03/16/2017, 16.21
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Saint Joseph Vaz, a pioneer in interfaith dialogue and a promoter of the laity in Sri Lanka

by Melani Manel Perera

This year has been dedicated to the Apostle of Sri Lanka. Born in India, he landed on the island in 1687 during the persecution by Dutch Calvinists. At that time there were no priests. He set up a religious congregation to train missionaries. He worked for the poor and the sick, for dialogue with other religions, and for the development of lay leaders.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – Saint Joseph Vaz was "a precursor of the Second Vatican Council, supporting interfaith dialogue and promoting the laity". He "was a man of faith and prayer," a "man who had a vision but also a clear plan for the Church in Sri Lanka during the period of persecution,” said Fr Reid Shelton Fernando, a Catholic priest, who spoke to AsiaNews about Sri Lanka’s first saint.

The local Church dedicated 2017 to the Apostle of Sri Lanka, who was canonised by Pope Francis during his pastoral visit to the South Asian nation in 2015.

Born in India in 1651 into a Portuguese family, he arrived in the island then called Ceylon in 1687 to support local Catholics at a time of persecution at the hands of Dutch Calvinists. Pope John Paul II described Joseph Vaz as the greatest missionary that Asia has ever had.

"He was an exemplary missionary,” Fr Shelton said. “He came to Sri Lanka because he had learnt that there were no priests to care for Catholic believers."

Saint Joseph Vaz was the first to understand the urgency of re-establishing the island’s Catholic community and give impetus to priestly training and the work of the laity. With this in mind, he set up the Congregation of the Oratory of Goa to train missionaries to be sent to Sri Lanka.

"For ten years, he worked all over the island, which he considered a single parish,” Fr Sheldon explained. “He also appointed lay spiritual leaders well integrated in society so that they could work for the welfare of the community."

The island-nation’s first saint learnt its two main languages, Sinhala and Tamil, in order to create "friendly relations with Buddhist monks.”

“He encouraged Fr Jacome Gonsalvez, his confrere, to do the same and get involved in cultural activities. He motivated him to compose literary works in both languages."

According to the clergyman, after 250 years, Saint Joseph Vaz’s example "is still valid today. He had good relations with everyone, and did not seek confrontation with the authorities. He was always a humble person, refusing an episcopal appointment in order to live as a missionary. For lay people, he was a role model for the simple life, in touch with the divine and with ordinary folks."

"He realised that the Church was not only for the hierarchy, but also for the people. He was also the first who sought good relations with people of different faiths.”

“This has not come about yet in Sri Lanka, 50 years after Vatican II. The Catholic Church has not become involved in serious dialogue with other Christian denominations and other religions."

Last but not least, "Saint Joseph Vaz was greatly involved with the poor and the needy. The love he had for them was clearly visible in the way he treated the sick. With his simple lifestyle, he instilled in people's minds [the conviction] that his holy missionary calling full of faith came from God."

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