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.

Gifts Sri Lanka bishops asked from Pope Francis

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, Sri Lanka [Wikimedia commons}

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, Sri Lanka [Wikimedia commons]

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo presented a letter to Pope Francis during the May 2-3 ad limina visit of 13 Sri Lanka bishops asking the pope to bless Pope Benedict XVI Intitute of Theology for Asia, Sri Lanka’s Catholic newspaper reported recently.

“And during your visit please give us the gift of your blessing on the Theological-pastoral Institute which we have dedicated to Pope Benedict XVI and which will help us in the formation of our future ecclesiastical collaborators,” the Sri Lanka bishops’ conference president wrote in his letter to the pope published in the May 18 issue of Messenger, Sri Lanka’s Catholic weekly newspaper.

The cardinal personally launched the institute in Negombo, western Sri Lanka, funded by the Vatican during the term of Pope Benedict XVI who was expected to visit Sri Lanka for its inauguration, said yesterday’s report from ceylontoday.lk  

Benedict announced Feb. 11, 2013 he would step down as pope at the end of that month.

In his letter to Pope Francis earlier this month, Cardinal Ranjith also appealed for the “gift of the canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz” who the cardinal described as “the great and humble servant of The Lord.”

Blessed Vaz, a Catholic priest from Goa has come to be called “The Apostle of Ceylon (Sri Lanka’s former name).” He went to Ceylon in the 1600s after hearing of the oppression of Catholics in the Dutch colony.

“He, through heroic pastoral ministry carried out during the 16th and 17th centuries, when our Church suffered an intense persecution at the hands of an anti-catholic colonial power, resurrected the faith in our country and so became the second founder of our Church,” Cardinal Ranjith wrote in his letter to Pope Francis.

Aside from Buddhists and some 1.2 million Catholics among Sri Lanka’s population today, there are sizeable Hindu and Muslim minorities. 


At the time of the pope’s announcement of his January 2015 visit to Sri Lanka, Cardinal Ranjith had not received official confirmation from the Vatican of the pope’s visit to Sri Lanka, ceylontoday.lk quoted Sri Lanka’s communications director saying.

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The spiritualities of Bergamo and Wadowice brought sainthood to the papacy (Commentary by Hector Welgampola)

Worship leaders lead some more than 15,000 worshippers in singing praise songs and dancing at Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City, Philippines while waiting for the televised canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II in Rome on April 26, 2014. NJ Viehland Photo

Worship leaders lead some more than 15,000 worshippers in singing praise songs and dancing at Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City, Philippines while waiting for the televised canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II in Rome on April 26, 2014. NJ Viehland Photo

Heavenly bliss is the ultimate goal of all humans. That leads us to the Christian concept of a Communion of Saints. Some religions honor holy persons as saints even in their lifetime. So did the early Christians. In today’s Church, however, sainthood is a posthumous title reserved for holy men and women whose fragrance of sanctity continues to sustain earthly sojourners of the Communion. 

Last weekend, the Church added two popes to the official list of saints for veneration by Catholics worldwide. Way ahead of the dual canonization in the Vatican, the new saints received unprecedented media coverage. Much of it focused on their papal role as John XXIII and John Paul II. Happily, corrective action was promptly taken by Pope Francis. He graciously thanked Catholics of Bergamo, Italy, and Wadowice, Poland, for gifting the two saints to the worldwide Church.

Saint John XXIII was pope for about 5 years of his 84-year-long life. Saint John Paul II was pope for just 27 of his 82-year-long life. Much of the two saints’ contribution, even as popes, was the fruit of their Christian life and service each in his own habitat or mission. When considering their fuller life-witness, one wonders whether they should have been canonized as Saint Angelo Roncalli and Saint Karol Wojtyla. After all, their sainthood owes much to the holiness of life and witness that equipped each of them to grace the papacy as head of the worldwide Church.

For example, the ever-jolly Friar Tuck-style depiction of saint John XXIII often fails to reflect the rustic Roncalli serenity based on deep personal prayer. The “Journal of a Soul,” which puts together diaries and notes Angelo Roncalli wrote from age 14 until his last days, reveals the simple peasant spirituality that laid the foundation for his eventful papacy. “My great book is the crucifix,” he wrote as a simple priest, adding, “the solution of all difficulties is Christ.” He was fond of the private devotion to the Precious Blood of Jesus practised by his great-uncle Zaverio Roncalli. “In fact, he was the first person to train me to that practice of religion from which my priestly vocation was to spring,” he wrote later as Pope John.

Even after being named papal representative in Bulgaria, he was ever conscious of the sense of Divine Presence nurtured by his peasant background. He once recalled, “God sees me: our humble grandmothers used to work this motto into their samplers of rustic embroidery; it still hangs on the old walls of our houses and it contains a stern reminder which serves to give a character of decency to all our behaviour.”

Archbishop Roncalli’s diplomatic sojourn in Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece and France exposed him to a wide spectrum of world realities. It served as a providential pastoral preparation for his future task as pope. His political and ecumenical encounters in those countries helped set the agenda for his epochal pontificate. Such moves also set priorities for the charismatic Saint John Paul II’s long pontificate. Those who try to brand the two pontificates using human categories as progressive versus conservative fail to discern the hand of God as evidenced by the bridging roles of the later Pauline and Franciscan pontificates.

Polish Bishop Karol Wojtyla was ordained just one month before Pope John XXIII was elected in October 1958. Enthused by the new pope’s call for an Ecumenical Council, the new Polish bishop was one the first to respond to the pre-conciliar questionnaire sent to the world’s 2,594 bishops. After the death of Pope John, Cardinal Wojtyla supported Pope Paul VI further pursue the policy of Ostopolitik to reach out to Communist countries including the offer of diplomatic relations to Warsaw.

The Johnine-Pauline policy of detante paved the way for the role attributed to Pope John Paul II for the collapse of communism. As much as the socio-political struggle in Poland catalysed his later social teaching, it also tended to restrict his world view. Some Church watchers say that his Polish background made him politically progressive while being doctrinally conservative. Although his Christian humanism as a young poet and playwright had been forward looking, his Polish spirituality had difficulty in coping with post-Christian secularism and resisting curial moves to contain ecumenism and inculturation. In 1995, papal biographer Tad Szulc wrote that Pope John Paul II was “the unchanged spiritual child of wartime Krakow.”

When considered in the context of such ecclesial realities, the sainting of two recent popes has a catechetical value. Whatever critics may have to say about fast-tracking the canonizations, the proximity of their lives in recent history, encourages us to learn to honor the holiness of saints despite their human limitations. Even saints have been human, just like the rest of the pilgrim Church. After all, the flawed experiences of the past would help saints better understand us, just as the Church is expected to.
END

Hector Welgampola has served more than 50 years in Catholic media as editor of the two Colombo-based Catholic weeklies in Sri Lanka, the English-language Messenger and Sinhalese-language Gnanartha Pradeepaya (lamp of wisdom).
He then served as executive editor of UCA News from 1987 until his retirement in 2001. He also compiled the recently published 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: http://goo.gl/Zq1uZh

The Catholic Church has one huge event coming up – are you in? For ticket info, see here: http://goo.gl/Zq1uZh

 

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

Filipinos remember Blessed John Paul II at Quezon City mall

 

Posters, booklets and other information on the Canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II are handed available to shoppers and passers-by at the Gateway Mall Araneta Center in Quezon City where Totus Tuus Group has set up an exhibit of JPII relics and memorabilia April 2-24. NJ Viehland Photos

Posters, booklets and other information on the Canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II are handed available to shoppers and passers-by at the Gateway Mall Araneta Center in Quezon City where Totus Tuus Group has set up an exhibit of JPII relics and memorabilia April 2-24. NJ Viehland Photos

 

Shopping at Gateway Mall, Araneta Center this week until the 24th of April, might be a bit crowded around the Oasis area. Totus Tuus group has set up a 50-piece exhibit of Blessed John Paul II’s relics and memorabilia there where people are milling around on foot or in wheelchairs.

Inquirer newspaper was there and talked to some of the faithful praying and writing notes to the late pope who is scheduled to be canonized in Rome with Blessed John XXIII on April 27. 

One of them, Christina Bisana, 28, stopped in after seeing the relics displayed in the middle of a bustling shopping mall in Quezon City on Thursday.

The single mother was just passing by Gateway Mall at Araneta Center on her way to Makati City on an errand when she saw the exhibit, part of the two-month “Totus Tuus” tour of the relics in the Philippines.

Here’s what Bisana prayed for at the prayer corner.

The exhibit caught my attention too. It included Pope John Paul II’s blood stain and hair strands

A woman touches the glass case holding Blessed John Paul II's hair strands (left gold frame) and a piece of cloth with his blood (right gold frame) as she prays at the Totus Tuus exhibit at Gateway Mall, Araneta Center up to April 24. N.J. Viehland Photo

A woman touches the glass case holding Blessed John Paul II’s hair strands (left gold frame) and a piece of cloth with his blood (right gold frame) as she prays at the Totus Tuus exhibit at Gateway Mall, Araneta Center up to April 24. N.J. Viehland Photo

his skullcap

Blessed John Paul II's skull cap in gold case at right was among 50 relics and memorabilia exhibited at Gateway Mall Araneta Center in Quezon City since April 2 until April 24 before Totus Tuus group brings the exhibit to southern Philippines and back to Quezon City for his April 27 canonization in Rome with Blessed Pope John XXII. NJ Viehland Photos.

Blessed John Paul II’s skull cap in gold case at right was among 50 relics and memorabilia exhibited at Gateway Mall Araneta Center in Quezon City since April 2 until April 24 before Totus Tuus group brings the exhibit to southern Philippines and back to Quezon City for his April 27 canonization in Rome with Blessed Pope John XXII. NJ Viehland Photos.

a cassock, a purificator, a piece of a chasuble that he used, a rosary and a strip of the sheet from his deathbed.

Blessed John Paul II memorabilia including his rosary, medals, letters are part of the 50-piece exhibit of Totus Tuus group at Gateway Mall Araneta Center, Quezon City from April 2-24. NJ Viehland Photo.

Blessed John Paul II memorabilia including his rosary, medals, letters are part of the 50-piece exhibit of Totus Tuus group at Gateway Mall Araneta Center, Quezon City from April 2-24. NJ Viehland Photo.

Some of the relics came from Rome and some from Poland. The others were borrowed from the personal collections of nuns, priests and lay people who met the Polish-born Pope during his two visits to the Philippines.

Blessed John Paul is fondly remembered for his last visit to Manila for World Youth Day in 1995. I was most impressed by his visit to Bacolod City on Negros island in 1981. It was during massive hunger on the island where thousands of the children grew severely malnourished allegedly due to the drop in the world price of sugar, the islands main product. Non-government groups working with farmers and sugar plantations workers blamed “unjust” socio-economic systems.

Here is, for me, a powerful memorabilia of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Bacolod City on Negros Island which the late Bacolod Bishop Antonio Fortich described then as a “social volcano” . 

Blessed John Paul II's visits to the Philippines were commemorated at the exhibit of his memorabilia at Gateway Mall Araneta Center, Quezon City. The exhibit set up there until April 24 included chairs and items used during his visits. NJ Viehland Photos

Blessed John Paul II’s visits to the Philippines were commemorated at the exhibit of his memorabilia at Gateway Mall Araneta Center, Quezon City. The exhibit set up there until April 24 included chairs and items used during his visits. NJ Viehland Photos

A statement last September announced that Pope Francis had decreed that the two popes would be canonized together on April 27. Among groups that hailed the decision to canonize the two heads of the Church was the Anti-Defamation League which wrote the following month: “For us in the Jewish community, Popes John Paul II and John XXIII have already been saints for a long time.”

League National Director Abraham Foxman was quoted calling the popes “towering men whose visionary leadership and groundbreaking reforms transformed Jewish-Catholic relations and reversed two thousand painful years of church-based Antisemitism,” said Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, who met Pope John Paul II on several occasions, in a statement.

Schedule of St. John Paul II relics exposition and veneration, Philippines

JPII relics sched totus tuus