St. Joseph Vaz,

an Indian missionary in Sri Lanka

Saint Joseph Vaz was a great missionary of the Gospel and in his testimony "we see an eloquent sign of God's goodness and love for the people of Sri Lanka," as Pope Francis stated during the homily for his canonization. 

An Oratorian priest, Saint Joseph Vaz was born in India in the territory of Goa on April 21, 1651 into a Christian family with a Portuguese surname. It was certainly the fervor of the faith that animated his house and matured José's priestly vocation. This fervor even continued after Fr. Vaz's death, seeing as all his nephews became priests as well. Ordained in 1676, he returned to his native village and began to exercise his priestly ministry. Following his missionary zeal, Fr. Vaz wanted to go to Ceylon about which, in the meantime, he discovered the sad reality. However, he was assigned the task of preaching in the cathedral and dedicating himself to the service of confession and spiritual direction. The diocesan authorities then sent him to Kanara, in the territory of the Archdiocese of Goa, where the Holy See had erected an Apostolic Vicariate torn by a sad dispute over responsibilities and jurisdictions.

When he left the post of Apostolic Vicar in 1684, the painful situation could be said to have been resolved. Fr. Vaz then felt even stronger the desire to become part of a religious order. However, at that time religious orders were only open to candidates of European origin. Thus, with the permission of the Archbishop of Goa, he joined three Indian priests who had begun an experience of community life at the Church of the Holy Cross of Miracles on Mount Boa Vista. 

Elected Superior, he became the founder of an authentic community to which he gave a clear spiritual physiognomy and a juridical form that allowed them to officially establish its existence. The holy reputation of the Boa Vista priests quickly spread, and driven by the missionary fervor of Fr. Vaz, they soon added to the ministry in their Church an intense apostolate in the countryside. A Bull of Clement XI, dated November 26, 1706, confirmed the establishment of the community and praised its work. Fr. Vaz felt that the time had come to respond to the never-ending vocation in favor of the increasingly abandoned Catholics of Ceylon. Having laid down his habit, he adopted the habit of slaves and beggars and after a few months of hard work, he managed to land on the coast of Ceylon.

He fell ill there immediately and for a few days, he was laying on the side of the road. He would have died of hardship if it wasn't for some women who helped him by giving him some food. Despite the fear of being discovered, he began the search for Catholics, who had outwardly for the most part taken on Calvinist customs under the lash of persecution and dared not reveal themselves. Fr. Vaz then adopted a courageous method: he placed the crown of the rosary around his neck, on the bare chest of a beggar, and began to knock from door to door begging for alms. He noticed someone who looked with interest at that sign of Catholic piety, so he began with a family and when he was sure of its members’ loyalty, he revealed his own identity.

This was the beginning of the re-evangelization of the island. It continued with the midnight celebration of Mass and listening to those who turned to him for Confession and spiritual dialogue. Wanting to cut off the revival of evangelization, the governor awarded great compensation to those who handed over the priest. But no one betrayed Fr. Vaz, who was indeed safe while the wrath of the Calvinists was unleashed against the Catholic faithful. Fr. Vaz fled to the small state of Kandy, in the inner part of the island and still formally autonomous, ruled by King Vilamadharma Surya. Many Catholics who had never met a priest lived in the state, and Calvinist agents who had heard of the arrival of the religious, spread false rumors that he was a Portuguese spy.

The plan worked: as soon as he arrived in Kandy, Fr. Vaz was imprisoned. However, despite being a Buddhist, the King did not approve of the imprisonment of a foreigner of such a profoundly spiritual nature. Through the testimony of his guards, he learned about the prisoner’s sanctity of life and became his friend, transmitting to his son and successor, Narendrasinha, the veneration with which he treated the Catholic priest. Fr. Vaz thus had the opportunity to preach and spread the faith throughout the kingdom, walking by foot through its territory and restoring the presence of the Church everywhere.

The smallpox epidemic that broke out in 1697, witnessed by the King himself, would have completely destroyed the population if Fr. Vaz's charity and intelligence had not provided treatment for the sick and instructed them in hygienic standards that, in fact, contained the infection. When Fr. Vaz died, ten missionaries worked in those lands, imbued with his spirit and prepared to continue the work in which he also formed lay people, entrusting them with the care of many dispersed communities.

In 1732, Pope Benedict XIV authorized the introduction of the canonical process for his beatification. On January 14, 2015, the Holy Father Pope Francis proclaimed him a saint. In his homily, the Pope indicated three essential points: "He was an exemplary priest [...] Secondly, Saint Joseph shows us the importance of transcending religious divisions in the service of peace. His undivided love for God opened him to love for his neighbor; he ministered to those in need, whoever and wherever they were. [...] Saint Joseph gives us an example of missionary zeal. Though he came to Ceylon to minister to the Catholic community, in his evangelical charity he reached out to everyone. Leaving behind his home, his family, the comfort of his familiar surroundings, he responded to the call to go forth, to speak of Christ wherever he was led."