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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

St. Joseph Vaz Calms the Elephants

It is shocking that more people are unaware of St. Joseph Vaz (Vas), who was the most influential Christian missionary to Asia after St. Francis Xavier. is missionary travels are epic tales worthy of any young man's attention. It is fitting we consider some episodes from the life of St. Joseph Vaz, especially on his feast day, January 16.

Some of these occurrences, such as separating a river in flood during the monsoon rains, calming wild elephants, and going head-to-head with devil worshiping wizards in the Kandyan kingdom of Ceylon to pray for rain during a bad drought, would not be out of place in the Old Testament. Buddhist monks documented the latter incident in the historical chronicle known as 'Culavamsa,' which covers the reigns of the island's kings from the fourth century until 1815.

Joseph Vaz was born on April 21, 1651, in the Portuguese province of Goa in India. His grandparents' house in which he was born and baptized still stands in the tiny village of Benaulim. Even as a little lad of seven, his devotion to the Blessed Sacrament led him to pray all night at the local church, and this eventually developed into a calling to the Priesthood. Due to the ban on native Priests entering religious orders in Asia, he felt compelled to pursue a religious vocation and founded an Oratory of St. Philip Neri in the town of Sancoale. Many of his nephews accompanied him to the Oratory he established, demonstrating the devotion of the Vaz family.

The Calvinist Dutch, who had taken control of several of the Portuguese territories in Asia, were persecuting Catholics on the neighboring island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and Father Joseph heard about it. After a century of peaceful evangelization by the Portuguese, led by St. Francis Xavier, the Dutch effectively denied Catholics on the island of Ceylon access to the sacraments by arresting and expelling any remaining priests who happened to be white Europeans. The Bishop of Cochin, whose Diocese included the island, and the Portuguese government were powerless to prevent the situation.

Once Father Vaz had surmounted the many roadblocks set up by the Vatican's Propaganda Fidei and the local jurisdiction of the Portuguese padroado, he sought to sneak onto the island as a common laborer. After a shipwreck off the coast of northern Ceylon, he finally made landing in Mannar in May or June of 1687, unable to bring any of his possessions with him on his journey.

Playing cat-and-mouse with the Dutch authorities who had been tipped off to the presence of a Priest in their nation, Father Vaz made contact with Catholics and celebrated the Sacraments with them despite the flooding of the Deduru Oya river. He baptized and confirmed many children and adults, he regularized marriages, and offered the Holy Sacrifice of Mass in areas where an entire generation of Catholics had been deprived of Priestly ministry.

When the house where Father Vaz was celebrating Mass was surrounded by Dutch persuviants because a traitorous informer had revealed his presence, Father Vaz marched out the front door, fully vested and carrying the Chalice, in plain sight yet unobserved.

Father Vaz's portrait with a second-class relic of a garment on display at the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in London recounts how he frequently hid out in the island's mountainous interior, which was never colonized by the Dutch. Despite this, he was eventually arrested as a Dutch spy and presented to the court of King Vimaladharmasoriya II in Kandy.

But his captors were so charmed by Father Vaz's piety and sound advice that they came to trust him. Father Joseph Vaz offered to pray for rain in exchange for his freedom when a severe drought threatened a catastrophic collapse of crops and the independence of the Kandyan kingdom. A massive stage was set up in front of the palace, and the King's own magicians and so-called "priests" accepted the challenge, performing their own rain-making procedures to no result. According to the Culavamsa:

"The skies opened up with thunder and lightning and a torrential deluge drowned everything, except the point where Father Joseph Vaz knelt," as soon as Father Joseph Vaz began praying. The King was so moved by the miracle and by Father Vaz's devotion that he granted permission for the construction of a Christian church within the city limits of Kandy—a first for any religion other than Buddhism or Hinduism.

The establishment of an Oratory in Kandy followed a longstanding tradition and the will of St. Philip Neri, who established the original Oratory in Rome and served as a template for subsequent Oratories. Over time, the King gave Father Vaz free reign to come and go from the kingdom as he chose. Father Jacome Goncalves, another Oratorian from Goa, and a string of others quickly followed him, establishing a permanent missionary presence in Kandy from which they regularly ventured to the Kingdom of Jaffna to the north and Dutch-controlled coastal regions.

King Vimaladharmasuriya II held Father Vaz in such high esteem that whenever the royal entourage passed Father Vaz's house, the king would dismount his elephant and walk barefoot. This was in response to the 1697 Kandy pox epidemic, which saw everyone of working age flee the city, leaving Father Vaz and the Oratorians to care for the sick and dying. Although the King did not convert, one of his nephews did, and that nephew eventually moved to Portugal and became a Catholic priest.

On January 16, 1711, Father Vaz passed away after years of heroic missionary labor in which a Catholic cultural identity was restored to Ceylon and a flourishing Catholic literature was created in both Singhaleese and Tamil.

In 1730, Joseph Vaz's first biographer, Father Sebastian do Rego, a Priest of the Goan Oratory of St. Philip Neri and a nephew of the St. Joseph Vaz, said that Joseph's strength for his great missionary exertions came from the profound solitude and life of prayer he led, coupled with an intense devotion to the Sacraments and Sacred Liturgy Despite his disdain for earthly glory, he was chosen to be the Vicar Apostolic of Ceylon by the Sacred Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fidei). However, he refused to travel to Portuguese-controlled India to be consecrated as a bishop.

Unfortunately, Father Vaz's Ceylon Oratory eventually fell apart because it was never properly erected in Canon law as a separate entity from Goa. Additionally, the Oratory in Ceylon fell in the same year (1835) that the Goan Oratory did, when all religious houses in Portuguese territory were confiscated by the state government. No one knows where the St. Joseph Vaz was laid to rest, hence there are no priceless relics to be found. What remains, however, is a healthy Church in Sri Lanka, one whose members are devoted to their faith but whose piety is grounded in a natural spirituality.

St. Joseph Vaz, the Apostle of Ceylon, pray for us.


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