BLESSED JOSEPH VAZ: MISSIONARY EXTRAORDINAIRE
1651 – 1711
Can you imagine wanting to go to a place where there was not a single Catholic priest for halfa century because they were all expelled by the authorities, no Catholic churches and you were forced to send your children to Dutch Calvinist school? Well this was the situation in Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka that Blessed Joseph Vaz wanted to correct.
This situation came about in the sixteenth century through an arrangement with the papacy known as the Padroadao whereby the (Catholic) Portuguese crown enjoyed extensive jurisdiction over the local churches. But by the following century the Protestant Dutch came and seized most of Portugal’s Asian properties and the Catholic priests were expelled and fled.
Joseph Vaz was born on April 21, 1651 at Benaulim, Goa (India) one of the few Portuguese enclaves left. His Parents who belonged to the Brahmin (upper) caste were Catholic converts who brought him up loving God. Because he loved to tend the village’s poor backward children his mother called him her “little saint.”
After ordination as a priest in 1676 because he was considered a “native” he could not join the mainstream religious orders who preferred priests of European blood.
So he travelled all over Goa barefoot as an Indian sanyasi. Because of his austere life style, perennially steeped in prayer, reflection and self-denial he was much sought after not only as a priest, confessor and preacher but as a friend. His great regard and respect for local customs endeared him to the people that he brought nearer to God.
So he could better be understood he learnt the local language Sinhala and so that his companions could do the same he compiled a dictionary (English – Singhala). Because his practice of the Christian faith drew rather than repulsed non-Christians to the faith his whole life came to be regarded as “an object lesson in missionary methods.” And because he treated all people the same irregardless of their rank or race he earned the distinction of being regarded as “the perfect model of an apostle.”
Devotion to Virgin Mary
He also earned another title as being the perpetual slave of the Virgin Mother of God” which he himself wrote in his “Letter of Bondage” a year after his ordination to express his phenomenal devotion to Our Lady. It was while in front of her statue that he wrote this letter pledging himself to be Mary’s slave and to do whatever her son Jesus wanted.
Pursuing His Dream
But Joseph never forgot his dream of going to Sri Lanka where the ruling Dutch Calvinists were attempting to eradicate Catholicism. So he asked permission from his superior to allow him to go and help rescue them. Unfortunately his request was denied and he was instead sent to the Capital Kanara (now called Colombo) as vicar apostolic where there was already a vicar apostolate occupying the seat hired by the Propaganda Fide. To solve the problem Joseph asked the vicar apostolate for conditional jurisdiction. When the archbishop died he asked to be relieved of his post.
Founds Institute of the Oratory, India
When he returned to Goa on September 25, 1685 he decided to join a group of Goanese clergy seeking to lead an ascetical life at the Church of the Holy Cross of Miracles. After helping them to adopt the Rule of the Oratorians founded by St. Philip Neri he became its superior and the founder of the Institute of the Oratory in India, the first ever indigenous institute in the Third World. This pioneering effort of his not only ensured Goa of a steady supply of priests but actually helped Joseph to continue his work in reviving the church in Sri Lanka and save it from complete extinction.
Leaves for Sri Lanka
Since the burning desire to serve the Catholics in Sri Lanka never left his soul fired by the Holy Spirit in 1606 he resigned his post as superior and left for Sri Lanka at the risk of his life. On the long dreadful crossing he learnt to speak Tamil. With a former family servant named John Vax they managed to enter Jaffna in the north of Sri Lanka where the Dutch East India Company controlled the ports and allowed no Catholic priests to land on the island.
In Sri Lanka
Disguised first as coolies (porters) then as beggars they went looking for surviving Catholics. When he found them he was impressed by how they had managed to preserve their faith through all kinds of hardships. By keeping him hidden in their homes and having secret meetings in the dead of night they managed for ten years to have the only priest in Sri Lanka. Going barefoot all over the island with a rosary round his neck he was priest, confessor, preacher and friend.
In 1692 Joseph entered the capital city of Kandy as he had received a permit from King Vimaldharna Surya II. Unfortunately he was denounced by a Calvinist who accused him as being a spy and was thrown into prison for four years. There he learnt Sinhala. Because of the leniency showed him he even managed to set up a church dedicated to Our Lady in the prison grounds.
When a serious drought took place in 1696 the Buddhist monks tried to obtain rain through their prayers but failed. So the King called on Joseph who erected an altar with a cross and placed it in front of the palace and began to pray. Torrential rains begun pouring down. Gratefully the Kind allowed Joseph to preach the Gospel everywhere and urged the Ceylonese to convert to Christianity.
Soon Oratorian missionaries began arriving from Goa. When an epidemic of small pox broke out they helped Joseph care for the sick. Once more the King and later his son gratefully allowed Joseph to establish the Catholic Church everywhere in Sri Lanka.
Working till his last breath Joseph was able to build 15 churches, 400 chapels with schools, dispensaries and hospitals all over Sri Lanka.
To communicate the truths of the faith Joseph translated the Church’s books and catechism into the native language. He also composed hymns and prayers in Singhalese and Tamil. He reached out humbly to communicate with the leaders of Buddhism and Islam. His work even reached the ears of Pope Clement XI who offered him a bishopric which he politely refused.
Tragically on a return trip to Kandy Joseph fell from the carriage and became seriously ill and died on January 16, 1711. The king declared a three-day mourning for him.
It is due to Joseph Vaz that there is a strong Catholic presence in Sri Lanka. The Catholic bishops said, “When humanly speaking there was no help possible from any quarter, God in his mercy sent us assistance in a most unexpected manner. He sent us an “apostle from India.”
The cause of his beatification began a mere two years after his death but because of politics, etc. it did not become a reality until 284 years later in 1995 when Pope Paul II himself beatified him in a special papal visit to Sri Lanka. Blessed Joseph Vax is indeed “one of the greatest missionaries Asia has ever produced.”
SOURCES of REFERENCE:
Butler’s Saint for the Day – pp 23 – 24;
Saint Companions – pp 30 -32;
Saints for Our Time – pp 36 – 37;
Lives of Saints – Part 2 – pp 120 – 125;
Saints of Asia – pp 23 – 24.