Insights into the life of remarkable missionary
By By Rita Jayatilleke
"Walk in His Divine Presence"
-St. Joseph Vaz
Celebrating him and his "Walk in His Divine Presence" Another Perspective
Today, his is a household name in our mother land Sri Lanka, esteemed honoured and revered not only by Catholics but people of all religions and races. The large crowds that gathered on Galle Face Green on January 15th 2015, to witness and celebrate his canonization by Pope Francis, bear eloquent testimony to the place he has earned in the hearts of all Sri Lankans.
His was a long and arduous journey, both literally and metaphorically for little "Mhojea Santulea" – "My Little Saint", affectionately called so by his mother, Maria de Miranda, to be proclaimed a Saint.
He was born in the year 1615 and came to Sri Lanka in 1687, at the young age of 36 years. Until his death in 1711, he "Walked in His Divine Presence" carrying out his divine mission of selfless devotion in the cause of the persecuted Catholics. Cast ashore on the sands of this Fair Isle, he found himself exposed and vulnerable but was ready to face turmoil, tribulations and future uncertainties. Unafraid, he relentlessly pursued his mission. He countered the huge obstacles that confronted him with implicit faith, trust in the Lord and immense love for God and his fellowmen.
He had no roof above his head nor sandals on his feet. The open blue sky gave him protection and to him the sky was his limit. That was the zeal that prompted him to wander from one place to another, through snake-infested glades encountering elephants but pursued his mission with the great vision of firmly establishing the Catholic Church once again. He walked with the "ordinary" – the poor, the marginalised, the down-trodden and the persecuted. At the same time he walked with equanimity with the "Not so-ordinary" in the persons of King Vimaladharma Suriya II and his son Narendrasinha. They held the young priest in high regard. His was a fine spirit of hope and achievement and rightfully is he acknowledged as the Second Founder of the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka.
Anecdotes have been compiled, books written and re-written, dramas staged here and abroad and a film produced to give us and the world an insight into the life and missionary work of this humble man who rose from obscurity to Sainthood, from humility to holiness for he always 'Walked in His Divine Presence'. What is remarkable is that through them all what emerges, is the Saint's vibrant and unfathomable depth of love for the Lord.
His spiritual journey began at a very early age. An old neighbour Antonio Cardoze from Sancole would often say, "Little does Sancole know what treasure it has. Time will show the lustre of the pearl that God has entrusted to his parents". Indeed, time has proved how truly right he was.
Was it a twist of fate that prompted little Joseph to reach out to the beggars at Sancole and Benaulin? He cleaned and bandaged their wounds and gave away a portion of his own food unnoticed by his parents and family. He comforted those who rallied round him, not just for food, but for the soothing consolation he lavished on them so freely. It is ironic that one day he himself would be a beggar in disguise to escape capture, torture and persecution.
Joseph was a deeply prayerful young man. At night, he would slip out of the house through the window, climb over the leaning branch of the Jak tree, walk in the dark to the church and spend the whole night in adoration. The closed door of the church would open on its own to welcome him. The Jak tree, over 450 years old, under which he often played and climbed out of the window still remains. On a lighter note, it remains, a silent sturdy living witness to his spiritual escapades.
At the age of twenty, he received minor orders and in 1676, he was ordained priest. From then to 1687, many important events took place that led him to serve God in different places. He was appointed Vicar of the Canara Mission and in 1685, he joined a small community of Goan priests who eventually formed themselves into the first religious Congregation of indigenous clergy, under the name – "Oratory of St. Philip Neri". Father Vaz was their first superior. He was acclaimed as a great preacher. He taught Latin to the boys who aspired for priesthood or opted for higher studies in his village, but, his heart was elsewhere. His heart yearned to come to Ceylon, as it was known then, to save and serve the persecuted Catholics.
Then began the journey, a journey he entrusted to the Lord, a journey that would demand selfless service, supreme sacrifice and commitment, a journey he undertook as proclaimed in his own words – 'Walk in His Divine Presence'. How else could he have achieved what he did in the cause of the cruelly persecuted Catholic Church? And how did the journey begin? The ship he sailed in was caught in a tempest of exceptional fury, storm-tossed in the Gulf of Mannar and cast ashore. From there, he proceeded to Jaffna.
Thence onwards his ministry extended to the whole island, reviving the faith, in spite of Catholics being arrested, fined, flogged and imprisoned.
Kandy was more favourable for his work. Though imprisoned as a Portugese spy for two years, he was released, when it became known that he was harmless and only interested in upholding the Christian faith. The outbreak of Smallpox gave definition to the heroic charity displayed by this Son of Goa who became the 'Apostle of Sri Lanka'. His work was intense, laborious but rewarding.
He didn't need churches to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. Two pieces of stick were transformed into a Cross in his hands. His cassock was patched up, thread bare but encased within was a profound heart devoted to God, with a mind to serve and persistently insistent hands to labour for His glory. Hence the completion of the new church of Our Lady in Kandy on 8th September 1699, marks an important milestone along his arduous journey.
It is truly remarkable that one of his earliest pupils was his own nephew, Joseph Carvalho, his sister Angela's son. The love and fellowship they enjoyed led him to follow his uncle Father Joseph Vaz, everywhere; to Kannara, to priesthood, to the Congregation of the Oratory and finally to Ceylon. He worked tirelessly beside his uncle, sharing his life of service and suffering. Another of his pupils was Joseph de Menzes, who also became a priest, joined the Congregation of the Oratory, walked in the footsteps of his teacher, Fr. Joseph Vaz to Kannara and to Ceylon. He labored in the cause of the persecuted Catholic Church for twenty-seven years as the First companion of Father Vaz and his immediate successor. The three Josephs need to be remembered, honoured and celebrated for their dauntless courage and fortitude. By the year 1710, his work was accomplished. At midnight on Friday, the 16th of January 1711, in the twenty-fourth year of his apostolate in Ceylon, he breathed forth his soul to God. After three days of mourning, he was buried in a grave dug in the sanctuary of the church at the foot of the altar.
Today, we celebrate him and his faithfulness to his call. In the year 1713, just two years after his death, Dom Frey Pedro Pacheco, Bishop of Cochin who first appointed Father Vaz as his Vicar General, had it in his heart to begin the canonization project. But unfortunately he died and those who came after him, made no move in the matter as they did not know Father Joseph Vaz or his work. Efforts were made in the intervening years and a definite miracle was required by the Vatican. Many miracles were attributed to his intercession in both Goa and Sri Lanka, and then happened the miracle of miracles.
In the year 1938, Quiteria Carmela da Piadade Noronha was married to Damiao Da Costa from Aldona, Goa, India. In April 1938, four months into pregnancy, she experienced severe haemorrhage. Prayers were offered to Father Joseph Vaz, for his intercession. The next day, the haemorrhage stopped but on November 26th, the bleeding started afresh and caesarian at that time being considered particularly dangerous, friends and relatives of Quiteria Carmela implored God's help through the intercession of Fr. Joseph Vaz. Next morning, the 27th of November, the haemorrhage stopped suddenly, and without any surgery, that same evening a premature baby boy was born alive and he was named 'Cosme'. His middle name was Jose Vaz. He was weak from the beginning, born in the 7th month, only 1 Kilo 100 grams in weight. He could be held in the palm of one hand. In the words of Fr. Romnaldo Robin Rodrigues - "The cotton that covered him made him seem like a Moses in the ocean of Cotton". He was an extremely weak child and was ridiculed by his neighbours. His head often fell on the sides of his shoulders and he stammered and as a result, he could hardly express himself. His father prayed to Father Joseph Vaz to intercede on behalf of his son. In spite of these physical limitations, he passed his S. C. C. E. with great distinction and after High School expressed his wish to become a priest.
Due to these physical defects, in the Seminary too, he excelled in the written tests but the orals were a failure. After three months, the Superior asked his mother to take her son home. She tried to persuade Cosme to return home. There was a heated exchange of words between mother and son but Cosme through his tears said, "Mother go back home, don't cry. You had trust in Fr. Joseph Vaz, now go and pray to him to correct my stammering and my shaking head. I am not going home with you. Please go home. I have decided to become a priest. The Superiors have not told me anything to the contrary." The mother cried for her son and returned home, resigning herself to God's will and believing in her son's words. She had faith in Father Joseph Vaz. Meanwhile, Cosme felt an invisible force that he did not recognize at that time, pulling him to the library. An irresistible power dragged him to a certain book case and his eyes were directed to a book on "Voice Exercises". On browsing through the book he realized it was on how to control your voice and stop stammering.
The Seminary premises echoed with his loud shouts for one hour every day for a full year. With pebbles under his tongue, without any inhibitions, he shouted out his words and the stammer began to disappear gradually. His head started to straighten. Soon, the young Seminarian was ready to walk to the altar: to priesthood. There was no turning back. He passed his M.A. and B.Ed. He took over as Vice Principal and teacher of Angel High School for 10 years. He is Professor of Church History, Missiology and World History in the Pilar Seminary from 1983 to date. This was the miracle of miracles. It was this miracle of 1938 that was presented as the miracle for the beatification. This priest Fr. Cosme Jose Vaz, knelt at the feet of the Pope and cried out that Fr. Joseph Vaz was his guide and intercessor. His mother was 90 years old. She died in 1999 at the age of 94. Fr. Cosme has published many books including 'Life and Achievements of Blessed Joseph Vaz'. He was one of those who pursued the cause of Saint Joseph Vaz in India. He was also a member of the Committee of the cause of Canonization. It would indeed be a honour to meet him.
From a more reflective perspective, the Catholic Church prevails in Sri Lanka today, mainly due to the zeal undaunting spirit and bravery of the little brown clad figure, acclaimed as the Second Founder of the Church – the Apostle of Sri Lanka, Saint Joseph Vaz. The persecution of Catholics was the driving force that impelled him to venture forth, braving stormy seas and human atrocities. We move from the priest to the Saint, and try to fathom the message that he leaves the world today. The Catholic Church continues to face persecution in all parts of the world, including the so-called predominantly Christian countries, from verbal harassment to hostile feelings, attitudes and extreme and cruel persecution. Christians in areas with severe religious restrictions pay a heavy price for their faith including physical torture, confinement, isolation, rape, severe punishment, imprisonment, slavery, discrimination in education and employment, and death.
Religious persecution is essentially the denied freedom of the conscience which is to deny the ability to live in line with one's religious convictions and beliefs. Isn't the practice of one's religion, a time honoured basic right of every human being? Religious persecution is not an issue just for Christians, but a human rights issue that affects everyone. A survivor of Auschwitz, Eva Kor said, "Prejudice is an evil that can grow in all of us". Fight against prejudice in your own heart and in your community. Religious freedom is about our common humanity which is a major issue of our times. It is the right of everyone to have the freedom to choose, practice, share what they believe in without fear or compulsion.
Jesus Christ to whom Fr. Vaz gave witness fostered brotherhood and justice. History has acknowledged Him whose birth marked a new world order, splitting the Ages into B. C. – Before Christ and A. D. – Anno Domini. He is universally acclaimed as someone who has preached the message of peace and love. Father Joseph Vaz was a messenger of that sublime love.
In these difficult times we can surely turn to the Apostle of Sri Lanka, Saint Joseph Vaz for answers and inspiration and emulate the example he has set for us. From early childhood until his death, his life was one of sanctity and sacrifice and his strength of course was PRAYER. He leant heavily on prayer.
Let us bring to mind, the homily delivered by His Holiness, Pope John Paul II in Colombo on 21st January 1995, on the beatification of Father Joseph Vaz. Twenty-two years have gone by, but his words are for all climes and times, and echo the sentiments of all true Christians.
"Joseph Vaz, would count on the laity in the task of re-building the church in your country, he trained its leaders to look after Christ's scattered flock in the hour of difficulty.
Can we not see here a lesson for our own times? The church in Sri Lanka needs fervent Catholics who are "obedient to God's law, living as he would have us live and keeping all his laws and commands". She needs dedicated priests to proclaim the Gospel and celebrate the mysteries of our redemption; she needs religious who are living signs of the joy which comes from total dedication to the Lord and His works. There is also need for married couples whose faithful love will reflect the unbreakable bond of unity between Christ and his church; there is a need for Christian parents who will be the first teachers of the faith to their children. The church needs young people who will be apostles to their own generation like the hundreds of thousands and millions of young people who gathered in Manila for the 10th World Youth Day and recommitted themselves to transforming the world around them according to the Gospel demands of justice, peace and love. Like Joseph Vaz, who freely shared the truth he had received, everyone who has received the gift of faith is called to share that gift with others".
The Catholic Church has declared 2017 "The Year of Saint Joseph Vaz". During this special year, the church invites its faithful, emulating the example of Jesus and his servant Joseph Vaz, to focus on poverty alleviation and the spreading of harmony among people restoring the dignity of impoverished and marginalized people and importantly promote reconciliation and live peacefully with other religious and ethnic groups.
It is with a great sense of joy that we celebrate Saint Joseph Vaz, for as his life story unfolds, we realize the depth of his sanctity and the extent of his missionary work which was rooted in the historic city of Kandy and its environs. His remains lie buried somewhere in Kandy hallowing the sacredness of this city which embraces within it, people of all religions and races.
We take pride in the thought that it was the Bishop of Kandy, His Lordship Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph Vianney Fernando, who took the initiative and worked tirelessly towards the canonization.
Many other clergy and lay persons in Sri Lanka and Goa gave their unstinted support to realize this event of great moment. The extent of their love and labour cannot be denied.
At this moment, it is imperative to recall the opening words of Pope John Paul II at the beatification ceremony. "Acceding to the request of our brothers, Vianney Fernando, Bishop of Kandy, and Raul Nicolas Gonsalves, Archbishop of Goa, of many other brothers in the Episcopate, and of many of the faithful . . . . "
The precedence and place of honour given to the Bishop of Kandy are an eloquent expression of the unquestionable and pivotal role he played. He was Chairman of the Canonization Committee, and in this capacity, he met the Popes on several occasions. These audiences were the stepping stones. He was whole heartedly devoted to the labour of love he had undertaken. It was both an emotional and spiritual journey that he undauntedly took upon himself, with great pride in the Saint and in the Sanctity of his name sake "Joseph" who preserved and bequeathed to us, the faith that we so greatly cherish.
The Episcopal ordination of Bishop Vianney Fernando as Bishop of Kandy took place on 21st March 1983 and in the same year he was appointed Chairman, Blessed Vaz Secretariat which post he holds to date.
Life is rarely co-incidental. There is a plan purpose and design in things great and small. The hand of the Creator moves with definitive design. At the same time, that Bishop Vianney Fernando was engaged in the spiritual quest for the canonization, over there in Goa, the miracle boy, born in 1938, Cosme Jose Vaz Da Costa, now a priest was also a member of the Committee of the cause of canonization, of Blessed Joseph Vaz, and has been a driving force in pursuing the cause.
After the canonization too, Bishop Joseph Vianney Fernando has been visiting Seminaries, Churches and Schools to educate Catholics about the great missionary work of this servant of God.
We acclaim the Bishop of Kandy – Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph Vianney Fernando for his tireless efforts and spirit filled witness to the life of Saint Joseph Vaz. The distinct and unique role he played and the passionate voice he raised, have given us a Saint of our own. He has shared and continues to share with us the timeless declaration of God's plentiful love and mercy.
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