Vatican City, 14 January 2015 (VIS) – On the morning of Wednesday 14 January, the Holy Father transferred from the apostolic nunciature in Colombo to Galle Face Green. This urban park in the heart of the financial district of Colombo spreads over five hectares up to the coast of the Indian Ocean and can hold up to half a million people. Twenty years ago, on 15 January 1995, St. John Paul II celebrated Holy Mass in the same location and proclaimed Joseph Vaz blessed. Francis then left the car in favour of the Popemobile to tour the many faithful – more than half a million – gathered in the park. Before entering the sacristy, the Pope was greeted by the mayor of the city of Colombo, who presented him with the keys to the city.
The Mass and canonisation of Blessed Joseph Vaz began at 8.30 a.m. local time. Sri Lanka's first saint, Vaz was born in Goa, India in 1651, the son of Cristovao Vaz and Maria de Miranda, devout Catholics. His father belonged to a prominent Goud Saraswat Brahmin Naik family from Sancoale, and Joseph was baptised on the eighth day at the parish church of St. John the Baptist. He studied Portuguese and Latin, and entered the Oratory of St. Philip Neri. Since Ceylon, present day Sri Lanka, was under the rule of Dutch Calvinists and therefore had no Catholic priests, he moved there secretly, in the guise of a mendicant. He eventually came to the attention of the Dutch authorities, who imprisoned him. He was released in 1869 and obtained permission to preach the Gospel throughout the Buddhist Kingdom of Kandy. He also continued to do so secretly in the area under Dutch occupation until his death in 1711.
Blessed Vaz, said the Holy Father in his homily, “like countless other missionaries in the history of the Church … responded to the Risen Lord’s command to make disciples of every nation. By his words, but more importantly, by the example of his life, he led the people of this country to the faith which gives us 'an inheritance among all God’s holy ones'. In Saint Joseph we see a powerful sign of God’s goodness and love for the people of Sri Lanka. But we also see in him a challenge to persevere in the paths of the Gospel, to grow in holiness ourselves, and to testify to the Gospel message of reconciliation to which he dedicated his life”.
“Saint Joseph Vaz continues to be an example and a teacher for many reasons, but I would like to focus on three”, he continued. “First, he was an exemplary priest. Here today with us are many priests and religious, both men and women, who, like Joseph Vaz, are consecrated to the service of God and neighbour. I encourage each of you to look to Saint Joseph as a sure guide. He teaches us how to go out to the peripheries, to make Jesus Christ everywhere known and loved. He is also an example of patient suffering in the cause of the Gospel, of obedience to our superiors, of loving care for the Church of God. Like ourselves, Saint Joseph Vaz lived in a period of rapid and profound transformation; Catholics were a minority, and often divided within; there was occasional hostility, even persecution, from without. And yet, because he was constantly united with the crucified Lord in prayer, he could become for all people a living icon of God’s mercy and reconciling love”.
The new saint, explained Pope Francis, “shows us the importance of transcending religious divisions in the service of peace. His undivided love for God opened him to love for his neighbour; he ministered to those in need, whoever and wherever they were. His example continues to inspire the Church in Sri Lanka today. She gladly and generously serves all members of society. She makes no distinction of race, creed, tribe, status or religion in the service she provides through her schools, hospitals, clinics, and many other charitable works. All she asks in return is the freedom to carry out this mission. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right. Each individual must be free, alone or in association with others, to seek the truth, and to openly express his or her religious convictions, free from intimidation and external compulsion. As the life of Saint Joseph Vaz teaches us, genuine worship of God bears fruit not in discrimination, hatred and violence, but in respect for the sacredness of life, respect for the dignity and freedom of others, and loving commitment to the welfare of all”.
Finally, “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. Saint Joseph knew how to offer the truth and the beauty of the Gospel in a multi-religious context, with respect, dedication, perseverance and humility. This is also the way for the followers of Jesus today. We are called to go forth with the same zeal, the same courage, as Saint Joseph, but also with his sensitivity, his reverence for others, his desire to share with them that word of grace which has the power to build them up. We are called to be missionary disciples”.
“Dear brothers and sisters”, he concluded, “I pray that, following the example of Saint Joseph Vaz, the Christians of this country may be confirmed in faith and make an ever greater contribution to peace, justice and reconciliation in Sri Lankan society. This is what Christ asks of you. This is what Saint Joseph teaches you. This is what the Church needs of you. I commend all of you to the intercession of our new saint, so that, in union with the Church throughout the world, you may sing a new song to the Lord and declare his glory to all the ends of the earth. For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised. Amen”.
At the end of the celebration, Pope Francis presented to Cardinal Albert Malcolm Ranjith Patabendige Don, archbishop of Colombo, a reproduction engraved on copper of the “Sannas”, the document by which in 1694 King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe of Kandy authorised Fr. Juan Sylveira of the Order of St. Philip Neri and his companions to preach the Gospel and build churches in his kingdom, and the people to convert to Christianity should they wish to do so. The original decree was given to Pope Leo XIII by the then-archbishop of Colombo, Christopher Bonjero O.M.I. The faithful of Sri Lanka reciprocated by donating 70,000 dollars to Pope Francis for papal charity.
The Holy Father subsequently returned to the apostolic nunciature of Colombo to lunch and to rest, then shortly after 2 p.m. he left for the heliport, in order to depart by helicopter for Madhu.