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Blessed Joseph Vaz:

A Goan who became fully a Sri Lankan



Apostle of Sri Lanka: Blessed Joseph Vaz

Blessed Joseph Vaz, the Apostle of Sri Lanka, came from Goa to Sri Lanka in 1687 when the Catholics in Sri Lanka were undergoing severe persecution under the Dutch, who had ousted the Portuguese in 1658 and occupied the territory held by them who had made many converts to the catholic faith.

During the 24 years of uninterrupted committed ministry, with the help of a small band of Oratorian Missionaries from Goa, he was able to revive the faith of the dying Church due to the absence of priests and many hardships imposed by the new rulers. Thus he is called the 'Second founder of the Church in Sri Lanka.

It was therefore, a Goan priest, a missionary from a neighbouring country who saved the Church at that time. Fr. Vaz not only saved the faith, but also built it on a new foundation. The Portuguese Church was western but Fr. Vaz made use of the customs and culture of the people in Catholic worship and he himself adopts very simple way of life like that of the simple Sri Lankans.

Far-sighted

He knew both the local languages and thus he was able to travel the length and breadth of Sri Lanka, mixing with the ordinary people. He was so far-sighted that he set aside his best companion, a man of erudition, Fr. Giacome Gonsalves, to study and master the local languages and thus he produced a copious literature both in Sinhala and Tamil, including prayers and hymns, which merited for him the title of "Father of Catholic literature".

His works have been highly commended by the greatest local scholars. Thus Fr. Vaz was able to build a truly local church, with the help of several other Oratorian Missionaries who came to help him inspired by his example and ministry.

He made Kandy the centre of his mission as the kings of Kandy were benevolent to him and his companions, and as there was religious freedom in the Kandyan kingdom, while in the Dutch territory he had to go in disguise, often disguised as a beggar or even as a bangle seller.

After a long mission carried out under much sacrifice and dedication Fr. Vaz died in Kandy on 16 Jan. 1711 and was laid to rest in the church which he had built in Kandy.

Although his companions carried on the mission after his death, in 1745, under a weak king there was a revolt led by some bitter enemies of the church and all the missionaries were expelled from the Kandyan Kingdom and all the churches and Catholic institutions, fully destroyed.

Not discovered

Even the church in which he was buried was fully destroyed so much so that up to date the place has not been discovered. The missionaries who were expelled took shelter in the Vanni where the Vanniyars welcomed them. They were able to come and see the Catholics only after the British came back, when religious freedom was granted.

Despite the several persecutions, the Church was able to revive because of the dedicated service of Fr. Vaz and the great work he had done by building a network of lay leaders who looked after the Christians in the absence of priests. Thus the Church we have today owes a great debt of gratitude to Fr. Vaz and his valiant companions and the lay leaders they had formed.

Goa and Sri Lanka continues to maintain the relationship built by Fr. Vaz and his companions. Fr. Vaz came from Goa to help the Catholics in Sri Lanka and today, Bishop Vianney Fernando of Kandy who is also the Sri Lankan bishop in charge of the canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz has been going to Goa for the past two years to preach the retreats of the Goan clergy, and annually groups of pilgrims from Sri Lanka go to visit the birth place of Fr. Vaz in Goa and the Oratorian monastery from where the Oratorian missionaries came and also other places like Mangalore where he had worked before he came to Sri Lanka.

On the other hand, of late groups of pilgrims from Goa have been coming to Sri Lanka to visit the various shrines of Bl. Joseph Vaz in the different dioceses.

They begin with Bolawatte church which place had been frequented by Fr. Vaz and later became a very important centre of the Oratorian Mission and where the great pundit Fr. Giacome Gonsalves is buried. From there they pass over to Weuda on the Kandy-Kurunegala road to visit the place where Fr. Vaz was taken prisoner on his first visit to Kandy.

The next important place to visit is Galgamuwa where there is a very old colony of Catholics who had come from the western coast during the Dutch persecution and the king of Kandy had given them to settle down. They are Tamil speaking and do farming.

Fr. Vaz visited them and planted an ebony cross blessed by him at the entrance to the village as a safe-guard from wild elephants and poisonous snakes. They have treasured this cross upto this day and the annual feast is celebrated by the entire Kurunegala diocese in a very grand scale there.

From there they proceed to another very ancient and important place of historical importance for the Catholics of Sri Lanka, Vahakotte, a Catholic colony from the time of the Portuguese who had staunchly safeguarded their Catholic faith even without the services of priests. Fr. Vaz had visited this Catholic community several times on his way from Kandy to Puttalam and Galgamuwa.

To mark his visits and the place where he had celebrated Mass, a stone cross has been planted, over which an octagonal structure as a roof. This is a very sacred spot for the Catholics of Wahakotte and their own missionary spirit has spread the faith to the neighbouring villages so as to form a new parish.

Important place

Obviously, the next important place to visit is Kandy which was the centre of his mission and the place where he worked the miracle of rain and nursed the sick who were caught in the small-pox epidemic, whom he served with heroic charity so as to merit the encomiums from the king who said, "If only I had 4 more priests like Fr. Vaz in my kingdom!" Alas, today not even the place of his burial can be found in the city of Kandy.

Everything was destroyed at the 1745 revolt and by the time the British occupied no trace of it was left and the British too, levelled much of the Bahirava kanda and filled up the Bogambara lake and with the rise of new buildings no trace of Fr. Vaz's grave can be found and the religious-political atmosphere of Kandy does not leave room for excavations.

However, to remember Fr. Vaz service to Kandy, the old Seminary chapel of the Papal Seminary was converted as the Kandy diocesan shrine of Blessed Joseph Vaz, where a life size mahogany wood statue carved by a local artist from Moratuwa is the focus of the devotion to the Apostle of Sri Lanka.

The Goan pilgrims marvel at the tremendous service done by their countryman - missionary for the church in Sri Lanka and join them in imploring God to guide the Church to declare him a Saint of the Universal Church.

Thus he could be publicly honoured not only in Sri Lanka and Goa but all throughout the world. May this day be not far away.

Fr. Alex Dassanayake