A priest venerates the image of St Joseph Vaz during canonization rites in Colombo on Wednesday (Photo by Joe Torres)
Pope Francis called for respect of "religious freedom as a fundamental right" in Sri Lanka as he declared missionary priest Joseph Vaz the country's first saint.
Speaking slowly in English, the pope said each individual "must be free, alone or in association with others, to seek the truth, and to openly express his or her religious convictions, free from intimidation and external compulsion".
"Saint Joseph shows us the importance of transcending religious divisions in the service of peace," the pontiff told hundreds of thousands of people who gathered for a seafront Mass in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, on Wednesday.
He said Catholics, who make up about seven percent of the population of Sri Lanka, should follow the example of Vaz in building peace, justice and reconciliation in the country, which has retained deep divisions following the bloody 2009 conclusion of an almost three decades long civil war.
"As the life of Saint Joseph Vaz teaches us, genuine worship of God bears fruit not in discrimination, hatred and violence, but in respect for the sacredness of life, respect for the dignity and freedom of others, and loving commitment to the welfare of all," said Pope Francis.
Vaz, who was born in the seaside town of Benaulim in southern Goa in 1651 when it was under Portuguese rule, came to Sri Lanka as a missionary priest in 1686.
He spent five years preaching in secret in the lowlands before going up into the Kingdom of Kandy in the highlands where he was arrested and accused of espionage for Portugal.
After spending a year in detention, Vaz came under the protection of Buddhist King Vimaladharmasuriya II who was convinced that the priest had no ill intentions against the kingdom.
The future saint remained in Kandy until his death in 1711 at the age of 60. He is credited with converting 30,000 people and reviving the Catholic Church on the island.
Pope Francis said Vaz is also an example of missionary zeal.
"Though he came to Ceylon to minister to the Catholic community, in his evangelical charity he reached out to everyone," the pope said.
He said the saint "knew how to offer the truth and the beauty of the Gospel in a multi-religious context".
"I pray that, following the example of Saint Joseph Vaz, the Christians of this country may be confirmed in faith and make an ever greater contribution to peace, justice and reconciliation in Sri Lankan society," Pope Francis said.
Pope Francis was greeted by a crowd of hundreds of thousands on Wednesday at a beachside Mass in Colombo (Credit: ucanews.com)
In the same address, the pontiff called out to priests and religious men and women "to go out to the peripheries" to serve the poor.
Amid tight security, thousands of people stayed overnight in the seafront Galle Green Park in Colombo to witness the end of a 300-year campaign to recognize the holiness of Vaz.
Many more walked to the venue early Wednesday morning past policemen and soldiers who were lined along the roads leading to the venue.
Navin Dasanayake, a Catholic teacher who came from Galle, 75-kilometers south of Colombo, said he believed Sri Lankans of all faiths could learn from Vaz’s efforts.
“Christians are often accused as being aliens in our motherland and criticized as anti-national and anti-cultural but Saint Vaz could speak Tamil, Sinhala and adapted himself to be a Sri Lankan,” he said.
Ruwani de Silva, a Catholic bank manager attending the canonization, said he hoped the pope’s words would be heeded.
“Not only clerics but also all faithful should stand for religious freedom and fundamental rights as followers of the first saint.”
The canonization comes at a sensitive moment in Sri Lanka, when religious and ethnic tensions remain high. Some in attendance said they were unsure whether interreligious harmony could prevail.
“[Vaz] carried out missionary work through interreligious relationships but it has become a sensitive issue since hundreds of Christian churches and mosques have been attacked by Buddhists extremists,” said Nimal Fernando, a government officer.
Traditional dancers greet Pope Francis at a beachside Mass in Colombo on Wednesday (Credit: ucanews.com)