Blessed Joseph Vaz, an Asian Apostle
Scholars consider Goan priest one of the foremost pioneers of the Church in Asia
During the night of November 26, 1938, Quiteria Costa from Aldona, in Goa, was hemorrhaging badly at Medical College Hospital, in what is now the state capital Panjim. Although she was only seven months pregnant, the surgeon treating her decided on performing a caesarian section the next day even though he believed the mother and child had only a one percent chance of survival. The family prayed for a miracle through the intercession of the first Goan-born Venerable Servant of Goa Fr Joseph Vaz (1651-1711). The next morning, the hemorrhaging suddenly stopped and the premature baby boy was born alive, and named Cosme. In 1991 that event was the object of a canonical investigation. On July 6, 1993, Pope John Paul II declared: “It is ascertained that a miracle was worked by God through the intercession of Venerable Servant of God Joseph Vaz, namely the rapid and perfect cure of Mrs Costa of hemorrhage in delivery labor.” Joseph Vaz was declared Blessed; Costa lived into her 90s; and Cosme became a priest in the Missionary Society of St Francis Xavier, at Pilar in Goa. Today, he is an eminent Church historian and an authority on Blessed Joseph Vaz. Born almost 100 years after the death of St Francis Xavier, whose body rests in the Jesuit Church of Bom Jesu (Good Jesus), Joseph Vaz studied for the priesthood at Goa’s Dominican Academy and at the Jesuit College of St Paul, where Francis Xavier had been rector more than a century earlier. He was ordained in 1676 and joined the Oratorian Order of priests founded by St Philip Neri. A Portuguese priest traveling from what is now Singapore to Goa happened to meet some Catholics in Colombo. He heard their pitiful story of abandonment and persecution under the Dutch. The Portuguese had colonized Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1505 after kicking out Muslim traders from Colombo and gaining exclusive control over all commercial activities. There they established the Catholic Church as a perfect replica of the Church in Europe to reinforce, mainly through religion, their economic hegemony. But in 1637, Dutch colonists conquered Ceylon. They were Calvinists and hostile to the Catholic Church. By 1658, they had wiped out the Catholic Church. After listening to this Portuguese priest’s story in the Cathedral Church of Old Goa, and about the sad plight of the Catholics in Ceylon, Fr Joseph Vaz felt the call of God to rescue these suffering Catholics. Just after Easter in 1687, he and his faithful servant John, disguised as coolies (menial workers), sailed for Jaffna, in Ceylon. Even after being shipwrecked and falling seriously ill with dysentery, he began secretly to search out Catholics. In disguise and with a rosary around his neck, he looked out for people who showed any sign of recognition of the rosary. Soon after, on June 23, 1687, he secretly celebrated the first Mass on the island for 29 years. During the 24 years of his apostolate in Ceylon, the first nine without any other priest on the whole island, and with only John as his companion, he single-handedly revived the Catholic faith. All the while, he was hunted by the Dutch who suspected him of being a Portuguese spy. In fact, the Decree of the Heroic Virtues of Fr Joseph Vaz announced in May 1989, emphasized his extraordinary and supernatural fortitude – facing physical danger from Dutch persecutors and from the wild beasts in the jungle where he hid from his pursuers and through which he traveled from one place to another. The decree compares him to St Paul especially in II Cor.4:8-10. “We are in difficulties on all sides but never cornered; we see no answer to our problems, but never despair; we have been persecuted, but never deserted; knocked down but never killed; always, wherever we may be, we carry with us in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus, may always be seen in our body”. The decree has five other references to St Paul that bear similarities to the life of Blessed Joseph Vaz. Blessed Joseph Vaz adopted a unique missionary method during those dark years when he kept the faith of Catholics alive, which is why he is now known as the “Apostle of Sri Lanka.” The renowned Sri Lankan Jesuit Church historian S.G Pereira wrote: “The second foundation of the Church in Ceylon by Fr Joseph Vaz and his Oratorians from Goa, was not in the manner of the first, a ready-made organization imported from abroad and imposed on all who hearkened to the Gospel of Christ, but a Church adapted in externals to the conditions of the country and to the genius of the people.” Without any missiological training outside of his native Goa and in spite of his own Western form of training, Fr Joseph Vaz grasped the central principle of missiology. He delved into the culture of those he was going to evangelize. Whenever there was a sufficient number of Catholics, they built a chapel. In each chapel there was a “Muppu” or catechist or at least an “Annavi” or sacristan to look after the building, the celebration of festivals and the teaching of religious doctrine. They prepared the ground for the missionary, organized prayers in in the houses of the sick and at funerals. A Muppu was chosen not merely for his piety, but for the influence and prestige he wielded in a village. An Annavi was chosen for his zeal, piety and industry. These helpers received no remuneration as they held their own lucrative jobs. Fr R.H. Lesser in his book on Joseph Vaz, India’s First and Greatest Missionary concluded: “When he died, after 24 years work, under God, entirely due to the work of this indomitable little man and the priests he had formed, there were 70,000 practicing Catholics, served by catechists whom he had trained.” The “miracle child” Fr Cosme Costa concludes: “We can affirm without any exaggeration that the bold venture of ‘Sinhalizing the Church of Ceylon’, carried on with apostolic fervor and supernatural prudence, gives Fr Joseph Vaz the right to be numbered among the greatest pioneers of the methods of adaptation in Asia: Mateo Ricci, Robert de Nobili, St John Britto, Constanzo Beschi.” Eminent missiologist Fr Pierre Charles pays him a moving tribute. “It is no exaggeration – it is merely a repetition of the unanimous testimony of his contemporaries – to call him the perfect model of an apostle.” Redemptorist Father Desmond de Souza formerly served as executive secretary of the Office of Evangelization in the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference. He was closely associated with the Churches in Asia from 1980 to 2000. He is now based in Goa.