Asia’s greatest missionary since St Francis Xavier
Remarkably few people have heard of this Saint.
Considered the greatest missionary in Asia since St Francis Xavier, his missionary journeys are epic boy’s stories, better than anything Ian Fleming conjured up for James Bond. Some of these would not be out of place in the Old Testament, such as parting the waters of a flooded river during the monsoon rains, calming wild elephants, and going head to head with devil-worshipping magicians in the Kandyan kingdom of Ceylon.
Joseph Vaz was born on the 21st of April in 1651 in the Portuguese colony of Goa in India. His grandparent’s house – in which he was born – still exists, and is found in the small hamlet of Benaulim. The font in which he was baptized also still exists.
His devotion to the Blessed Sacrament saw him praying all night in the local church as a boy of seven, which matured into a vocation to the priesthood. Although native priests were barred from entering religious orders in Asia at that time, Vaz felt called to the life of a religious, and formed an Oratory after the style of St Philip Neri, in the town of Sancoale. The piety of the Vaz family is reflected in the fact that many of his nephews followed him to his newly founded Oratory.
News reached Father Joseph of Catholics in the neighbouring island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) being persecuted by the Calvinist Dutch, who had taken over some of the Portuguese colonies in Asia. After a century of peaceful evangelisation by the Portuguese, led by St Francis Xavier, the Catholics in the island of Ceylon were deprived of the sacraments with brutal efficiency by the Dutch. It had been easy to arrest and expel any priest remaining on the island since they were all white Europeans. The Portuguese authorities and the Bishop of Cochin (in whose territory the island lay) were helpless.
After the many obstacles placed by the Propaganda Fidei under the Holy See and the local jurisdiction were overcome, Vaz finally attempted to smuggle himself into the island disguised as a common labourer. The boat in which he travelled was wrecked just off the northern coast of Ceylon, but he made landfall in May or June 1687 in Mannar with none of the belongings he set out with. Thus began his mission.
Playing a game of cat and mouse with the Dutch authorities, who had been alerted of the presence of a priest in the country, Vaz made contact with Catholics and celebrated the Sacraments with them. Regularising marriages, baptising, confirming and celebrating Mass, where an entire generation of Catholics had not received Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
Father Vaz often took refuge in the territory unoccupied by the Dutch, in the mountainous interior of the island, but was arrested as a Dutch spy and presented to the court of King Vimaladharmasoriya II in the city of Kandy. Vaz spent almost all of 1692 incarcerated within the King’s palace.
Father Vaz eventually won the confidence of his captors who were impressed by his piety and wise counsel. When a severe drought threatened a calamitous failure of crops and the independence of the Kandyan kingdom, Vaz offered to pray for rain in exchange for his freedom.
A great stage was erected before the palace, and the King’s own magicians and ‘priests’ took up the challenge and performed their own rain-making ceremonies to no avail, before Father Vaz was brought on to the stage. The Culavamsa chronicles that ‘as soon as he began praying, thunder and lightning shook the air and a torrential downpour engulfed everything, except the spot where Father Joseph Vaz knelt’. Greatly impressed by the miracle and of his piety, the King allowed Vaz to build a Church within the confines of the City of Kandy, a hitherto unknown occurrence for a non-Buddhist or Hindu place of worship.
After a pox epidemic in Kandy in 1697, every able-bodied person including the King’s court abandoned the city, leaving Father Vaz and the Oratorians alone to minister to the sick and the dying. King Vimaladharmasuriya II held Vaz in such high esteem, that whenever the King’s entourage passed Father Vaz’s house, the King dismounted his elephant and walked barefoot. Although the King himself never converted to the faith, one of his nephews converted and eventually became a Catholic Priest.
Following many years of heroic missionary work leading to the reintroduction of Catholic culture in Ceylon and a flourishing of Catholic literature in both Singhaleese and Tamil, Father Vaz finally went to his eternal rest on the 16th of January 1711. Sadly, the Oratory founded by Father Vaz in Ceylon disintegrated with time, as it was never fully instituted as an independent Oratory from Goa. The Goan Oratory collapsed in 1835 when all religious houses in Portuguese territory were seized for the state.
There are no first class relics of the Saint, as no one knows where he was buried. What he left behind, however, is a vibrant Church in Sri Lanka, faithful and devout with a simple piety shaped from a naturally spiritual people. My family also owe our Catholic faith to the works of Saint Joseph Vaz, the Apostle of Ceylon.
Stuart Reiss is a family physician in the national health service in the United Kingdom.