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 

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.


Korea will give Pope Francis a peep into the mosaic of Asian Christianity, by Hector Welgampola

The Churches of the global South have begun to feature pretty well on the agenda of Pope Francis’ early travels. His first trip was to attend the World Youth Day activities in Brazil. Then came his historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land in May. Come August, the pope will travel to South Korea. He is due to attend the Asian Youth Day there and the beatification of 124 Korean Martyrs.

Korean martyr Paul Yun Ji-chung screenshot from Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea's website.

Korean martyr Paul Yun Ji-chung screenshot from Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea’s website.

 Outreach to North Korea?

Brazil offered Pope Francis a brief encounter with groups of youth worldwide: the future Church. In South Korea he will meet with the future Church of Asia. His visit venue is 200 kilometres away from the venue of the recent ferry disaster. But, the tragic tales of the ferry martyrs will be even more palpable than distant memories about the beati Martyrs. Yet, more eloquent than the silence of all these dead is the muffled cry of living martyrs.  The first Asian visit can offer Pope Francis an opportunity for pastoral outreach to the entire Korean Nation, which was divided six decades ago by outside intervention. Just as Pope Paul VI spoke to the Chinese Nation from Hong Kong in 1970, no doubt, Pope Francis could reach out to all Koreans of North and South with a reconciliatory message. Exposure to the last vestiges of political ideology that still linger in Asia may also help alert him to newer threats of neo-racism sprouting in the region.

Catholic Korean lay volunteers and Sisters of Mary nuns from Korean Boys Town and Girls Town joined Filipino Sisters of Mary and other Catholics led by Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila in celebrating the 20th death anniversary of Fr. Aloysius Schwartz in Cavite Province. - NJ Viehland Photos

Catholic Korean lay volunteers and Sisters of Mary nuns from Korean Boys Town and Girls Town joined Filipino Sisters of Mary and other Catholics led by Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila in celebrating the 20th death anniversary of Fr. Aloysius Schwartz in Cavite Province. – NJ Viehland Photos

Laity-founded Church

The laity-founded Korean Church has been unique in many ways. Like most early Asians, Koreans revered the written word. Some Korean scholars visiting China about 300 years ago, brought home Scripture texts including those of Jesuit missioner Matteo Ricci. Laypeople’s study of these texts led to further visits to China where they sought Baptism in 1784. Scripture-based faith sharing sustained the priestless lay Church. And when missioners first arrived nearly 50 years later, they were surprised to find a faith community of 4,000 Catholics.

Integrated faith and witness

Lay spirituality has been the backbone of the Korean Church. During the last century, the virility of Korean laity’s faith became evident in the founding of lay groups such as the Korean Catholic Farmers’ Movement and the Woori Theology Institute. Woori’s young lay theologians have engaged in theological research and sociological surveys related to the everyday life of the local Church. Their research projects have helped improve the effectiveness of pastoral programs. As need arose, these lay movements worked alongside the Korean Priests’ Association for Justice. The Jesuari prayer movement met another aspect of people’s spiritual needs.

Such faith witness was encouraged by the late Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, whom Koreans often described as “the Nation’s conscience.” The first Korean to receive the red hat, he prided that his Myeongdong Cathedral had become the rallying point of striking workers of various faiths. The Korean Church integrated people’s faith witness with solidarity in people’s struggle for human rights in a fast industrialised society.

Lay saints

In many countries, canonisation is considered a privilege of clergy and Religious. But the vast number of Korean saints are laypeople. In 1984, Saint John Paul II canonised 103 Korean Martyrs. And on the upcoming visit, Pope Francis will participate in the beatification of another 124 Martyrs. They all personify the faith journey of mostly laity among some 8,000 Catholics persecuted for their faith through 18th-19th centuries. More importantly, although the country is divided as North and South Korea, the Church is not. And so the martyrs include Northerners as well as Southerners.

While celebrating the faith integrity of such witnesses who died for the faith, the Church needs more the integrity of those who live it out in service. The late president Kim Dae-jung’s long political struggle as well as the earlier faith witness of poet Kim Chi-ha are just two examples of such Eucharistic service as bread broken to feed people’s contextual hunger for justice, peace.

Lived witness

Jesus’ multiplication of loaves “shows the future Heaven,” said Kim Chi-ha in the “Declaration of Conscience” he wrote in prison in his early years. This reality is further depicted in his poem:

“Food is heaven As you can’t go to heaven by yourself Food has to be shared Food is heaven As you see the stars in heaven together Food is to be shared with everybody When the food goes into a mouth Heaven is worshipped in the mind Food is heaven Ah, ah, food is to be shared by everybody.”

Kim’s earlier poetry was similar to that of Latin American Ernesto Cardinale, which cannot be unfamiliar to Pope Francis. More than any recent pope, he is equipped with the grace to grasp the native wavelength of people’s yearnings that are variedly tagged in Asia as Korea’s Minjung theology, Japan’s Burakumin theology or India’s Dalit theology, all of which reflect the Gospel’s call for sharing and justice. Will he listen to these Southern voices of the Spirit, which some Church leaders have heard but not heeded? END

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

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

Canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, Jescom invitation

The Catholic Church has one huge event coming up - are you in? For ticket info, see here:

The Catholic Church has one huge event coming up – are you in? For ticket info, see here:


On April 27, the Vatican would hold a special ceremony for the first ever double canonization of two former Popes – John XXIII and John Paul II. Let us all witness this joyful event via live-streaming at the SMART Araneta Colesium. See you there!

from Jescom FB poster

80 Years of Pontifical Mission Societies – Philippines

By N. J. Viehland

Marikina City, Philippines – Pontifical Mission Societies (PMS), the pope’s worldwide office for missions operating in the Philippines, has contributed greatly to promoting mission in the Church in the Philippines, Archbishop Jose Palma of Cebu and Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) president said at the closing Mass for the 3-day Grand Mission Festival.

At least 5,000 Catholics gathered here east of Manila last April 18-20 to celebrate Year of the Missions. CBCP dedicated 2012 to promoting the missionary orientation and give thanks and praise for eight decades of PMS.

PMS established around the world carries out the mission of the Church to propagate the faith, have children growing in sharing the faith, and preparing priests for mission work through four societies, Archbishop Palma explained in his homily.

The societies collect funds from Catholics worldwide to support missionary activity of the Church. Society for the Propagation of the Faith funds support general missionary activities, St. Peter the Apostle funds are raised to promote missionary vocation and formation of priests, seminarians and Women Religious, Missionary Union for lay mission workers in ecumenical dialogue and other evangelization work, and Holy Childhood Association for education and Christian formation of children and youth.

In the Philippines, PMS total funding for missionary work in 2011 reached 80 million pesos (roughly US $1.874 million), Mission Society of the Philippines Father Socrates Mesiona, PMS national director told me at the congress. He said Philippines Churches raised about 25 million pesos.

PMS staff said 50 mission directors from around the country came with delegations of priests, seminarians, lay officers and members of various parish groups, students and other youths.

Under the scorching sun or a starry sky, delegates joined in Masses, sang, danced, lit candles and sat silently on the ground in prayer. They huddled in halls to discuss lectures and videos, draw pictures and compose reflections, then mingled with strangers and interviewed missionaries at exhibit booths highlighting the festival theme “remembering history, proclaiming Jesus story, and celebrating our faith.”

Young Catholics joined candle lighting and prayers for lay missionaries during their mission send-off at the Grand Mission Festival 2012 closing Mass in Marikina City last April. (N.J. Viehland Photos)

Seminarian Feli Ayala, St. Alphonsus seminary second year theology student before bussing back to Quezon Province said the festival helped him realize he can be a missionary by “sharing and communicating Jesus Christ to others.”

“I learned from Archbishop (Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila) we can be good storytellers and we can be good missionaries who proclaim Jes

us Christ if we ourselves have first-hand experience of his presence,” he told me before heading home.

Doing Mission by Storytelling

Tagle spoke to participants at the athletics field April 19 evening about “Telling the Story of Jesus” as a way of doing mission. 

He told participants salvation history is “the story of God’s love affair with humanity” and all Christians can share in doing the Church’s mission by knowing Jesus’ story and sharing it through their lives.

Tagle said storytelling in order to fulfill the Church’s mission must be told by a credible witness who shows he “knows God” through his words and actions.

Citing Pope Paul VI, he said, “Our age listens more to witnesses than to teachers.”

Children are among people served by Fatima Center for Human Development established and run by Daughters of Saint Augustin nuns in Barrio San Agustin, Iriga City in Camarines Sur under the Archdiocese of Caceres. {Dave Viehland Photos)

The story one tells of Jesus’ love defines a person and builds community, Tagle added. “Our stories tell us who we are and what kind of community we are – what stories bind us together.”

He reminded delegates there are many ways to tell a story. “Our very persons could be the story of Jesus. That’s how the saints told the story of Jesus.

In Tagalog language, Tagle said, “Many of us cannot remember Pope John Paul II’s many teachings, but only looking at pictures will remind us of his life and his person. Until his body became bent and when he was almost completely stooped he continued to serve. That’s the story of Jesus.”

Photographs of the kindly face of Blessed Teresa embracing shabbily-dressed people from the gutters, her gentle stroking of dying people also tell the story of Jesus, Tagle added.

Reorienting Clergy to Mission                                  

Missiologist Father Andrew Recepcion of Caceres Archdiocese  shared Tagle’s hope. “It has to be understood by priests that mission is not added work. For many priests, their concept of mission is that it is an activity that has to be done when in fact mission should be the soul of pastoral work.

“If we do not do mission, we are not missionaries of Christ carrying out our pastoral work but we end up as social workers, organizers, event managers, CEO of the Church,” Recepcion said.

In his northern Philippines archdiocese, mission formation is part of the seminary formation program. Seminarians spend weeks of exposure to mission situations in the diocese “to understand that being in the parish is not merely celebrating rituals but a constant life-giving witness to the faith,” Recepcion said.

Since 1997, the archdiocese has sent almost 50 of its 280 priests to serve in mission abroad through the Caceres Mission Aid Program.

Mesiona acknowledges, Our problem is lack of enthusiasm for mission promotion and work. Maybe priests cannot connect. Maybe they’re thinking they already have enough pastoral work to do.”

Only about 80 percent of Philippines dioceses have appointed mission directors, and “fast turnover of leadership of the offices is another problem,” the missioner said.

Mission of the Whole Church

CBCP president Archbishop Jose Palma give lay missionaries their mission Crosses on their send-off to new assignments during the closing Mass for the Grand Mission Festival at Marikina Sports Center, April 20, 2012. (N.J. Viehland Photos)

Recepcion praised organizers and service team of the “fruitful” festival. In the long term, he said the impact of the festival could be determined by how effectively delegates and newly assigned missionaries will inspire people “by witnessing to Jesus through their lives.”

Palma at the closing Mass led send off prayers for a dozen newly assigned lay missionaries

– Mel Torralba, Youth for Christ (Middle East

– Maria Lenete B. Bertumen, Philippine Catholic Lay Mission (Thailand)

– Goi and Charmaine Villegas, Couples for Christ (CFC, Europe)
– Mike and Shay Serapio, CFC (USA) option=com_content&view=article&id=2&Itemid=3

– Jef and Emma Lou Arong, CFC (Seychelles)
– Richard and Fritzie Espanola, CFC (Zimbabwe
– Elmer and Lita Cadiz, CFC (Caribbean) 

In his homily, Palma invited delegates, specifying the youth, to volunteer for Church activities and offered Blessed Pedro Calungsod, the 17th century young sacristan from the Visayas Island whose life and work with Jesuit missioners to the Mariana Islands (Guam) ended in their martyrdom. The Vatican has set the canonization of Blessed Pedro and six other beatified people on World Mission Sunday, tomorrow Oct. 21. Blessed Pedro’s life and virtues offered themes for festival workshops and animation activities

Palma invited participants to pilgrimages from various countries to Rome around the time of the canonization, and suggested those who could not come join the thanksgiving Mass in Cebu or activities in their own dioceses when the new saint’s image is brought around the country.


Mission Directors in the Philippimes
Grand Mission Festival for CBCP Year of the Missions
Marikina Sports Center, April 20-23, 2012
N.J. Viehland Photos

Pedro Calungsod – New Model of Holiness

Blessed Pedro, among the seven people to be declared saints by Pope Benedict XVI Oct. 21, came to the Mariana Islands in 1668 and was one of a group of lay catechists who assisted the Jesuit missionaries in their Pacific mission.

Catholic News Service reports what the canonization means for Catholics in Guam, in the Mariana Islands

Please tell us your own story: What do the stories of Blessed Pedro’s mission, martyrdom and canonization mean to you?

St. Pedro Calungsod, a Filipino catechist and lay missionary who was martyred while doing missionary work in Guam in the year 1672. “The example of Pedro, whose love for Jesus inspired him to devote his teenage years to teaching the faith as a lay catechist” (Blessed John Paul II).
The accompanying text of the icon is a baybayin script (an ancient Filipino alphabet) which reads Magtutudlo, meaning teacher.
by Agustin Jakosalem