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Blessed Joseph Vaz
Apostle of Sri Lanka
Apostle of Sri Lanka
In the seventeenth century when the island of Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon and its capital was Kandy (not Colombo, as today), Dutch settlers arrived there. They were staunch Calvinists and did their utmost to extinguish the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka. All European Catholic missionaries were expelled, all Portuguese forts destroyed. Churches were desecrated. Tough laws were decreed against Catholics who were compelled to send their children to Dutch Calvinist schools to save their homes from ruin.
The Holy Spirit stirred the heart of a young priest of Goa, Fr. Joseph Vaz, to leave India and enter Sri Lanka at the risk of his life. The strong presence of the Catholic Church in this island today owes its gratitude to this Apostle of Sri Lanka.
A True Sanyasi
He graduated in the humanities in the Jesuit College of St. Paul and did his priestly training in philosophy and theology in the St. Thomas Aquinas Academy run by the Dominicans. The Archbishop of Goa, D. Antonio Brandao, ordained him a priest in 1676, at the age of 25 years.
He was given faculties to preach and hear confessions within the vast jurisdiction of the entire Archdiocese of Goa. But he had no specific ecclesiastical charge. He went home to his native village of Sancoale, a priest with a burning zeal but with no parish appointed to his care. God had set wider and higher sights for His beloved son.
He traveled barefoot as an Indian sanyasi, distinguishing himself by his austere style of life, steeped in prayer, reflection, self-denial. Little wonder, then, that he was much sought after as a priest, confessor, preacher and friend. He showed a great regard for local customs and used them to bring people nearer to God.
Filled with devotion for the Blessed Virgin Mary, on August 5, 1677 in front of her statue in the church of Sancoale, he wrote his 'Letter of Bondage' offering himself as a slave of Mary, ready to do whatever her Son Jesus wanted.
Persecution of Catholics in Sri Lanka
Joseph approached his Superiors for permission to go to Sri Lanka to the rescue of the Catholics there. His request was turned down, and, instead he was sent as Vicar Forane to Kanara. During the time there was a jurisdictional dispute between the Archbishop of Goa and the Vicar Apostolic of Bijapur in Kanara. Joseph was used as a pawn in this unholy ecclesiastical power game.
The Heart of a Missionary
During the four years of his stay in Kanara he had built new Churches, repaired others, introduced a spirit of joy, happiness and friendliness among Catholics and Hindus, especially by the oriental, Indian, manner in which he organised the celebration of religious festivities. Years after he left Kanara, the sweet odour of his cheerful sanctity pervaded the Kanara social scene.
On Fire For the Faith
Fr. Joseph Vaz could not make his intention of going to Sri Lanka public, as he would be a ready target for the Dutch bullet. He obtained his permission and the approval of the Archbishop of Goa. He then took with him the two latest members of the Community, Fr. Paul de Souza and Bro. Stephen Sequeira and also a faithful family servant, Joao (or John) Vaz from Sancoale.
The four of them set out on foot in March 1686, Joseph Vaz as usual on barefoot, on the long trek southwards through Kanara and Malabar (Kerala), onward to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as it was then called. En route he revisited and ministered unto the Catholic he had earlier brought back to the faith. In January 1687, full nine months later, he reached Tellicherry. There for the first time he disclosed to his two companions his real intention of travelling further southwards into Dutch territory. It was not surprising that the two remained behind on some pretext, abandoning him and the young Joao (a Goan gawda boy) to go on ahead 'into the jaws of death'.
Fr. Joseph Vaz and Joao decided to disguise themselves as coolies (porters) and enter Sri Lanka, which was the stronghold of the Dutch. But in Tuticorin he was persuaded to take part in Holy Week services. His identity as a Catholic priest was disclosed. When the Dutch Officer at Tuticorin heard that a priest disguised as a coolie was probably trying to enter Sri Lanka, he put out a red alert. Joseph Vaz was in deep distress. To his relief, quite unexpectedly, only three days later, the Dutch Officer took ill and died. His successor not knowing the reason for his predecessor's order had no hesitation in granting passage to two poor labourers who had applied for permission to sail to Sri Lanka to earn an honest living there. They smuggled in sacred vessels for Mass and an altar stone.
Under the Protection of Mary
Not unexpectedly, his plan succeeded. Non-Christians ignored the rosary; non-Catholics ridiculed him or cast him out with insults; but the Catholics showed sympathy and generosity. So marvellous is the bond of faith that binds Catholics together under the banner of Mary. One Catholic household in particular seemed more fervent than the other. Could it be that the beggar that came to their door was in fact whom they suspected he was, because of his cultured talk and noble mien - a priest? A devout Catholic, a man of means and influence, highly respected even by the Dutch, was consulted. He sought out the beggar and point-blank asked him whether he was a priest. When he learnt he was, Fr. Joseph Vaz and Joao were conducted to his house. Before dawn, the first Mass was offered in Jaffna, full 29 years after the day the Fort was captured by the Dutch on June 23, 1658!
When it was realised that Fr. Joseph Vaz could not remain safely in Jaffna they moved him to Sillalai a staunch and fiercely Catholic village in the neighbourhood. Sillalai was also known as "little Rome" for its fidelity to the Faith during the long persecution. One and a half years had past since the day he left Goa.
The Price for The Faith Paid in Blood
The presence of the priest was known too far too many people to remain a secret forever. Fr. Joseph was spirited away from Sillalai before he could be arrested. But the Christians of Sillalai had to prove worthy of the Faith which Fr. Joseph Vaz had re-enkindled at such a great price. It had to be paid in blood. An archival report describes the scene. "They rushed in and seized all (the Christians) assembled for Mass without distinction, sparing neither sex nor age, but pouncing upon them all, despoiled them of what they had, and what is most shameful to say, stripped the women of their very garments, a thing which the people resented more than all other affronts. They were all taken prisoners and cudgelled and dragged to the Fort with every indignity."
On December 25, 1689, the 'Christian' High Commissioner of Jaffna, Hendrick Adriann van Rheede, had the Catholics of Jaffna and other places paraded before him. While he let off the already degraded women and their children with a warning. Eight men were kept back for "refined treatment".
One of them, Don Pedro who was a lapsed Catholic turned heretic, but who had returned to the faith of his fathers inspired by the apostolic zeal of Fr. Joseph Vaz, was singled out for exemplary treatment. He was severely scourged in the very presence of the High Commissioner. Two days later he succumbed to his wounds, the first Catholic of the new fledgling Church of Sri Lanka to lay down his life for his faith. Imprisoned for life, flogged and ill-treaded in every atrocious way four of them died before the end of the year (1689) and the rest shortly afterwards.
A Missionary in Chains
Kandy was the capital of the Sinhalese Kings since the seventeenth century. When de la Nerolle, who was violently anti-Catholic, heard that a Catholic priest was at Veuda, he went slyly to King Vimaladharma's palace and alarmed the King by telling him that a Portuguese spy had entered the kingdom in the guise of a Catholic priest. The King ordered his men to bring the priest, his host Antonio, and Joao to him bound in chains. For five days, Joseph, Joao and Antonio were subject to the harshest form of imprisonment. The King had a watch placed on the behaviour of the trio. Antonio was soon released because of his influential friends. The priest seemed a harmless enough ascetic while his companion was truly just a devoted and reverential servant of the holy man.
The King convinced that Joseph was no spy permitted him and Joao to quit their prison, but on no account to move out of the city of Kandy. He got people to build a simple Church with a thatched root which he dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. Joseph Vaz was concerned about the Catholics outside the town on the other side of the river which he was forbidden to cross. But soon he had already crossed the river eight times to assist the sick and the dying. The impious de la Nerolle could not stomach the return to the Faith of those whom he had converted to his heresy. He incited the Buddhist monks to hostility against the Catholics.
Joseph, Elijah of Old
Did this actually happen or was it a legend which grew in the telling? It doesn't matter. What did happen as a consequence of this extraordinary incident, which could have passed into folklore, was no legend. This incident proved to be the "greatest and the most striking turning point in the career of Fr. Joseph Vaz". The King Vimaladharma Surya (and later his son Narendrasinha, the last Sinhalese King of Kandy) took Joseph to his heart. He gave him the run of his entire kingdom; he gave him her personal guarantee of protection against the Dutch.
The gates of heaven had indeed opened in a flood of rain and there was also a flood of conversions of lapsed Catholics to the faith of their father, and of Kandyans into the welcoming bosom of the Church, drawn only by the cords of love and in fullest freedom.
Finally Help Arrives
The two Oratorians had brought with them a patent from the Bishop of Cochin, under whose jurisdiction Sri Lanka was officially placed, appointing Fr. Joseph Vaz his Vicar General in Sri Lanka.
In the life of Joseph Vaz, as in that of other saintly persons in our Catholic Christian centuries-old tradition, there are many stories told of remarkable healings taking place when he prayed over the sick. Fr. Joseph de Menezes records there was the case of the obstinate woman with a malignant tumor who was refusing to go back to her husband. At death's door, she was visited by Fr. Joseph Vaz, who laid his hand on her in prayer and the tumour dissolved. Wrote Fr. de Menezes: "The thing is certain, and I heard it from the woman herself."
A Fearless Missionary
Once while Joseph Vaz was administering the sacraments to the people at Gurubevila, the Dutch Governor of Sri Lanka ordered the notorious priest arrested. A detachment of soldiers surrounded the house of the family with whom Joseph was staying. They searched the house thoroughly. Joseph was standing with the rest of the household. But, the story goes, their eyes were held. They did not notice him. Sullen and discomfited the soldiers left the house.
There were baptisms reported by all the priest, not just a trickle but a flood of them. Fr. Joseph de Menezes reports that on one single day in September 1704 he himself had baptised 333, whereas those baptised in other places during that single visit was 2573 persons.
A few more Oratorians arrived in Sri Lanka and in 1708 the number of priests was ten! This was to be the average strength of the Sri Lanka mission for many years. By now Joseph Vaz was 57 years of age and beginning to slow down. His health was shattered beyond the point of reasonable recovery.
A Man Down to Earth, Literally
Joseph Vaz built a network of 15 Churches and 400 chapels with schools and dispensaries or hospitals criss-crossing the land.
The Spirit is Willing but the Flesh is Weak
If a sick call came and there was no priest in Kandy Fr. Joseph would go, cost what it may. A sick call did come. He went carried in a dooly (modified stretcher). On another sick call there was an accident. He fell off the dooly when the bearers were descending a hill. He was unconscious when they picked him up, and in that state, they brought him back to Kandy. He recovered but was never able to leave the Church premises again.
Fr. Joseph realized it was time to resign from office immediately, both as Vicar General and Superior and hand over charge to Fr. Joseph de Menezes. Fr. Joseph wrote the order on January 15, 1711 a day before he died, which Fr. Menezes received after his death.
"Live according to the inspiration of God"
The Fathers, his companions, asked him for a message which they could etch on their stricken hearts. He thought for a moment and said in Sinhalese: "Remember that one cannot easily do at the time of death what one has neglected to do all his life. Live according to the inspirations of God."
It was just before midnight Friday January 16, 1711, Fr. Joseph Vaz 'gave up his spirit'. The candle of his life had burned on for sixty years, shed its luminous glow for thirty-five priestly years, twenty-four of them in Sri Lanka. And then the light went out. The Church in Sri Lanka however was lit up by his life and labours.
A three-day mourning was declared by the King. After a solemn funeral, the body was laid to rest in the Church of Kandy.
A Church that thinks in centuries and lives in Eternity
In 1928 the Archbishop of Goa revived the Process of his beatification and in 1953 the documents of the diocesan Process was delivered to the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints, at Rome.
On 4th April 1989 the Congress of Cardinals gave its formal assent and on 13th May 1989, Pope John Paul II ordered the Promulgation of the Decree on the Heroic Virtues of Fr. Joseph Vaz.
Joseph Vaz was beatified by Pope John Paul II on January 21, 1995, who called on the nations and peoples of the vast continent of Asia to join in a chorus of praise to God for this "son of Asia who became a missionary in Asia."