Joseph Vaz: Sri Lanka's First Saint

Joseph Vaz: Sri Lanka's First Saint

The statue of Joseph Vaz is pictured during his canonisation mass in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo. (AFP Photo)

Colombo, Sri Lanka:  Sri Lanka's first saint was a 17th century missionary whose role in reviving the Catholic faith during religious persecution by Dutch colonisers gives him a contemporary resonance on the island.

Pope Francis will canonise Joseph Vaz on Wednesday at a public mass on the Colombo seafront which is expected to be attended by a million devotees.

The pope is expected to preach a message of reconciliation during his visit to Sri Lanka, which only recently emerged from a long civil war between government troops and Tamil separatists.

Although Sri Lanka has claimed him as its first saint, Vaz was actually born in Goa on India's west coast -- then a Portuguese colony.

He went to Sri Lanka in 1687 to minister to the scattered faithful after Dutch colonisers who had seized the island's coastal areas from the Portuguese began persecuting Catholics for fear they would remain loyal to their former rulers.

Vaz travelled from village to village ministering to Catholics from both the Tamil and the majority Sinhalese ethnic groups.

He had to disguise himself as a beggar because the Dutch had banned Catholic priests from the island, and he spent several of his 23 years in Sri Lanka in jail for his work.

By the time of his death in 1711 he had largely rebuilt the Catholic Church, earning him the title "Apostle of Sri Lanka".

He is credited with caring for smallpox victims abandoned by their families out of fear of contagion.

"The people who saw him work were amazed," said Sri Lankan priest Anthony Fernandopulle.

"What he did so bravely, even at the risk of contracting the disease himself, was in their eyes a miracle of charity."

Vaz was beatified by Pope John Paul II during a brief one-day visit to Sri Lanka in 1995.

He is credited with one miracle -- the survival of a baby boy whose mother prayed to him after she was told her child had only a one percent chance of living.

The baby, called Cosme J Costa, went on to serve as a Catholic priest in neighbouring India.

"It was the great faith of my mother that saved my life," Costa told an Indian newspaper after the Vatican announced it had approved Vaz as a saint.

"I have no words to express my joy and gratitude to God for having heard the prayers of countless Goans, Sri Lankans and devotees all over the world for the last three centuries for this great day."

The Vatican usually attributes one miracle for beatification and another for canonisation, but Pope Francis approved Vaz's sainthood without attributing a second miracle.

Sri Lanka is mainly a Buddhist country, and its Catholic minority accounts for around six percent of the population.

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