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St. Joseph Vaz, Sri Lanka’s first saint

Michael Bueza
St. Joseph Vaz, Sri Lanka’s first saint
St. Joseph Vaz is credited for reviving Catholicism in Sri Lanka at a time of great religious persecution under Dutch rule

MANILA, Philippines – On Wednesday, January 14, Pope Francis canonizes Joseph Vaz, becoming Sri Lanka’s first saint.

In a speech upon his arrival on Tuesday, January 13, in the South Asian country, the Holy Father praised then Blessed Vaz, “whose example of Christian charity and respect for all people, regardless of ethnicity or religion, continues to inspire and teach us today.”

Known as the “Apostle of Sri Lanka,” St. Joseph Vaz rebuilt the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka at a time of great religious persecution under Dutch rule.

Pope Francis reportedly waived the requirement for a second miracle and approved his sainthood in September 2014.

The canonization of Vaz on Wednesday will take place at the Galle Face Green in the capital Colombo, the same site where he was beatified 20 years ago by Pope (and now St.) John Paul II.

St. Joseph Vaz was born in Goa, India, on April 21, 1651. He studied at the Jesuit College of St. Paul and the Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, where he took up philosophy and theology.

Vaz was ordained a priest in 1676. He then joined the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in 1684, and founded the Oratory of the Holy Cross of Miracles in Goa, which was available for frontier missionary work.

Concerned about the plight of Catholics in Sri Lanka, then Father Vaz volunteered to go to the island country.

However, church leaders in Goa refused, saying that it would be a great risk for him, due to the prohibition of Catholic priests by Dutch Calvinists there. Fr. Vaz was assigned instead to the Kanara Mission in southwest India.

After that stint, Fr. Vaz left Goa and travelled on foot, reaching Jaffna by boat on the northern coast of Sri Lanka in 1687.

Often disguised as a coolie (a laborer or porter), a beggar or a baker, Vaz ministered to the Catholics hiding in Jaffna and nearby towns. He also learned to speak Sinhala and Tamil.

He then journeyed through the jungle toward the Kingdom of Kandy, independent from Dutch rule. However, he was falsely arrested as a Portuguese spy and imprisoned by Buddhist King Vimaladharma Suriya II in 1691.

Fr. Vaz eventually earned the King’s favor through exemplary behavior. Notably, in 1693, Vaz worked a “miracle of rain” during a severe drought in the Kingdom of Kandy. This led to the King releasing him from imprisonment. Vaz was then allowed to carry out his ministry, under the King’s protection.

More Oratorian priests from Goa joined Vaz in spreading the Catholic faith not only in the Kingdom but also in some Dutch-controlled areas in Sri Lanka.

Vaz mostly tended to the poor and oppressed. He later braved a small pox epidemic in the Kingdom, looking after the sick and burying the dead.

News of his work in Sri Lanka later reached the Vatican, where then Pope Clement XI gave his blessing to Vaz and the Oratorian missionaries.

Vaz died in peace in Kandy at the age of 59 on January 16, 1711, after 2 decades of missionary work in Sri Lanka.

The only relic of St. Vaz, the crucifix given to him by Pope Clement XI, is currently kept at the Oratory Room of Blessed (now St.) Joseph Vaz in Goa, India. – Rappler.com

Sources: popefrancisinsrilanka.com, news.va, newadvent.org, catholicnewsagency.com, oxfordoratory.org.uk

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Michael Bueza

Michael is a data curator under Rappler's Tech Team. He works on data about elections, governance, and the budget. He also follows the Philippine pro wrestling scene and the WWE. Michael is also part of the Laffler Talk podcast trio.