Go to Joseph

10 Feb

‘Go to Joseph,’ was the proclamation from the highest authority in the civilized world two thousand years ago, the Pharaoh, asking everyone in the food famine to go to the Governor Joseph. ‘Go to Joseph,’ in 2015, in a world going through a ‘value’ famine, is the recommendation of the highest authority in the Catholic world, the Pope, to go to Joseph Vaz a Saint of modern times, a model of holiness.

Joseph: a model of holiness
The 14th January 2015 was indeed a red-letter day as much for Sri Lanka and for Goa as it was for those who bear the name Joseph and for those who are looking for modern-day heroes. Pope Francis, on his second visit to the Far East, gave the Catholic Church a new model of holiness and Sri Lanka its first Saint. Joseph Vaz however is also Goa’s first Saint and one of the chief Patron Saints of Goa for Catholics. In fact there were as many celebrations in Goa (in India) as there were in Sri Lanka when Pope Francis declared Joseph to be a Saint, an honour bestowed on those who have excelled in goodness and holiness while they lived on earth.

Becoming a Saint is a lengthy process today. In early history it was done almost entirely by positive acclamation by those who had known or lived with the person, vouching that the person should be raised to Sainthood. In modern times the process is more elaborate with one of the requirements, besides the establishment of holiness of life of the individual, being the performance of miracles attributed to the person cited for holiness. In the case of Joseph Vaz the miracle that was deemed by medical experts to be ‘miraculous’ was the birth of Father Cosme Costa (now a member of the Pilar Society) whose mother gave birth to him with the incurable condition known as ‘placenta previa’. Cosme was privileged to be present at the ceremony in Colombo on 14th January when Joseph Vaz was made a Saint. Pope Francis bent Church rules and dispensed with a regulation that normally requires a second miracle before anyone is proclaimed a Saint.

In the process towards being proclaimed a Saint, Joseph Vaz had first to be declared ‘Blessed’, the final stage before reaching sainthood. Pope John Paul II, a predecessor of Pope Francis, officiated at that ceremony 20 years earlier, on 21st January 1995, when he visited Sri Lanka.

Joseph: a life of commitment
Hundreds of thousands of people packed into the open-air ocean-front, in Colombo (Sri Lanka’s capital) after a 300-year campaign to get the holiness of Joseph Vaz recognized for Sainthood. Pope Francis took the occasion to address the hushed crowds that Vaz was an example of religious tolerance very relevant to Sri Lanka at the moment when the country needed to transcend religious and political divisions and strive towards peace. The Pope spoke in English for the first time and so came across to this huge gathering that must have got the thrust of his message. Catholics make up about 7 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, while 10 times as many people follow Buddhism. About 10 percent of the population follow Islam.

Joseph Vaz was born to Christopher Vaz and Maria de Miranda, Christian parents of the Konkani Brahmin Naik family. He was the third of six children born on April 21, 1651 in Benaulim, in South Goa. The local mothers’ gossip assessed the new-born as tall, slim and good-looking even if a little darker than the preferred almond-brown of the majority. His father, proud of his boy predicted, ‘one day he will become a great man.’ This honest parent who was an independent farmer was proud of his heritage too. He was an educated man, fluent not just in Konkani (the language of the Brahmans of Konkan on the west coast of India) but also in Portuguese, which was important because Goa was then a Portuguese colony. Joseph later attended primary and secondary school in Sancoale, one of the bigger centres in the Benaulim beach area, where he learned Portuguese, and later in Benaulim, where he learned Latin. He studied rhetoric and humanities at the Jesuit College of Saint Paul, and later philosophy and theology at Saint Thomas Aquinas Academy of the Dominicans in Goa city.

He was ordained a priest in 1676. In addition to his priestly duties of preaching and counselling his clients, he also opened a Latin school in Sancoale for prospective seminarians. He always had a great devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and in fact in 1677 consecrated himself as a ‘slave of Mary,’ sealing it with a document known as his ‘Letter of Enslavement.’ He was also greatly influenced by Saint Philip Neri and his Rule. He, together with four other priests, founded the Oratory, where they bound themselves by the Rule, without being committed to any Vows that religious take, but yet supported each other in ‘community’. This was a bond strong enough for them to keep dedicated to God’s service and to a life of prayer. Later, in Sri Lanka, he encouraged his fellow-priests from the Oratory in Goa to come to share his work in Sri Lanka. Many of them did.

Joseph: a desire to serve the people of Sri Lanka
It was just about this time that Joseph came to know of the condition of Catholics in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon). They were apparently persecuted by the Dutch who tried to enforce their own version of Christianity when they ruled Sri Lanka. This gave Joseph the strong motivation to go to work in Sri Lanka. He used his own initiative and with the blessings of his Superiors in 1686 he landed on the northern tip of Ceylon, in Jaffna.

The Dutch in Europe came under the influence of two major forces not long before Joseph Vaz came to face them in Sri Lanka. In Europe the power-hungry nations were looking for new lands and wealth. In these thrusts the Dutch were one of the nations that came out strong and powerful in acquiring colonies across the world. Sri Lanka was one of their strongholds. They ruled there for over a century from 1656 to 1796 and indeed dominated the scene during the entire time that Joseph Vaz was around.

Another powerful movement in Europe also took over Dutch thinking: the reformation. John Calvin (1509 to 1564) influenced largely by Martin Luther and the other socio-religious reform movements in Europe became the standard bearer for this ‘reformed brand’ of Christianity that seemed more ‘puritanical’ than tolerant in its methods and applications. So it was difficult for the Dutch colonizers to see themselves as anything but standard bearers of truth and Christianity to erring pagan-natives.

Joseph Vaz on the other hand, from a strong Portuguese-Catholic tradition, couldn’t but see the Dutch as a protestant brand of fundamentalists. Yet he was powerless to confront the colonizers’ military machine that carefully coated Christian values with their aggressive tactics. All Joseph could do was to operate as God’s messenger on his own proclaiming the Christian message the Catholic way whenever and wherever he was allowed in Sri Lanka.

Joseph: the Apostle on a mission
Joseph Vaz spent five years secretly spreading the message of Christ in the lush lowlands of Sri Lanka before making his way to the Kingdom of Kandy in the highland rainforests (in central Sri Lanka), where he was captured and accused of espionage for Portugal under the guise of religion. He was captured as a suspected spy after he had crept into the tropical island in disguise. He was 36 when he travelled south, from Jaffna (where he had landed) dressed as a beggar, into a country then divided into kingdoms. He soon found out about the harassment of Catholics by the Dutch Calvinists and realized that he had to look for patronage. He was fortunate as he was able to work for many years under the protection of the Buddhist king.

But there too he was first detained for nearly a year until he convinced the powerful Buddhist king that he was a priest. King Vimaladharmasuriya II protected him from the Dutch and their Calvinist restrictions. Joseph Vaz’s reputation was further bolstered when he was said to have made rain during a drought. Vaz remained in Kandy until his death at the age of 60. By that time he is believed to have brought over to the Catholic faith over 30,000 people. He also created a network of priests and centres to serve the people, and almost single-handedly re-established Catholicism in Sri Lanka.

The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka had had no priests for 50 years. His zeal to spread the catholic faith made him seek for permission to work in Sir Lanka after he had become a priest, but instead his religious managers (Superiors) in India asked him to go to support the catholic work in Kanara, which is present-day Mangalore. Even while working as the Vicar of Vara in Kanara, doing his work of preaching, hearing confessions, visiting the sick, helping the poor, ransoming Christian slaves, and working to settle jurisdictional disputes that interfered with his Christian work, his thoughts and his heart were in Sri Lanka.

Joseph: the Apostle faces trials
When Joseph finally started his work in Sri Lanka he went through a series of trials before he could achieve what he had set out to do. He suffered from acute dysentery, contracted from the terrible travelling conditions, and upon recovery he began his mission by contacting Catholics and hiding from the Dutch who wanted to promote Calvinism. He was taken in by a courageous Catholic family. From there he ministered to his secret flock by night.

In 1690 Joseph moved on to Puttalam in the kingdom of Kandy (in central Sri Lanka), where 1,000 Catholics had not seen a priest for half a century. In 1692 he left for Kandy which he felt should be the centre of his apostolic work. He was quite confident he would obtain royal permission to travel freely. However he was dogged by Dutch Calvinist accusations of being a Portuguese spy, and was imprisoned with two other Catholics. There he learned Sinhala (the language of the majority Sinhalese population and indeed of Ceylon). The prison guards left the prisoners alone as long as they didn’t try to escape, so he used the opportunity to build a hut-church. He later made that a proper church dedicated to Our Lady and began spreading the Christian message to the other prisoners.

In 1696 the Kingdom of Kandy was suffering a serious drought. The King asked the Buddhist monks to pray to their gods for rain but there was no rain. He then turned to Joseph who erected an altar and a Cross in the middle of the square and prayed. Almost miraculously abundant rain began to fall, while Joseph and his altar stayed dry. The King then granted Joseph license to preach freely throughout the kingdom.

Joseph: the Apostle moves on
Making the most of his new-found freedom, he made a bold move to visit to the Dutch zone and ministered to the Catholics in Colombo. Not long afterwards, in 1697, three priests from the Oratory of Goa arrived to help him and also gave him the news that Don Pedro Pacheco, Bishop of Cochin (in India, which had Church jurisdiction over Ceylon), had appointed him Vicar General in Ceylon. Just as he began organizing the basic apostolic programme small pox broke out in Kandy. His work with the sick then convinced the King that Father Joseph should be allowed every possible freedom in his work of relieving the suffering of the people.

Joseph then moved on shifting his apostolic work to the main centres of the island. In 1699, he returned to Kandy with Father Joseph de Carvalho who had been expelled at the instigation of Buddhist monks. Meanwhile he completed the construction of his new church, and then went into service for the King, translating Portuguese books into Sinhala. From this vantage point, he intensified his human-Christian ministry, and even brought over some Sinhalese notables to the Christian faith. But the Dutch didn’t let him off and continued to spread slanders against him and to persecute those who had turned Christian.

More priests from India arrived in 1705 to help him in his work. This enabled him to organize the Christian mission into eight districts, each led by a priest. This also gave him time to create a library of Catholic literature comparable to that of the Buddhists, and to assert the rights of Catholics with the Dutch Protestant Government who ruled the island.

King Vimaldharna Surya II, Father Joseph’s mentor, died in 1707, but Narendrasimha, his successor, was an even greater supporter. More priest-helpers arrived in 1708, and in 1710, despite health problems, Joseph took another apostolic trip. On his return, he fell seriously ill, and reached Kandy in this condition. Though he recovered from a series of infections and fevers, over the next year, age, work and disease finally took their toll. He undertook nine days of spiritual exercises prescribed by the Rule, but before the seventh day was over he passed away, on 16th January, 1711.

Joseph: the Apostle speaks to his clients
*In the measure you are merciful, you will obtain mercy. (Advice given to a person who was troubled about her past).
*We should be detached from everything, even from our very selves. (Advice given to a person who asked him about the high offices he held).
*Call the attention of others to their faults in charity. (Advice given to those who had to take on duties of responsibility).
*Take care of the poor. (Advice given constantly to those who had the care of others).

[T.D’Souza – author of 6 books- Facts edited from Wikipedia, Matters India, & 207 Stories by R.R.Rodrigues]]

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