|Joseph Vaz, C.O.|
Apostle of Ceylon
|Priest and missionary|
21 April 1651|
Benaulim, Goa, Portuguese India, Portuguese Empire
|Died||16 January 1711
Kandy, Kingdom of Kandy
(India, Sri Lanka and the Congregation of the Oratory)
|Beatified||21 January 1995, Colombo, Sri Lanka, by Pope John Paul II|
|Major shrine||Bl. Joseph Vaz Shrine,
Mudipu, Bantwal, Karnataka, India
|Patronage||Ceylon (Sri Lanka)|
Vaz entered Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) during the Dutch occupation, when Calvinism was the official religion. He travelled throughout the island bringing the Eucharist and the sacraments to clandestine groups of Catholics. Later in his mission, he found shelter in the Kingdom of Kandy where he was able to work freely. By the time of his death, Vaz had managed to rebuild the Catholic Church on the island.
The third of six children, Vaz was born in 1651 at Benaulim, his mother's village. His parents, Cristóvão Vaz and Maria de Miranda, were devout Catholics. Cristóvão belonged to a prominent Goud Saraswat Brahmin Naik family of Sancoale. He was baptised on the eighth day at the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist, Benaulim by its pastor, Jacinto Pereira. Vaz attended the elementary school in Sancoale. He learned Portuguese in Sancoale and Latin in Benaulim. He was a bright pupil and respected by his teachers and fellow students. He made such rapid progress in his studies that his father decided to send him to the city of Goa for further studies; where he did a course in rhetoric and Humanities at the Jesuit college of St. Paul. He further studied philosophy and theology at the College of St. Thomas Aquinas in Goa City.
In 1675, Vaz was ordained a deacon for the Archdiocese of Goa by Custódio de Pinho, the Vicar Apostolic of Bijapur and Golconda. In 1676, he was ordained a priest by the Archbishop of Goa, António Brandão, S.O.Cist. Soon after his ordination, he started going barefoot to live like the poor and acquired a reputation as a popular preacher and confessor. He opened a Latin school in Sancoale for prospective seminarians. In 1677 he consecrated himself as a "slave of Mary", sealing it with a document known as the "Deed of Bondage".
Ministry in Canara (1681–1687)
Vaz wanted to serve as a missionary in Ceylon, and therefore presented his request to go there to the cathedral chapter, which was administering the diocese following the vacancy created by the death of Brandão on 6 July 1678. However, the cathedral chapter proposed to him to go to Canara instead, where the Padroado authorities in Goa were in conflict with the local authorities belonging to the Propaganda Fide. Vaz was appointed the Vicar Forane of Canara by the Padroado in 1681, and sent with the purpose of asserting their jurisdiction against the Propaganda Fide. The chapter also gave him the esteemed title of "Frame of Canara". Upon his arrival, he found the situation of the Roman Catholic Church there to be highly explosive.
The Padroado authorities in Goa were at conflict with those of the Propaganda Fide in Canara, led by the already incumbent Vicar Forane, Bishop Thomas de Castro. The source of the conflict was that De Castro's appointment as Vicar Forane of Canara by Pope Clement X on 30 August 1675 was not recognised by the preceding Padroado archbishop. Consequently, they did not cede the jurisdiction to him despite the pope's letter of appointment.
The Padroado–Propaganda conflict which ensued divided the Catholics of Canara into two sides—those who recognised the authority of the Padroado archbishop in Goa versus those who supported De Castro. Those who recognised the authority of the Padroado were excommunicated by De Castro, while those who recognised the authority of the Propaganda were excommunicated by the Padroado authorities at Goa. Both groups were forbidden from receiving sacraments from the priests of the rival group, on penalty of excommunication.
In a letter dated 14 September 1681, Vaz lamented:
"Many in fact believe that the Catholic Church is divided, and that we and the Bishop's priests are not children of the same Mother Church; and that our doctrines and our sacraments are different; and what the ones do, the others destroy. Thus the Catholic Church is much despised and is not acceptable."
With great diplomacy and humility, Vaz met De Castro at Mangalore and after having convinced himself of the legitimacy of the documents, brought about a truce until a direction was received from the new pope, Innocent XI. In light of the fact that the bishop had legitimate authority, Vaz recognised his authority and while continuing to adhere to the Padroado system, zealously worked for the religious welfare of the people. The bishop further agreed to delegate jurisdiction to him conditionally. Vaz often spoke to him and pleaded with him not to issue so many excommunications, but to wait for a final decision from the pope. He pointed out that the Hindus were scandalised and the Christians bewildered by these arguments.
During his stay, Vaz undertook serious missionary activities in Canara from 1681 to 1684, carrying out a lot of missionary work in Mangalore, Basroor, Barcoor, Moolki, Kallianpur and other areas, and reviving the spirits and faith of the widely scattered Roman Catholic community.He reconstructed the Rosario Cathedral in Mangalore and built new churches at Onore, Basroor, Cundapore, and Gangolim. He also set up small schools in some of the villages with the co-operation of their residents.
Vaz's most important contribution, however, was the establishment of a large number of Irmidades (Confraternities) throughout Canara, where he would periodically celebrate festive occasions with great pomp. Vaz was compelled to do so due to a shortage of priests, and as such an Irmidade brought together the Catholics of a place where there was no church or resident priest. To this end, he constructed small huts and asked the local Catholics to gather there and recite their prayers. This greatly helped to keep alive and encourage the religious fervor for Christianity.
In his short stay, Vaz acquired a great and saintly reputation. He did yeoman service to the cause of the upliftment of the downtrodden. Many miracles are attributed to him. A local legend has it that while serving as parish priest of Our Lady of Mercy parish, Paneer, a few kilometres from Mudipu, Bantwal, a few Hindus arrived in the night, asking him to accompany them to administer final sacraments to a sick parishioner in the neighbourhood of Mudipu.
The men had conspired to slay the priest, due to his tireless missionary activities. When they reached the top of the Hill, the men tried to kill him. The serene Vaz knelt down on the rock and held his stick straight on the ground. A light flashed in their midst and the men could see water gushing from the spots where he knelt. Owing to this miracle, the men fled from the scene and Vaz returned to the parish unharmed. A shrine dedicated to him was constructed at that very site at Mudipu. It is visited annually by thousands of pilgrims and devotees, seeking blessings and cures for various ailments.
The new archbishop, Manuel de Sousa e Menezes, arrived in Goa and was displeased with Vaz on account of the agreement he had made with De Castro. When Vaz sought permission to return to Goa, the request was refused by the archbishop. After the archbishop's death in 1684, however, the cathedral chapter of Goa allowed him to return to Goa, replacing him with Nicholas de Gamhoa, one of his former assistants.
When Vaz returned to Goa, he spent his time preaching in the surrounding villages. He also joined a group of priests of the archdiocese who had decided to live together in a religious community. The group was formally erected as a community of the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri on 25 September 1685, the first native religious community in the diocese. They took charge of the Church of the Holy Cross of Miracles, where they established their residence. Vaz was elected first provost of the community.
Sri Lanka mission (1687–1711)
Hearing of the distressful situation of the Catholics of Ceylon who reportedly had no priests for many years, Vaz desired to go to their rescue. But instead he was named Superior of the Canara Mission, a post which he occupied for three years. In 1686, Vaz obtained permission to give up this office and to proceed to Ceylon. He stopped in the Keladi Kingdom in 1686–1687 for a few months on his way to Ceylon, where helped by his companions, he attended to the spiritual needs of the local Christians. Disguised as a mendicant, he reached the port of Tuticorin on Easter Sunday 1687.
On landing at Jaffna, Vaz found a strong Calvinist presence. As Catholic priests were banned by the Dutch authorities, he had to travel under the guise of a mendicant and to work in secret. He travelled barefoot as an Indian sanyasi.
Vaz suffered from acute dysentery, contracted from the terrible travelling conditions. Upon recovering, he began contacting Catholics and hiding from the Dutch. He was taken in and ministered to his secret flock by night. In 1689, taking up his residence in a village called Sillalai where the Catholics were numerous and resolute, Vaz succeeded in reviving the spirit of the faithful. In 1690, he was forced to change his quarters for Puttalam, where he worked with great success for a whole year.
In 1692, Vaz settled in Kandy, the capital of the independent Kingdom of Kandy, as his centre of operations. On his arrival, he was deemed to be a Portuguese spy and was imprisoned with two other Catholics. There he learned Sinhala, the local language. They were left alone by the prison guards as long as they didn't try to escape and he built a hut-church and later a proper church dedicated to Our Lady, and began converting other prisoners.
Making the most of his new-found freedom, Vaz made a mission visit to the Dutch-controlled areas and visited Catholics in Colombo. Three missionaries from the Oratory of Goa arrived in 1697 to help him, with the news that Pedro Pacheco, Bishop of Cochin, had appointed Vaz as Vicar General in Ceylon. He was organising the basic mission structure when smallpox broke out in Kandy. His work with the sick convinced the king to allow Vaz freedom in his labours.
Vaz carried his mission to the main centres of the island. Between 1687 to 1711, he was at the head of a group of Goan Bamonn priests who under his leadership and inspiration, mixed and moved about under cover sustaining the persecuted Roman Catholic population in Ceylon.
Vaz returned to Kandy in 1699 with a fellow priest, Joseph de Carvalho, who had been expelled at the instigation of Buddhist monks. He completed the construction of his new church, and went into service for the king, translating Portuguese books into Sinhala. From this vantage point, Vaz intensified his ministry, and converted some Sinhalese notables. New missionaries arrived in 1705, which enabled him to organise the mission into eight districts, each led by a priest. He worked on the creation of Catholic literature comparable to that of the Buddhists, and to affirm the rights of Catholics with those of the Dutch Calvinist Government. Vaz humbly declined the offer made to him in 1705, to be the bishop and first Vicar Apostolic of Ceylon, preferring to remain a simple missionary. For this reason, he is often depicted with a mitre beside him.
King Vimaldharna Surya II, Vaz's patron, died in 1707, but Vira Narendra Sinha, his successor, proved to be an even greater supporter. New missionaries arrived in 1708. In 1710, despite health problems, Vaz took another apostolic trip. On his return, he fell ill. He recovered from a series of infections and fevers, but was left weakened. He undertook eight days of spiritual exercises prescribed by the Oratorian Rule, but before the seventh day he died at Kandy on 16 January 1711, aged 59.
The process was begun in Goa, and a number of miracles were registered. But the non-fulfilment of certain essential formalities led Pope Benedict XIV to cancel the proceedings, with an order, however, that they should be re-instituted. The Apostolic Delegate of the East Indies, Ladislaus Zaleski (1852–1925), who was resident in Kandy, kept hearing reports of this saintly priest. He did his own research about him, was a great admirer of Joseph Vaz and published a multi-issued biography of him. The beatification process was resumed later and completed in 1953 by the Archdiocese of Goa and Daman. On 21 January 1995, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Colombo.
Cause for canonisation
The canonisation process for Joseph Vaz to be declared a saint by the Catholic church is in progress. A Diocesan Inquiry of a miracle attributed to Vaz was to take place in the month of October 2013. In November 2013, Patriarch Filipe Neri Ferrao stated that the cause for Vaz's canonisation had reached a 'crucial stage'.
So far the only school named in honor of Vaz is the Joseph Vaz College of Wennappuwa, which was founded in January 1935 by the Marist Brothers (initiated 1933).
There is a parish dedicated to Vaz in Mudipu. There is also a chapel under his patronage in a remote village called Aluthwewa, about 10 miles off Galewela, in the Parish of Wahakotte. There is a small community of Christians who are migrant farmers from Wahakotte there who brought the devotion to him.
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