By Leon Bent
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St. Joseph Vaz: The Friday Miracle Worker!
16th Jan, 2019
By Leon Bent

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By Leon Bent –

Fr. Joseph Vaz was born to Christopher Vaz and Maria de Miranda, Christian parents of the Konkani Brahmin caste; the third of six children. The little boy attended primary and secondary school in Sancoale, where he learned Portuguese, and Benaulim, where he learned Latin.

He studied humanities at the Jesuit Goa University, philosophy and theology at Saint Thomas Aquinas Academy, and was ordained in 1676. The renowned Preacher and Confessor opened a Latin school in Sancoale for aspirants to the priesthood. He was always devoted to Our Lady, and in 1677, he consecrated himself as a “slave of Mary,” sealing it with a document known as his “Letter of Enslavement”.

Meanwhile, a small congregation of priests was founded in Goa, with the Church of the ‘Holy Cross of Miracles’, on Boa Vista Hill, Old Goa, as their residence. Joseph joined the group, and was elected Superior. He gave a definitive canonical status to this Oratory, introduced religious exercises and charitable activities, and trained its members for their missionary thrust.

In 1686, divine inspiration and intervention prompted him to give up his comfort zone, and Fr. Joseph set out for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Disguised as an itinerant worker, he reached the port of Tuticorin on Easter Sunday 1687, and later, the Dutch stronghold of Jaffna, in the north of Ceylon. He knew about the misery of the Catholics of Ceylon, and their complete abandonment. Ceylon was a Buddhist Country. But there were, at that time, a large number of Catholics living on the island without a priest or a church. In 1658, the Dutch, adherents of the Dutch Reformed Church, feared that Catholics would support the Portuguese. Hence, they began to persecute them and forbade the practice of the Catholic faith in their territory. Joseph Vaz’s heart was now afire to save the Church in Ceylon at any cost.

In 1658, 120 Catholic missionaries had left Ceylon, and the churches were closed or destroyed. From 1658 to 1687 Catholics were isolated: no priest, no sacraments, and no church! When Joseph Vaz arrived in Jaffna, he started his apostolate in Ceylon without any logistics support. With a Rosary around his neck he begged from door to door for his survival. That was how he clandestinely made contact with Catholics. Joseph Vaz was the first non-European missionary to come to Ceylon, despite not having a civil, royal or ecclesiastical mandate. Further, he came in humility, simplicity and poverty, without the support or protection of the Institutional Church.

In 1690, Joseph moved on to Puttalam in the kingdom of Kandy, where 1,000 Catholics had not seen a priest for half a century. He decided to make Kandy the centre of his apostolate, and in 1692 he went there, hoping to obtain royal permission to travel freely. Instead, he was preceded by Reformed Protestants’ (led by John Calvin) accusations of being a Portuguese spy, and was imprisoned with two other Catholics. There he learned Sinhala, the local language, and since the prison guards left the prisoners alone as long as they didn’t try to escape, he built a ‘hut-church’, and later, a proper church dedicated to Our Lady, and began converting other prisoners.

In 1696, the Kingdom of Kandy was suffering a serious drought, and the king asked the Buddhist monks to pray to their gods for rain; however, their pleas went unanswered. He then turned to Joseph who erected an altar in the middle of the square and prayed; abundant rain began to fall, while Joseph and his altar stayed dry. The king granted Joseph license to preach throughout the kingdom.

King Vimaldharna Surya II, Father Joseph’s mentor, died in 1707, but Narendrasimha, his successor, offered him even greater support. New missionaries arrived in 1708, and in 1710, despite health problems, Joseph took another missionary trip.

As Catholic priests were banned by the Dutch authorities, he had to travel under the guise of a mendicant and to work in secret. He traversed the land with bare feet as an Indian sadhu. He journeyed in disguise throughout the island, bringing the Eucharist and the sacraments to secret groups of Catholics. Later, he found shelter in the kingdom of Kandy, where he was able to work freely. By the time of his death, the saintly ascetic had managed to rebuild the Catholic Church on the Island.

In 1710, Joseph Vaz was completely exhausted. He died January 16, 1711 at the age of 59. He had spent 24 years of untiring work to build God’s Kingdom in Ceylon. He left a marvellous legacy: 70,000 Catholics, 15 Churches and 400 chapels. He translated into Singalese and Tamil, the two local languages, various prayers, and also compiled a Catechism Book. After his death, his example and methods of evangelization made him a perennial inspiration for the priests and evangelists in Sri Lanka. When the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate came to Sri Lanka in 1857, they were able to build on and continue Fr. Vaz´s apostolic initiatives.

As a result of his labours, Joseph Vaz is known as the Apostle of Ceylon. On 21 January 1995, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Colombo. He was canonized on 14th January, 2015, by Pope Francis, at an open-air Mass at the ‘Galle Face Green’, in Colombo.

During his short stay in Canara from 1681 to 1684, Joseph Vaz worked in the Diocese of Mangalore. According to local legend, a group of disgruntled people conspired to kill him at the top of a hill. But, God worked a miracle of brilliant light and gushing water around the saint, which made the would-be assailants flee.

Three little springs still bear witness to this miracle. A 60-feet well dug nearby has no traces of water. From then on Joseph Vaz was addressed in the Tulu language as “Guddeda Dever” meaning “God of the Mountain.” “The Miracle Hill Shrine” constructed at the site at Mudipu and dedicated to Joseph Vaz, attracts thousands of pilgrims and devotees, seeking blessings and cures for various ailments.

Now, the gold nugget! A Shrine dedicated to Blessed Joseph Vaz was set up in Sancoale, Goa, where thousands of devotees faithfully converge, to seek the intercession of the popular man of God, the son of Goa’s soil. I was highly impressed by the aura of sanctity of its sacred precincts, and its architectural aesthetics.

And, this final flourish! St. Joseph Vaz is known as the “Friday boy” because he was born on a Friday, all his major miracles were performed on Fridays, and he ‘breathed his last’ on a Friday!

The last word! Father Cosme Jose Costa’s “sensational supernatural birth,” in 1938, by his faith-filled and Spirit-imbued parents, under life-threatening circumstances for mother and child, was accepted by the ‘Congregation for the Causes of Saints’, as the miracle needed to beatify Blessed Vaz in 1995. I, quite providentially, had a brief chat with the saintly ‘Pilar Father’, now 88, at the Seminary, in Pilar. The hallowed historian-priest prayed over me and blessed me. I am still basking in the golden glow of God’s highly favoured one!

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