Blessed Joseph Vaz
Joseph Vaz was born on April 21st 1651 at Benaulim, in Goa on the west coast of India. After his ordination in 1676, he went for a few years to the nearby territory of Canara, where he became well-known for his zeal. When he returned to Goa, he became associated with a small group of priests, who wanted to lead a common life. Joseph proposed that they should adopt the rule of the Oratory, founded by St Philip Neri a century before, for priests living in community without vows. And so it was that St Philip, who had wanted to go to the missions, but had come to realise that ‘Rome was to be his Indies’, became the inspiration of a community of four priests in Goa.
St Philip’s missionary zeal was not lost on Joseph, who became increasingly concerned with the plight of the Church on the island of Ceylon. No priest had been able to minister there for fifty years, because of restrictions imposed by the Dutch rulers of the island, who proscribed Catholicism, and spared no efforts in trying to draw Catholics away from their faith. Joseph felt that something must be done, and so he set off on foot with only two companions, first, for the south of India and then, if God willed, Ceylon. It seemed madness: the distance, the lack of means, his ignorance of the languages, the danger of trying to evade the Dutch blockade. But no-one could dissuade him, and in 1686 he landed at Jaffna, on the coast of Ceylon.
But difficulties he had encountered on the journey took their toll: he fell gravely ill, and was abandoned by one of his two companions. In time he recovered, and began trying to establish contact with those Catholics who lived hidden in the area of Jaffna. Eventually he was able to discover a few, and these first discoveries soon led to more. So in spite of the ever-present danger of arrest and death, there began a regular apostolate of reconciling those who had fallen away from their faith, encouraging and ministering to the faithful, and gaining converts. Going about his duties dressed as a beggar, keeping his needs to the barest minimum, for nine years Joseph travelled around the island, engaged in his missionary work. Often the Dutch were hot on his trail but he repeatedly evaded them, enhancing his reputation as one under the special protection of divine providence.
Once he had become more used to the local conditions and had mastered the languages of the island, Cingalese and Tamil, Joseph began to venture into the jungle, endeavouring to reach the independent kingdom of Kandy, situated in the mountainous interior. He was arrested as a spy, and imprisoned at the royal court of Kandy. He eventually succeeded in obtaining his release, by performing some acts which convinced the king, Vimaladharma Suriya, that he was under the special protection of God. Foremost among these was the miracle of the rain. One year the rains failed and the people were on the point of starvation. In a scene reminiscent of that of Elijah and the priests of Baal, the king ordered his own priests to pray in their temples, but their prayers were to no avail. He then called upon Joseph, who built an altar among the people, knelt and prayed. The result was a downpour of rain drenching everybody except Joseph and his altar.
From then on he was allowed to exercise his apostolate throughout the kingdom of Kandy with the king’s blessing. He could now be joined by two other priests from the Oratory at Goa, and so there came into being the Oratorian mission to Ceylon, which was of such spiritual benefit to the island. Joseph and his brethren were gradually able to establish the full life of the Catholic Church in Ceylon, and this not only in the independent territories of the interior, but also in Dutch-controlled areas, where the example of faith and commitment set by Joseph’s converts led the Dutch to grant them grant the Church a measure of toleration. By the beginning of the 18th century the Church in Ceylon was flourishing.
Fame of Joseph and his sanctity spread, first to Goa, and eventually to Rome itself, where Pope Clement XI gave his blessing to the Oratorian missionaries. Conversions passed the 100,000 mark and many churches were built. Kandy became, together with Colombo, the seat of the Dutch governor, the centre from which the Faith spread throughout the island.
After 22 years’ work in Ceylon, Joseph felt that his end was approaching and so retired from the active apostolate to prepare himself for his death by a life of yet more intense prayer. He died peacefully in Kandy on January 16th 1711. Humble, poor, spent in the service of Christ, Joseph laid down a life which had won thousands to the Church and written a notable page in the history of the Church in Asia.
In the light of modern circumstances the life of Joseph Vaz can be seen in its full glory, with all its social and religious implications. Besides his life of evident holiness and prayer, and determination to do whatever was necessary to further the Gospel, he founded the first religious community comprised of local native people, as opposed to missionary priests from far away, and was a pioneer of the idea of full adaptation to local conditions. In 1835 the Oratory at Goa was suppressed and with it died also the Oratorian mission to Ceylon. But the descendants of those whom Joseph and his Oratorian community had served never forgot what he had done for them, and on 21st January 1995 Joseph Vaz was beatified by Pope John Paul II.
O God, who granted your Church to shed light throughout the lands of Asia through the ministry and example of your priest, Blessed Joseph, look upon your people, who were instructed by him with the Word of God, and nourished with the heavenly Sacrament, and grant that through his intercession our faith may flourish more and more, and we be made faithful witnesses to your Gospel. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.