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Pope Francis canonises Sri Lanka’s first saint

By Sarah Mac Donald - 15 January, 2015

Pope Francis in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Pic: Time.com

Pope Francis in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Pic: Time.com

Catholic churches in Goa rang their bells in celebration on Wednesday when Pope Francis declared Goa native, Blessed Joseph Vaz, a saint in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo.

Speaking ahead of the ceremony, Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrao of Goa and Daman said the canonisation of Blessed Joseph Vaz was “the culmination of over three centuries of expectation and supplication on the part of his devotees from Goa, Mangalore, Sri Lanka and elsewhere”.

St Vaz is Sri Lanka’s first saint and the third of Indian to be canonised by the Vatican.

Fr Joseph Vaz was born on 21 April 21 1651 in Goa. The Oratorian priest arrived in Sri Lanka ‎as ‎a ‎missionary in April 1687 at a time ‎when Dutch colonisers persecuted Catholics ‎and ‎sponsored ‎Calvinism as the official religion.

He ‎travelled throughout the island bringing the ‎Eucharist ‎and the ‎sacraments to clandestine groups of ‎Catholics.

He died on January 16, 1711 in ‎Kandy.  He ‎was ‎declared Blessed by Pope John Paul II ‎in 1995 at a ceremony in Colombo.

St Vaz’s canonisation is seen as an example of Pope Francis’s readiness to name saints, from the developing parts of the world.

Early on Wednesday morning, Pope Francis arrived at Galle Face Green, an urban park in the heart of the financial district of Colombo which stretches five hectares up to the coast of the Indian Ocean and can hold up to half a million people.

Twenty years ago, on 15 January 1995, St John Paul II celebrated Mass in the same location and proclaimed Joseph Vaz blessed.

As more than half a million people waited in the park, the Pope was greeted by the mayor of Colombo, who presented him with the keys to the city.

In his homily for the canonisation, Pope Francis said Blessed Vaz “like countless other missionaries in the history of the Church … responded to the Risen Lord’s command to make disciples of every nation.”

“In St Joseph we see a powerful sign of God’s goodness and love for the people of Sri Lanka.”

“But we also see in him a challenge to persevere in the paths of the Gospel, to grow in holiness ourselves, and to testify to the Gospel message of reconciliation to which he dedicated his life.”

The Pope cited three reasons that St Joseph Vaz continues to be an example and a teacher.

“First, he was an exemplary priest. I encourage each of you to look to St Joseph as a sure guide. He teaches us how to go out to the peripheries, to make Jesus Christ everywhere known and loved. He is also an example of patient suffering in the cause of the Gospel, of obedience to our superiors, of loving care for the Church of God.”

Like ourselves, St Joseph Vaz lived in a period of rapid and profound transformation; Catholics were a minority, and often divided within; there was occasional hostility, even persecution, from without.

The new saint, explained Pope Francis, “shows us the importance of transcending religious divisions in the service of peace.”

His undivided love for God opened him to love for his neighbour; he ministered to those in need, whoever and wherever they were. His example continues to inspire the Church in Sri Lanka today.

The Church in Sri Lanka, the Pope said, gladly and generously serves all members of society.

“She makes no distinction of race, creed, tribe, status or religion in the service she provides through her schools, hospitals, clinics, and many other charitable works. All she asks in return is the freedom to carry out this mission.”

“Religious freedom is a fundamental human right. Each individual must be free, alone or in association with others, to seek the truth, and to openly express his or her religious convictions, free from intimidation and external compulsion.”

The Pope continued, “As the life of Saint Joseph Vaz teaches us, genuine worship of God bears fruit not in discrimination, hatred and violence, but in respect for the sacredness of life, respect for the dignity and freedom of others, and loving commitment to the welfare of all.”

He said St Joseph gives the Church an example of missionary zeal.

“Though he came to Ceylon to minister to the Catholic community, in his evangelical charity he reached out to everyone. Leaving behind his home, his family, the comfort of his familiar surroundings, he responded to the call to go forth, to speak of Christ wherever he was led.”

“St Joseph knew how to offer the truth and the beauty of the Gospel in a multi-religious context, with respect, dedication, perseverance and humility.”

“This is also the way for the followers of Jesus today. We are called to go forth with the same zeal, the same courage, as Saint Joseph, but also with his sensitivity, his reverence for others, his desire to share with them that word of grace which has the power to build them up. We are called to be missionary disciples”.

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