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Catholic Heroes… St. Joseph Vaz Of Sri Lanka

December 26, 2019 saints No Comments


St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit, was a great missionary to the East, beginning with India. St. Thomas the Apostle reached Tamil Nadu and Kerala, converting many of the people there. Thus, the seeds of the Church had been planted when Joseph Vaz was born in Benaulim, Goa, of Portuguese India.
Joseph Vaz was born on April 21, 1651 to Cristovao Vaz and Maria de Miranda who were devout Catholics. Cristovao came from a prominent family of Sancoale. The third of six children, Joseph was baptized by Fr. Jacinto Pereira in St. John the Baptist Church, Benaulim.
As a child, Joseph learned to speak and write in Portuguese and Latin. Respected by both teachers and students, he made rapid progress in his schooling, so Cristovao sent him to Goa for higher education.
At the Jesuit College of St. Paul, Joseph studied rhetoric and humanities. Then he transferred to St. Thomas Academy run by the Dominicans, where he studied philosophy and theology.
In 1675 Custodio de Pinho, the vicar apostolic of Bijapur and Golcanda, ordained Joseph a deacon for the Archdiocese of Goa. Then Archbishop Antonio Brandao ordained him a priest in 1676.
Joseph had true spiritual poverty and would walk barefoot wherever he went. Soon he became a popular preacher and confessor by both his example and his oratory. He also opened a school in Sancoale for prospective seminarians.
As Joseph grew in holiness, so did his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary; and in 1677 he signed a Deed of Bondage, whereby he consecrated himself a slave of Mary.
Although Joseph sought permission to go to Ceylon — modern Sri Lanka — as a missionary, his superior sent him to Canara to mediate. The Catholic Church was controlled by the king’s appointees, the Padroado, engaged in a political struggle with the Propaganda Fidei.
In addition, Fr. Vaz worked as a missionary in Canara from 1681 to 1684 with great success. He restored the Rosario Cathedral in Mangalore; built new churches at Onore, Basroor, Cundapore, and Gangolim; and set up schools in various villages with the assistance of the people.
Furthermore, Fr. Vaz established many confraternities throughout Canara. With the shortage of priests, these confraternities helped gather Catholics together to celebrate sacred festivals. In villages where there were no priests, he built small huts so the Catholics could meet and recite their prayers and sustain their fervor.
During the three years of service in Canara, Fr. Vaz left a lasting legacy by his generosity, charity, and holiness. He consistently worked to lift up the lowly and suffering. Toward this end, many miracles happened.
For example, at Mudipu in Bantwal, a few Hindus came in the night and asked Fr. Vaz to come with them to administer the Last Rites to a sick parishioner. They were planning to kill Vaz.
Fr. Vaz left with the men and they climbed to a top of a hill, and the men then tried to kill him. With uncommon serenity, Fr. Vaz knelt on a rock and held his staff on the ground next to him. A light flashed around him and water began flowing where he knelt. This so frightened the men who had planned to kill him that they fled.
Later a shrine was built on the hill in commemoration of the miracle. It has become a popular annual pilgrimage site, with thousands of persons seeking divine assistance.
In 1684 the old Padroado conflict reared its ugly head again. The new archbishop, Manuel de Souse e Menezes, was most displeased with the truce that Fr. Vaz had arranged, refusing Fr. Vaz’s request to return to Goa.
When Fr. Vaz finally returned to Goa, he maintained a low profile while dedicating himself fully to the service of the people, visiting the surrounding parishes, praying Mass, and preaching.
Soon he joined a group of priest in the archdiocese who wanted to live in community. On September 25, 1686 this group was officially recognized as the congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, the first native Indian congregation in the Goa Diocese.
Before finally arriving in Ceylon, Fr. Vaz became superior of the Canara Mission until the end of 1686. Having finally received permission, he went to Ceylon. Before he left, he spent a few months ministering to the spiritual needs of the local Christians in the Keladi Kingdom.
Fr. Vaz landed at Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu, on the southeast coast of India, in early 1687. He disguised himself as a beggar for protection. The next stage of the journey took Fr. Vaz and his servant, John, to Mannar. Since this was a dangerous undertaking, they disguised themselves as laborers, carrying no baggage and hiding the sacred vessels on their persons.
Because of severe storms, the captain detoured to Mannar where Fr. Vaz and John had no food and resources so were sustained by the charity of fellow passengers. The two were set ashore in Mannar where they begged for provisions and regained some of their strength. They also obtained passports in Mannar to facilitate their arrival in Jaffna in northern Ceylon.
Arriving in Ceylon did not alleviate their challenges. The Calvinist presence was great and Catholic priests were not allowed on the island colony of the Dutch. Thus in disguise as Hindu mendicants, they made their way around Jaffna. Fr. Vaz had acute dysentery and eventually found some Catholics who took him in and tended to his recovery.
In Sillalai, a predominantly Catholic village, Fr. Vaz found people eager for the sacraments and there he began his mission in Ceylon. In 1690, Fr. Vaz had to move to Puttalam for 18 months. The Catholics had not had a priest for 36 years, but he restored their faith before leaving.
Next Fr. Vaz stopped in Veuda where an anti-Catholic Frenchman had Fr. Vaz and John arrested and sent to Kandy in chains.
In Kandy Fr. Vaz and John were put under house arrest. They built a shelter where people could see them praying all day. When he celebrated Christmas Mass in 1691, no objection was raised so he continued saying Mass, and soon people were given permission to attend Mass. Eventually the shelter was replaced with a church.
When the king asked Fr. Vaz to pray for rain during a severe drought, the rain started before Fr. Vaz rose from his knees. This greatly helped the priest and his servant.
As news spread to Goa of his great success and the many churches built as well as the great number of conversions, more missionaries were sent to Ceylon from the Neri oratory. Then Fr. Vaz was made vicar general of Ceylon.
In 1697 a small pox epidemic spread through Colombo. After the healthy people left to save their lives, Fr. Vaz and his associates stayed to care for the sick. Because of this heroic charity, the Catholic priests were given more freedom to go throughout Ceylon.
He built up the Body of Christ throughout the island nation and more priests were allowed to come to Ceylon.
On Fr. Vaz’s last missionary trip he fell ill. Although he tried to complete his eight day retreat, he died on the seventh day, January 16, 1711. January 16 is his feast day. Pope Francis canonized him on January 14, 2015.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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