|Monday, 21 January 2002|
Blessed Joseph Vaz: A saviour of Christianity and a life modelled on Christ
by F. N. C. Miranda
The Beatification of Fr. Joseph Vaz was concelebrated on January 20 1995 when His Holiness Pope John Paul II pronounced the Beatification at the Galle Face Green, Colombo in the presence of a very large gathering of the faithful and people of all walks of life.
The Official State ceremony was held at the Square of the Presidential Secretariat where His Holiness was welcomed by Her Excellency The President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and the late Honourable Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
In Sancoale, a village in the province of Salsette close to Goa, Joseph Vaz was born on April 21, 1651. His parents, Christopher Vaz and Maria Miranda were both Concani Indians belonging by descent to the Brahmin caste, but in faith Catholics and well known in the country for their piety and good deeds.
Joseph Vaz after having brilliantly ended his studies at the Goa University received the order of priesthood at the hands of Monsignor Antonia Brandao who entrusted him with the ministry of preaching. The viceroy who held this young priest in high esteem for displaying such talents would have him for his confessor.
Once a Canon of the Goa Cathedral after his mission to China was compelled to stay in Colombo when the ship that brought him had to undergo some repairs in the harbour. He was witness to the sad straits to which the Catholics of Ceylon were subjected to by the Dutch. This narrative made a deep impression on Fr. Vaz.
The Dutch, after taking possession of Colombo and Jaffna, turned out all the Catholic priests; And an old Jesuit missioner, confronted with great age and infirmities and being unable to follow his companions was publicly beheaded (1658) under pretext that he had not denounced a plot which he had known only under the secret of confession.
Many Catholics had gone into exile and sought refuge under the King of Kandy who still possessed almost the half of the island and who let them practise their religion.
Pathetic events a perilous journey
Catholicism was well-nigh extinct in Ceylon when the Goanese Canon was forced to land in Colombo and he had to conceal himself to avoid being thrown into jail by the Dutch authorities. These events moved the heart of Fr. Vaz irresistibly and inspired him with desire of hastening to the rescue of that abandoned part of the Lord's vineyard.
The Archbishop of Goa appointed Fr. Vaz, Vicar Forane and Superior of the Mission of Canara. For three years his missionary work was carried out amidst trials and patience and during that period he never lost sight of the plan of going over to Ceylon although the obstacles in the way seemed insurmountable. His life in Mangalore was most exciting.
With the blessings of the Archbishop of Goa, Fr. Vaz set out on his perilous journey in March 1686, taking for his luggage his breviary and the requisites for saying mass. He had with him only an Oratorian Father, a Brother and a young boy named John, who attended him at the altar. After nine months in his former Mission, it was only on January 3, 1687, that he went his way down the Malabar Coast.
They travelled on foot, subsisting on the alms which the Christians gave them as they passed. But at Tellicherry his two Oratorian companions scared by the dangers they feared to confront, opted to stay back. John the young boy of remarkable piety remained alone with Fr. Vaz.
At Cochin the latter could not discharge any priestly functions as the Dutch were occupying the town. He even remained hidden until the departure of the small vessel that was to carry him to Quilon.
From Quilon the travellers passed into Travancore, where Fr. Vaz sojourned for some time in a Jesuit College to learn Tamil, the language spoken in the North of Ceylon. Fr. Vaz could no longer travel in his ecclesiastical garb, for, the Dutch would have arrested him. The Rector supplied him with the dress of poor natives and slaves and in that dress, barefooted, Fr. Vaz and John reached Tuticorin the Indian port nearest to Ceylon, towards the end of March 1687.
A batch-mate of Fr. Vaz at Goa University was the Jesuit Missioner in charge of Tuticorin and they were happy to find themselves together again after so many years. Yet Fr. Vaz had to keep his disguise of an itinerant menial for fear of betraying himself. The Dutch occupied a Fort at Tuticorin and kept a strict watch on all intending passengers to Ceylon.
Easter came and Fr. Vaz could not resist and bear to let such a great feast pass without offering a divine sacrifice. The Dutch commander in Fort was instantly apprised and he issued orders to all craft masters along the coast not to take on board any passenger to Ceylon without a pass from him personally. This was a great disappointment for Fr. Vaz, but three days later, the Dutch officer died suddenly. His successor failed to detect a Catholic priest in the garb of a poor workman and on being asked for a pass by Fr. Vaz himself, issued the document without much ado.
Put to sea in a small sailing smack with John his young servant, Fr. Vaz was fortunate to find on board a Catholic Portuguese of good position. That man full of zeal and faith promised the priest that once in Jaffna he would take him to one of his friends in whose house he would run no risk of being apprehended by the Dutch.
A dreadful storm bust upon them and for 20 days they were at sea. Being tossed on the high seas for such a long time without food Fr. Vaz was compelled to break journey in Mannar. Fr. Vaz was carried to the shore at Mannar in a state of starvation and dehydration.
Fr. Vaz knew no one in Jaffna and he wandered about the whole day in quest of shelter for the night was refused entry to all abodes. At last a woman, more charitably inclined, permitted him to lie down in MANDU, a structure barely consisting of a roof placed on pillars. The mandu was opposite her house on the other side of the street and such buildings were erected by Indians along trunk roads or in vicinity of temples to accommodate travellers or pilgrims.
But soon the stupendous misery and starvation he had endured during his long voyage an the unwholesomeness of the food he received by begging from door to door began to tell on him and he was seized with very acute dysentery. This disease is considered very contagious by the Indians. Therefore the people around reproached the woman for having sheltered this stranger and as Fr. Vaz was unable to walk, they took him on bamboos to a forest near the city where they abandoned him.
To complete his destitution the faithful John lay prostrate with the same malady. They were both in a desperate plight. Fr. Vaz thought that their last hour had come and they both prepared themselves for death.
But a poor woman who had lost her way in the forest whilst gathering firewood chanced upon them when they seemed on the point of breathing their last. Moved with compassion, she ran home, brought some 'kanji'. This 'good samaritan' came daily with porridge and they thus regained their strength and were soon sufficiently strong enough to find their way back to Jaffna.
Association with King Vimala-Dharmasuriya II
The charitable virtues of Fr. Vaz won the admiration of the pagans and they held him in great veneration. Paganism fails to understand disinterested charity; but yet, it admires it. This was the cause of the respect paid by King Vimala-Dharmasuriya II to Fr. Vaz. To that pagan Prince, the Catholic priest was an enigma, which he approached only with supernatural awe.
King Kandasala, the son and successor of King 'Vimala-Dharmasuriya, followed the paternal examples. One day when the King was passing in State before the church in Kandy, Fr. Vaz came out to salute him. The King stopped, received him with great cordiality and would not resume his walk until Fr. Vaz was indoors again.
On 16th January, 1711 towards the hour of midnight with Fathers Gonzalves and Almeida Kneeling down near Fr. Vaz's death-bed entoned the Subvenite Sancti Dei. In the morning Fr. Gonzalves informed the King who testified his deep sorrow and at once enjoined on all the Christians in the palace to attend the funeral.
The obsequies lasted three days and on Monday January 19th after a funeral oration pronounced by Fr. Gonzalves was the body deposited in a wooden coffin, lined inside with silk was buried in front of the High Altar in the Church of Our Lady of the Conversion of Pagans, built by Fr. Vaz in the Bogambara suburb.
Fr. Vaz died in the 60th year of his age, his apostolate in Ceylon having lasted 24 years. He was of middle size, of handsome features and his demeanour was dignified and sympathetic.
Produced by Lake House