In disguise and barefoot, mostly as an itinerant laborer and Indian sannyasi (holy man),
St. Vaz walked the length and breadth of Sri Lanka.
Picture, Courtesy of D.L.C. Fernando, Sri Lanka.
Apostle of Kanara and Sri Lanka
1651 – Born in Benaulim, Goa, India, on April 21.
1676 – Is ordained a priest. Shortly after, volunteers to go to Sri Lanka where the Dutch were persecuting Catholics and had banned all priests from entering the island. The Chapter of Goa refuses his offer because the mission would have meant certain death for him.
1681 – Is sent to rescue the almost extinct mission in Kanara, present-day Karnataka in India. Rebuilds the Church in Mangalore and Kanara, establishes missions, tends to the sick, ransoms prisoners.
1684 – Returns to Goa and joins a band of native Indian priests who formed a community.
1685 – Founds a religious Congregation, the ‘Oratory of St. Philip Neri’, on September 25.
1686 – Leaves Goa secretly and sets out for Sri Lanka.
1687 – Arrives in Jaffna in the Tamil region of Sri Lanka, with a servant, John Vaz, both disguised as coolies. He works with a price on his head.
1691 – Is almost captured by the Dutch and is advised to go to Kandy. Is brought into Kandy in chains and imprisoned as a Portuguese spy by the Buddhist King, Vimaladharna Surya II.
1693 – Works a miracle of rain during a severe drought. The King releases him and gives him protection and freedom to preach in his kingdom. As in Goa and in Mangalore, is often seen in ecstasy in prayer. The people call him “Sammana Swami” or Angelic Father.
1697 – Is joined by three of his Indian Oratorians from Goa. During a small-pox epidemic in Kandy, the King and the people flee the capital. Fr. Vaz and Fr. Carvalho, tend to the dying and abandoned victims for almost two years.
1705 – Dedicates the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu.
1711 – Dies in Kandy on January 16, after 23 years of arduous missionary work in Sri Lanka.
His missionary work was not colonial, not helped, authorized, associated with conquest by a colonial power.
He gained the protection of a non-Christian King, Vimaladharma Surya II, a devout Buddhist.
He used Inculturation as a missionary method. He founded a Catholic para-liturgy and literature using the two languages and cultures of Sri Lanka, Tamil and Sinhalese; he practiced and taught Meditation.
He educated his servant John Vaz, a member of the Indigenous tribe of Kunbis, and sent him back to Goa with a letter of recommendation to the priesthood. At that time, the Portuguese Church Councils reserved the priesthood only for the two higher castes in Goa.
He rescued and expanded the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu, one of the 5 officially crowned Marian Shrines of the Church. It was crowned for its fame for miracles and for pilgrimages in 1924, even before Fatima.
He is the first non-European native in modern times to found a Mission and Church in a “Third World” country; to found a fully native Catholic Religious Congregation; and to be given the official title of “Apostle” (of Kanara and Sri Lanka) by the Church, for his work in rescuing th Church there. His Indian Oratorian Mission is the only fully native, non-European Catholic Mission of our colonial era.
The Church he re-founded in Sri Lanka was persecuted and survived isolation from Rome for 140 years:
“Here is a country in which the faith was first preached, and a Church founded with great success to flourish for over a century, by missionaries who, being afterwards forced by the political failure of their nation to abandon the field, left this island for good and their converts without churches or priests and under the heel of a persecutor; and a single priest (Joseph Vaz) from another country, came here of his own accord and labouring heroically with a price upon his head, revived the faith and made many conversions in the subsequent political, social and ecclesiastical changes in the country were ever able to undo his work. It must be stated with caution and subject to correction, but no other instance of such an achievement is known in Christendom.”
1711 – Father Joseph Vaz dies a saintly death in Kandy, Sri Lanka, and is honored with a public funeral.
1713 – The Jesuit Bishop of Cochin begins his Cause.
1896 – Mons, Zalesky, Papal Nuncio and founder of the Papal Seminary in India, suggests that a new Cause be started. It begun by the Goan Church.
1953 – The diocesan ordinary process is sealed and sent to Rome. It contains volumes of miracles, including the three required outstanding miracles.
1954 – All 78 Bishops of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka sign a Petition to Pope Pius XII to beatify him.
1976 – Cardinal Cooray of Sri Lanka petitions Pope Paul VI for action. A Positio Historica, summary of the historical documents relating to the life and work of Father Joseph Vaz, is requested.
1985 – The Positio is submitted and the Bishops of Sri Lanka petition Pope John Paul II to beatify Vaz.
1993 – The miracle required for Beatification is approved by the Sacred Congregation for the Saints and the Pope issues the Decree of Beatification.
1995 – The Government and Bishops of Sri Lanka host the visit of Pope John Paul II to Sri Lanka for the official Beatification of Blessed Joseph Vaz.
2014 – Canonized as St. Joseph Vaz by Pope Francis on the 14th of January
Xavier (St. Francis Xavier) came to India as the Pope’s personal representative (Ambassador), a position of great power and prestige. He had the full might of the Portuguese empire behind him, a well-organized, powerful society – the Society of Jesus. He seems to have had at his disposal considerable funds, provided not only by his society but also by the Queen’s ‘Slipper Money’. He never worked alone. He never had to encounter any serious opposition from local rulers.
Vaz…had no funds…no support from anyone, ecclesiastical or civil…When he went to Ceylon, no one, apart from the Archbishop of Goa and his own local superior even knew he was going. His only companion was his faithful servant , John. They had no money, no resources, no luggage, except a breviary and Mass kit. He always travelled barefoot. He would accept no gifts, not even a Mass stipend…His first two years in Jaffna were spent in daily danger of death from the Dutch…His entry into Kandy was in chains. He was for two years a prisoner, for the first five days without food. One is tempted to compare him with St. Paul (1 Cor., 4:10-13).
Xavier worked mainly among non-Christians. Modern scholars estimate that 10,000 people were drawn to Christ through his efforts. Few would deny that many were at least influenced by the Portuguese power behind Xavier.
Vaz worked mainly among Catholics, weak and lapsed. When he arrived in Ceylon, there were some of these scattered, frightened, deprived of the Sacraments for 30, 40, or 50 years. When he died, after 24 years’ work…there were 70,000 practicing Catholics, served by catechists whom he trained…Of these no less than 30,00 were converts from other religions. Not one had come in through motives other than religious, since Vaz had neither money to bribe nor power to influence or entice them.” (Note: Vaz’ converts suffered persecution loss of hereditary titles, property, and political rights).