Commentary: The courage of Sri Lanka’s first saint challenges today’s Church

Joseph Vaz devotion card

     The courage of Sri Lanka’s first saint challenges today’s Church

The  eyes of the faithful saw the saint in Joseph Vaz during his lifetime. But he had to wait 303 years after death for official acclaim of his sanctity. And now, will his canonization just niche him away on church walls or inspire emulation of his pastoral courage?

For many years, Church historians, pious groups in Goa and Sri Lanka’s Joseph Vaz National Secretariat kept the Vaz saga of sanctity alive. As secretariat chair and ordinary of Vaz’ final resting place, Bishop Vianney Fernando of Kandy harnessed people’s enthusiasm for the Vaz cause. Soon after Vaz was beatified in 1995, nine Lankan dioceses built 23 churches/chapels in his honor. At some 10 venues, devotees hold public prayer to seek his intercession.

Even before official approval of public veneration for the country’s first saint, in 1983 Archbishop Nicholas Marcus Fernando of Colombo pioneered a project to focus laity attention on a vital aspect of Vaz’ ministry. He founded Joseph Vaz Deva Dharma Niketanaya to teach theology in the Sinhala language. Now affiliated to Rome’s Urban University, the theologate has campuses in three other dioceses as well.

Up until now, this network has helped train catechists and lay cadres for apostolates. Hopefully, the Jan. 14 canonization should enthuse these campuses to take a lead in deeper study and wider sharing of hitherto unexplored lessons of the Vaz mission methods.

The life and mission of Sri Lanka’s first saint was uniquely heroic and prophetic in many ways. His own priestly zeal led him there in 1687 to serve Catholics abandoned by Portuguese colonizers and their clergy. After the Apostles of Jesus, he is the first known Asian missioner to have evangelized an Asian country. And he did it with the help of a few fellow-Indian priests. That is why Pope John Paul II named him the greatest missioner in Asia since Francis Xavier.

From the ruins of a Lusitanized Church deserted by the Portuguese, the Brahmin priest began to build a truly native Church. After studying the local language and culture, his pastoral team introduced indigenized para-liturgies to meet people’s spiritual needs. He set apart teams of writers to provide Catholic literature in Sinhala and Tamil. Though he led a minuscule religious community, Father Vaz intervened for the public good when floods and plagues hit the country. If the essence of his pastoral style became a guide to later European missioners to Lanka, it froze in a cultural winter. His vibrant witness to interreligious harmony and interethnic amity ended up fossilized.

Three centuries after Father Vaz’ death, the better method of celebrating his canonization would be to discern his message for today, not to blindly mimic his pastoral methods. Just as he set apart personnel for contextual apostolates such as writing and healing, will today’s Church prioritize current apostolic needs and pastoral challenges?

More importantly, will the example of his personal holiness and commitment challenge Catholics and their pastors to holiness of prophetic witness, the essence of our Christian faith? Just the way the Vaz team ministered to smallpox victims, there is a need for pastoral teams to speak up for victims of today’s bigger-pox: injustice, oppression and corruption.

Some Sri Lankan dioceses are so blessed with a glut of priests that seniors may opt to make way for younger clergy. In such a scenario, let volunteers go on Vaz-style mission to needy regions and apostolates.

Maybe, the new Asian theological institute to be blessed by Pope Francis in Negombo could be the nucleus for an Asian program of reverse mission of prophetic social ministry. Such emulation of the great missioner’s pastoral vision and style will be the better way of bringing alive his canonization. It will also resonate the challenge to “apostolic courage to come out of itself” that Cardinal Bergoglio presented to the Church, just before he was elected pope.

Hector Welgampola

welgampo@gmail.com

Hector Welgampola

Veteran Asian Church journalist Hector Welgampola from Sri Lanka has retired as Executive Editor of the former Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) based in Hong Kong, then Bangkok. Before UCAN, Hector headed editorial teams of newspapers in Sri Lanka. Since retiring Hector has lived in Australia with his wife, Rita. He authored the resource book Asian Church Glossary and Stylebook.

Papal Visit 2015 Sri Lanka: Pope Francis will be there – Cardinal Ranjith

Sri Lanka, screen shot

Sri Lanka, screen shot

Preparations continue, and the Papal visit will take place, despite the doubts that clouded the event in the last months. The Sri-Lankan Church confirms Pope Francis’ pilgrimage from the 13th to the 15th of January; but President Mahinda Rajapaksa also confirms presidential elections on the 8th of January. In this state of affairs, the Pope is, whether he wants to or not, one of the deciding factors in the electoral campaign, in a contest between two candidates that promises to be very balanced. And, hopefully, it will be ‘free from any violence’ as the two candidates wished together in a public statement.

The first unavoidable aspect is exploitation…

Read full report ,La Stampa

Gearing up for Papal Visit 2015, Bl. Vaz canonization – pastoral letter

WELCOMING THE VICAR OF CHRIST ON THE OCCASION OF THE CANONIZATION OF BLESSED JOSEPH VAZ

PASTORAL LETTER ISSUED BY THE CATHOLIC BISHOPS’ CONFERENCE OF SRI LANKA

Sri Lanka, screen shot

Sri Lanka, screen shot

We are eagerly awaiting the arrival of His Holiness Pope Francis on our soil on January 13, 2015 as the Vicar of Christ and the Successor of Peter. It is with great joy that we welcome our Holy Father into our midst.

Already by the simplicity of his life, his sense of evangelical poverty and Christ like compassionate love, specially for the poor and the suffering, the Holy Father has become a much revered and loved spiritual leader of the whole world. The Pope’s visit therefore, is a great blessing not only to the Church in Sri Lanka but also to the whole Nation. All preparations are underway and are progressing smoothly to welcome the Holy Father.

The Holy Father will arrive on January 13, 2015 at 9.00 am at Bandaranaike International Airport and after the preliminary State Welcome, the Holy Father will proceed to the Archbishop’s House for a meeting with the Bishops. On the 13th at 5.00 pm, His Holiness will pay a courtesy call on the President of the country and at 6.00 pm the Holy Father will meet Religious Leaders of all faiths, at the BMICH. The highlight of the Holy Father’s visit undoubtedly will be the Canonization of our Beloved Apostle, at a Holy Mass to be presided over by the Supreme Pontiff, at Galle Face Esplanade on January 14, 2015 at 8.30 am. The same afternoon His Holiness will proceed to the Hallowed Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu, for a prayer service. The following morning. after a short visit to the Chapel of Our Lady of Lanka at the Benedict XVIth Institute at Bolawalana, Negombo, the Holy Father will leave our shores at 9.00 am.

We, therefore, exhort all our faithful, Clergy and Religious, to flock to Galle Face Esplanade for the Holy Mass, during which we shall receive the First Saint of Mother Lanka, on January 14, 2015 in large numbers, as this is a unique occasion for all of us.

Our Joy of the visit of the Universal Shepherd is further enhanced by the decision of the Holy Father to Canonise our beloved Apostle, Blessed Joseph Vaz.

Joseph Vaz devotion card

We have prayed earnestly and yearned for this day to dawn. We thank God our loving Father for His unfailing providential care in saving the faith of our forefathers through the indefatigable labours of this great missionary.

We are deeply indebted to Blessed Joseph Vaz for his zeal, heroic sanctity and unquenchable thirst for souls that made him to come to our land and to help our forefathers to be strengthened in their faith.

We, therefore, exhort all our faithful, Clergy and Religious, to flock to Galle Face Esplanade for the Holy Mass, during which we shall receive the first Saint of Mother Lanka, on January 14, 2015, in large numbers, as this is a unique occasion for all of us.

In the coming weeks, we exhort all our faithful, Clergy and Religious to embark on a program me of deep spiritual preparation for both events, namely the Canonisation and the Papal Visit. For this purpose, we urge that all our parishes and Catholic institutions organize programmes of spiritual preparation:

a. The special thanksgiving prayer to be recited in our Churches and Institutions, after the Holy Mass. (If you do not have sufficient number of prayer cards for this purpose, each parish is requested to get them printed in the relevant languages and distribute it to all the faithful).

b. Exhort the faithful to light the altar lamp in every home and after the Family Rosary for the intentions of the Holy Father, recite the prayer of thanksgiving and sing the hymn of Blessed Joseph Vaz.

c. Encourage and provide opportunities for all our faithful to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation and make a good Confession before the Papal Visit and the Canonisation.

d. Organise an hour of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament on a chosen day of the week and urge the faithful to pray intensely for a deep renewal of our families and our Christian commitment to love, to serve and to proclaim the Lord by our lives and witness.

e. In the coming weeks in the Sunday homilies, make the faithful aware of the heroic sanctity and burning zeal and the life and ministry of the Apostle of Sri Lanka, Blessed Joseph Vaz.

f. During the period of preparation, encourage the faithful to visit the sick in the parish and pray with them and pay special attention to the poor and the marginalised. Let parishioners who can afford, assist financially those who have no
means to make the pilgrimage to Colombo on Januar 14.

g. Animate the faithful to be agents of peace and reconciliation in their own environment.

h. We exhort all our parishes to organise the joyous pealing of Church Bells in the whole Island, when the Holy Father makes the declaration of Canonisation during the Holy Mass.

i. Let us participate actively in the Holy Mass of Canonisation with great fervour and devotion by joining in the Mass prayers and the singing.

(Our spiritual preparation committee will be giving further directions for this purpose.)

The Assembly for the Holy Mass of canonization presided over by the Holy Father, would be a great manifestation of our gratitude to God Almighty and our profound gratitude to the Apostle of Sri Lanka, Blessed Joseph Vaz, who was sent to us by Our Loving Father through the intercession of Our Beloved Mother.

May this unique occasion draw down numerous blessings upon all of us and our families and our beloved Motherland by these precious events, which we eagerly await.

Signed

His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith
President – CBCSL, Archbishop of Colombo.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Rayappu Joseph
Vice President – CBCSL, Bishop of Mannar.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Valence Mendis
Secretary General – CBCSL, Bishop of Chilaw.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. J. Kingsley Swampillai
Bishop of Trincomalee.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Thomas Savundranayagam
Bishop of Jaffna.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Vianney Fernando
Bishop of Kandy.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. J. Winston S. Fernando, S.S.S
Bishop of Badulla.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Norbert M. Andradi, O.M.I
Bishop of Anuradhapura.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Harold A. Perera
Bishop of Kurunegala.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Cletus C. Perera, O.S.B
Bishop of Ratnapura.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph Ponniah
Bishop of Batticaloa.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Raymond K. Wickramasinghe
Bishop of Galle.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Marius Peiris
Auxiliary Bishop of Colombo.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. F. L. Emmanuel Fernando
Auxiliary Bishop of Colombo.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Maxwell G. Silva
Auxiliary Bishop of Colombo.

Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady 8th December 2014.

[text of pastoral letter reprinted raw from Messenger, Sri Lanka’s weekly Catholic Newspaper, Dec. 14, 2014 issue]

Sri Lanka politicians pledge peaceful polls and papal visit, cardinal

We need to have faith and believe in what they both told us – Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo was quoted in Messenger, Sri Lanka’s Catholic newspaper.

The cardinal was sharing what he felt about the assurance he said leading candidates – incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, the common opposition candidate – gave Sri Lanka’s Catholic bishops that there would be no trouble after the Jan. 8 polls and that a peaceful atmosphere would prevail for the visit of the Holy Father.

Click image for full story on ncronline.org

NCR story Sri Lanka polls papal visit NJ Viehland

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Sri Lanka Commentary: Blessed Joseph Vaz canonization

Joseph Vaz devotion card

Contributed photo

Denigrating the holiest event Lankan Catholics awaited for 303 years

Sri Lanka has decided to hold a presidential election on Jan. 8 – just one week before Pope Francis visits the country. Such advancing of an election, not due for another two years, has deeply hurt the country’s Catholics.

Catholics invited the pope to canonize Blessed Joseph Vaz, the country’s first saint, not for a State visit. The event was set alongside the saint’s Jan. 17 death anniversary. Catholics wished it to be a religious event, with minimal State involvement just for routine protocol. With deep frustration, they now watch the political Trojan horse invade the sanctuary.

The spiritual upbuild for the canonization by groups such as the Joseph Vaz National Secretariat was first distracted with Church-State-planned pageantry for the papal visit. Thereafter political posters made it a tool for election propaganda. Election-related discord and violence may soon overshadow the event. Church leaders little realize the faith erosion caused by letting politics ruin the holiest event Catholics eagerly awaited for 303 years.

Much public distress about the event’s politicization has been expressed via social media and other public exchanges. Many Catholics have urged that the canonization be postponed. Others even say it could be held in Rome like the recent canonization of Indian Saints Chavara and Alphonsa. Some prefer such moves to political denigration of the name of Father Vaz who eschewed politics, and ministered to victims of political conflict.

Sri Lanka Papal visit FB screenshot

The Indian priest had arrived in the country in 1687 dressed as a beggar to avoid Dutch colonizers’ ban on entry of Catholic priests. For 10 years he was the only priest serving the entire country until confreres joined him. During his 24-year apostolate, he searched for Sinhala or Tamil Catholics living in hiding in the aftermath of political conflict between Portuguese and Dutch colonizers. Buddhists and Hindus valued his ascetic witness of treating king and commoner with equanimity.

Saint John Paul II, who beatified Father Vaz in 1995, once described him as the greatest missioner in Asia next to Saint Francis Xavier. It was an affirmation of Lankans’ acclaim of this holy missioner’s sanctity.

Since the missioner’s death in 1711, about 50 books on his life and service have been published in English, French, Italian, Konkani, Sinhalese and Tamil. Devotion to this Apostle of Sri Lanka has spread locally as well as in his Indian homeland. Since his beatification, 10 venues in four Sri Lankan dioceses hold novena devotions to Blessed Vaz. Nine dioceses have dedicated 23 churches and chapels in his honor.

Apart from such public veneration, the aura of his mission still survives in the pastoral field. Trincomalee and Kurunegala dioceses have named their minor seminaries after him. Colombo, Galle and Kurunegala dioceses have opened lay theologates to promote his pioneer mission of indigenization.

Amid such evidence of his living memory, Catholics countrywide have eagerly awaited the peak moment of the preparatory work by the Joseph Vaz National Secretariat, headed by Bishop Vianney Fernando of Kandy. But the spiritual benefit of these efforts will be lost if election-related rivalry and recrimination invade its final stage. Church leaders should make alternate arrangements if they cannot ensure Catholics a prayerful atmosphere to celebrate their first saint without being hassled by election unrest or militarized restrictions.

Hector Welgampola
welgampo@gmail.com 

Hector Welgampola

Veteran Asian Church journalist Hector Welgampola from Sri Lanka has retired as Executive Editor of the former Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) based in Hong Kong, then Bangkok. Before UCAN, Hector headed editorial teams of newspapers in Sri Lanka. Since retiring Hector has lived in Australia with his wife, Rita. He authored the resource book Asian Church Glossary and Stylebook.

 

Blessed Joseph Vaz will be proclaimed Saint Jan. 14‎

Pope Francis announced on Monday that Blessed Joseph Vaz, the Apostle of Sri Lanka, will be declared saint on Jan. 14, 2015, Vatican News reported.

Read full report