Catholics prepare to celebrate Saint Joseph Vaz
by Melani Manel Perera

Festivities begin tonight with vespers. An interfaith prayer and Mass will be held tomorrow. Seniors, youth and children participated in the flag-raising ceremony. The saint “strengthens our faith in Christ".

Maha-Galgamuwa (Asia News) – Everything is ready for the great celebration, starting with vespers, to honour Saint Joseph Vaz, the Indian priest considered the Apostle of Sri Lanka and the country’s first saint, canonised by Pope Francis during his pastoral visit it 2015.

Like every year, the ceremony is held in Maha-Galgamuwa, the village in central-western Sri Lanka that houses a church dedicated to the saint and where the first national shrine in his honour is under construction.

A liturgical commemoration will take place tomorrow in the village, preceded by an inter-faith prayer of an hour and a half.

Speaking to AsiaNews, the parish priest, Fr Alex Janaka, said the Mass "will be concelebrated by Mgr Justin Gnanapragasam, bishop of Jaffna, and Mgr Harold Anthony, bishop of Kurunegala. We expect a large crowd, like past years. People are very devoted to Saint Joseph."

Born in 1651 into a Portuguese family in India, he landed on the island of Ceylon in 1687 to support local Catholics during the persecution by Dutch Calvinists. Pope John Paul II described him as the greatest missionary Asia has ever had.

First, he understood the urgent need to rebuild the local Christian community and gave impetus to priestly training and lay outreach. To this end, he set up the Congregation of the Oratory in Goa to train missionaries to be sent to Sri Lanka. He studied the island’s two main languages, Sinhala and Tamil, in order to establish friendly relations with Buddhist monks.

The ceremony included a flag-raising ceremony. On Friday, residents in the Tamil village, from children to senior citizens, hoisted the flag at the main staff and hung flags around the church. The recitation of the Rosary and a Mass followed later in Tamil ad Sinhalese.

School principal L. Gratian said that children are very devoted to the saint. "Now that we have a saint, we know that we can ask him anything. Saint Joseph Vaz looks after us," the children said.

For Joseph Selestian, the 64-year-old sacristan, residents are “very fortunate to have been born in the holy village where the saint lived for years. Our beloved Saint Joseph Vaz strengthens our faith in Christ."