Saint Joseph Vaz

On Sunday the 21st of January of 1995, Pope Saint John Paul II, as the last port of call on his travels in the Far East, stopped off on the island of Sri Lanka. There, he conducted a ceremony of beatification, which is the formal recognition by the Church of the holiness of the life of someone who has gone to his eternal reward. St James says that the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects (5:16). The Second Vatican Council, in its Document on the Church, repeated this teaching when it said:

Those in Heaven … do not cease to intercede with the Father for us. Rather they show forth the merits which they won on earth through the one Mediator between God and Man, Jesus Christ’. (49)

Beatification is the recognition, by the Church, of this power of intercession, this power of praying in an especially powerful way, on behalf of the faithful. The Church verifies the holiness of a particular man or woman through the working of a miracle at their entreaty. The person whose heroic virtues and power of intercession so recognized by the Church was Father Joseph Vaz, a priest who worked as a missionary in Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was then called, from 1687 until his death in 1711.

But the Church gives us the Saints not only so that they may pray for us, but also that we may try to follow their example. As the Document on the Church goes on to say:

For when we look at the lives of those who have faithfully followed Christ, we are inspired with a new reason for seeking the city which is to come. At the same time we are shown a most safe path by which, among the troubles of this world and in keeping with the state in life and condition proper to each of us, we will be able to arrive at perfect union with Christ, that is, holiness.'(50)

So, who was this priest? Who was this Joseph Vaz? What were the circumstances and events of his life which have led to the recognition that he led a life of virtue to an heroic degree, so that he is held up by the Church an intercessor and example for us all? Who was this Joseph Vaz who has brought together this morning so many different people from so many different parts of the world?

I suppose most of us know the bare outlines of his life. He was born in the year 1651 in Goa, a part of India which was then a Portuguese colony. His family was of the Konkani Brahmin caste, which meant that he had an assured social position, that his upbringing was comfortable and that he received a good education. His family were devout Catholics and he was brought up with a great love for the Church. He was ordained at 25, and asked to be sent as a missionary to Sri Lanka. Instead he was asked to go to Mangalore where he spent three years before returning to Goa. A year later he joined a small group of Goan priests in order to live a stricter priestly life. The group adopted the Rule of the Oratory of St Philip Neri and they elected Joseph Vaz as their first superior.

The Oratory is a group of secular priests and Brothers living in common under the Rule of St Philip and takes its name from a place destined for prayer – an Oratory. Like his holy father St Philip he prayed in the words of Solomon, which we had as the first reading:

Let these words of mine, wherewith I have made supplication before the Lord, be near to the Lord our God day and night, and may he maintain the cause of his servant and the cause of his people Israel, as each day requires; that all the people of the earth may know that the Lord is God, there is no other.

It was through his intense life of prayer that Fr Joseph obtained the grace for all this apostolic labours.

Father Joseph’s Oratory was destined to last a 150 years until suppressed by the Portuguese authorities as part of an anti-religious campaign, but hardly had he founded his group when his old desire to go to Sri Lanka returned. Like our Lord in the Gospel of today’s Mass he said:

I must preach the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’

Beyond this mysterious call of God to leave his people and his work we do not know why he left home. But leave home he did and made for Sri Lanka. The Portuguese had been expelled from the island, and the Dutch ruled in their place. They were strictly Calvinist, and all Catholic priests were banned under penalty of death. Disguised as an agricultural labourer, he and a layman travelled by ship to Jaffna, a journey which should have taken 4 days, but a fierce storm blew them off course, and they only arrived in at Jaffna after twenty days at sea, weak and half starved. They bedded down in a farm shed and very quickly caught dysentery. But fortunately one kind woman was moved by their plight, and brought them a little rice gruel each day and, slowly, they recovered their health. The illness did in fact serve a useful purpose, as it shielded them from the curiosity of the authorities. Moreover from this experience Father Vaz gained a great sympathy for the sick which would transform itself into amazing acts of heroic concern for the outcasts from society.

And so he began his missionary efforts throughout the island. He travelled around, normally disguised as a beggar, making contact with Catholics, administering the sacraments wherever he could, and showing great charity to all of whatever creed. The Catholics of the island gave him shelter and food, and kept his true identity a secret from the authorities as much as possible. Mass was usually said for the faithful in very small groups, and at night, as the threat from the Dutch was very real. But his presence was detected and rewards were offered for his capture. He had to flee to the district of Kandy, which, although nominally Dutch, was governed by a native king who did not persecute the Catholics. However, Fr Vaz was then suspected of spying for the Portuguese and was thrown into prison. But even in prison he continued his apostolic work and after a few months the King realized that the accusations were mischievous and allowed him some freedom. His reputation as a holy man spread. A biographer writes:

The non-Christians were most impressed by the ascetical life that this Catholic priest was reputed to be leading. In their eyes he represented the eastern ideal of a man of religion, a Christian Sannyasi or yogi, a man of prayer and penance and poverty, and they were so attracted by what they heard of him that they sought to see him.’

Saint Joseph’s role generally was to see to it that the Catholic flock received the sacraments and kept the faith. He took great risks for the sake for the kingdom of God. But his lonely work so impressed the people and the Buddhist King, that after ten years of solitary work, three more priests from the Oratory of Goa were able to join him is that part of the island and so the Oratorian Mission of Ceylon was officially founded. Saint Joseph had followed the injunctions of St Paul which we had in the second lesson:

Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer’.

I think I have said enough in general terms about his life and work, but there are two incidents I want to mention, even if somewhat briefly. Both were seen as miraculous. At the request of King Surya II, he held a public prayer service to invoke rain during a long drought – the rains started before the Mass was over leaving the altar and the celebrant untouched by the downpour. The second incident was an occasion of heroic christian charity. There was a small-pox epidemic in Kandy which lasted a whole year. Those who suffered most were the poor, for once they were discovered to have the disease, they were simply taken out of the town and abandoned. Father Vaz built shelters for them, brought them supplies, washed their wounds and nursed them. This concern for the outcast shows how far he had grown since his childhood, when he would have been taught that any member of the Brahmin elite would lost his caste merely by touching such people. Many, including the King, regarded it as a miracle that he did not fall victim to the dread disease. His work of charity flourished, and many were restored to health. In this, too, he followed the example of his divine master in today’s Gospel:

Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any that were sick with various diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them.’

And so, when the year of sickness was over, the harvest of souls was plentiful. He then returned to intensive evangelizing activity through the island, not only in the relatively safe district around Kandy, but in the area controlled by the Dutch. This was to last another ten years until, worn out by his life of action and prayer, his body exhausted, Saint Joseph returned to Kandy. In addition to his Oratory in Goa, he left 17 major Catholic Churches, 300 chapels, and 70,000 openly professing their Catholic faith. In Kandy he died shortly afterwards of a fever before the age of sixty, in the year 1711. At the last, he held a candle in his hand as was the custom. His eyes were fixed on the crucifix, and with his last breath, he uttered the one word, the one name, that had guided his entire life: Jesus. And so he entered into his glory, that glory which has been recognized by the Church, and for which we have all come together today to rejoice and give thanks.

Saint Joseph Vaz: Pray for your brothers in the Oratories of St Philip, both here and abroad, pray that, like you, they may be true to their vocation and prompt and willing to hear the call of God. Pray for them, in the words of St Paul, that their love may be genuine, that they may hate what is evil, that they may hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection, and outdo one another in showing honour;

Saint Joseph Vaz: Pray for the people of Goa from which you came. Pray both for those at home and in this new land. Pray for your fellow-countrymen in the words of King Solomon: May God be with us, as he was with our fathers; may he not leave us or forsake us; may he incline our hearts to him, to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances, which he commanded our fathers;

Saint Joseph Vaz: Pray for the people of Mangalore and Sri Lanka to whom you went at the mysterious call of God. Pray that their love, like yours, may, in the words of the Apostle, be genuine, and that they may never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit. Pray that they, like their fathers which were before them, may hear the Word of God, which you brought to them, and that they may keep it. Pray that, in the words of St Paul, they may bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Live in harmony with one another;

Saint Joseph Vaz: Pray for all of us, from wherever we may come, and to wherever we may have to go. Pray that together we may help to build up the Mystical Body of Christ which is the Church.

And to the Risen Christ who was, and is, and is to come, to Him, may we give all glory and praise both now and for evermore. Amen.

By Fr Jonathan Robinson, Cong. Orat.

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