect in the eighteenth century, which valued direct personal expression. On the part of researchers, Pécora believes that their disinterest is because, initially, the prevailing system of accredited sources used was not very clear. “There are notes of accreditation in a different order, some of them boring to look at, since they are merely remissions of passages to other passages, as in a system of comparisons. Furthermore, given the exuberance of the reasoning of the Sermons, the accredited sources do not always seem to be particularly illustrative snippets,” he explains.

At first, there seem to be gaps among the annotations. As an example, Pécora says there is no entry for “Indian.” After several readings and analyses, the expert says that he realized that the gaps were as significant as what was present, because they revealed the complex system of composition of concepts that do not correspond to what we have today. Back to the example of the word “Indian”: it is necessary to go via “gentile,” “Saint Augustine,” “medication,” etc. “But the index really begins to vibrate when one realizes that it let us know the necessary relationships that exist between the concepts that Vieira employs and that are surprising to today’s reader.” The work, therefore, allows a synthetic, articulated and complex view not only of Vieira’s lexicon, but also of the Portuguese intellectual lexicon of the seventeenth century.

Antonio Vieira was born in Lisbon, but his family moved to Bahia when he was still a child. He studied at the Jesuit College and before returning to Portugal he had already taken orders. When, later, he came back to Brazil, it was as a superior in the Jesuit missions in Maranhão and Groan-Para. He was an apostle of the Indians, a renowned preacher, an ambassador, a wily politician and sympathetic to the New Christians, as João Lucio de Azevedo (1855-1933), one of his main biographers, describes him in “Historia de Antonio Vieira” [History of Antonio Vieira] published in two volumes by Alameda in 2008. Because of his controversial positions, he was investigated by the Inquisition and condemned after a process that lasted years. Among other penalties, he was thrown in prison and forbidden to preach. Pardoned and later freed, he became one of the most influential preachers in other parts of Europe, besides Portugal. It was in Bahia in the final years of his life that he wrote his sermons.


In the seventeenth century, the most important literary genre, as Pécora explains, is possibly the sacred oratory, in which some of the greatest intellectuals of the time left significant work. Only Englishman John Donne (1572-1631) was on a par with Vieira, said the literary critic Otto Maria Carpeaux (1900-1978).In terms of sacred oratory, Pécora believes that the Portuguese priest is even greater. But, according to him, there were other great preachers of sermons at the time, in addition to Donne and Vieira: in Spain there was Father Hortêncio Paravicino; in Portugal, Father Antonio das Chagas or Manuel Bernardes; in Italy, Roberto Bellarmino, Paolo Segneri or Alberto Panigarola; in France, Bossuet or Bourdaloue. “Do I think that Vieira is better than they were? Yes.”

Stylistically, the Portuguese orator shares the same assumptions of sacred oratory as all his companions in religion. In his sermons, explains Pécora, one observes that he dominates the traditional procedures studied by Greek and Latin rhetoric, particularly Aristotelian-Ciceronian rhetoric. He also dominates the Catholic moralizing and allegorizing processes of the ancient argumentative places, according to the comments of the priests of the Church, of Thomist Scholasticism and of the then recent models of  humanist discretion, as revised by the Neo-Scholasticism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. “From this point of view, the Portuguese preacher does not differ from the main orators of his time and, unlike what is so frequently said, he does not anticipate any enlightened or democratic reason. What is different about him from the others is his talent for submitting his most diverse arguments, projects, passions and quirks to the Portuguese language; his well-trained ability to invent the language in ways that, before him, would not seem capable of sustaining, and that after him, seem to be his own and most comfortable position,” says the professor from Unicamp.

After finishing organizing the Index of the Most Notable Things Alcir Pécora relates that, far from exhausting the subject, the sensation is one of freshness. “It’s as if Vieira had opened up others. It was a real treat after all these years: the perception that he could still be re-read in renewed and surprising directions. Each entry led me to sources, as well as to a set of associations that could not be imagined before, in an overall way, as is possible to do now.”

After he finishes putting together the indices, he says he intends to read some particular entries and choose some fundamental concepts to describe his base systems. He suggests that young researchers concern themselves with rebuilding the systems of implied meanings in the entries and accredited sources of the indices. “Each entry allows us to ponder things. Some of them are more mysterious than others, it’s true, but they are always interesting things to ponder on. Each one of the 1178 not repeated entries from the indices brings combinations, whose examination may lead to not such obvious assumptions about the sermons. All that needs to be done is to just open the book at random, point a finger and see the entry indicated to follow the complex correspondence that exists between terms from the sermons.”

Pécora discovered Antonio Vieira in the late 1970’s, while he was studying rhetoric with Haquira Osakabe, his Master’s degree tutor and one of the founders of the IEL – the Institute of Language Studies at Unicamp. At one point, they considered it was worthwhile supplementing the theoretical studies of rhetoric with an analysis of particular authors. “Because we wanted someone from Portuguese language literature, so our analysis as speakers of Portuguese might be capable of distinguishing the more subtle aspects of the evidence, Vieira was simply there,” he relates. “I’d say that we were obliged to face him, rather than choose him, because on the subject of Portuguese oratory there is not, never was and maybe never will be, an author like Vieira.” Pécora says he is always browsing through the work of the Portuguese priest. “If I don’t read him for some time, I feel withdrawn from myself, as if there is a generalized operational deficit in my intelligence.”