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Joseph Vaz
Born April 21, 1651
Benaulim, Portuguese India (now India)
Died January 16, 1711 (aged 59)
Kingdom of Kandy (now Sri Lanka)
Occupation Catholic priest, missionary

Blessed Joseph Vaz (April 21, 1651, Benaulim – January 16, 1711, Kandy) was a Catholic Oratorian priest from Goa. He is known as Apostle of Ceylon.

He entered Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) when, due to the Dutch colonial occupation, Calvinism was the official religion. He traveled throughout the island bringing the Eucharist and the sacraments to clandestine groups of Catholics. Later in his mission he found shelter in the Kandyan kingdom where he was able to work freely. At the time of his death he managed to rebuild the Catholic church on the island. On January 21, 1995, Joseph Vaz was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Colombo, Sri Lanka.


Birth and early life

He was born on April 21, 1651 at Benaulim, his mother's village. His parents, Cristóvão Vaz and Maria de Miranda, were Goan Catholics of the Konkani Bamon caste. He was the third of six children. He learned Portuguese in Sancoale, his father's village, and Latin in Benaulim.

He studied rhetoric at the Jesuit college and philosophy and theology at the College of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Goa, was ordained in 1676, and became a favorite preacher and confessor. He opened a Latin school in Sancoale for prospective seminarians. In 1677 he consecrated himself as a "slave of Mary", sealing it with a document known as his "Letter of Enslavement".

Sri Lanka mission

Hearing of the distressful situation of the Catholics of Ceylon who reportedly had no priests for many years, Father Vaz desired to go to their rescue. But instead he was named Superior of the Kanara Mission, a post which he occupied for three years. On his return to Goa in 1684 he spent his time preaching in the villages, and joined the Oratorians then recently established in Goa, at the Church of the Holy Cross of Miracles. He was soon named superior there. In 1686 he obtained permission to give up this office and to proceed to Ceylon. Disguised as a mendicant, he reached the port of Tuticorin on Easter 1687.


Jaffna mission

On landing at Jaffna he found a strong Calvinist presence. 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 traveled barefoot as an Indian sanyasi.

He suffered from acute dysentery, contracted from the terrible traveling conditions. Upon recovering he began contacting Catholics and hiding from the Dutch. He was taken in and ministered to his secret flock by night. In 1689 taking up his residence in a village called Sillalai where the Catholics were numerous and resolute, he succeeded in reviving the spirit of the faithful. In 1690 he was forced to change his quarters for Puttalam, where he worked with great success for a whole year.

Kandy mission

In 1692 he settled in Kandy, the capital of a native independent kingdom, as his centre of operations. On his arrival he was deemed to be a Portuguese spy and was imprisoned with two other Catholics. There he learned Sinhala, the local language. They were left alone by the prison guards as long as they didn't try to escape and 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 king Vimaldharna Surya asked the Buddhist monks to pray to their gods for rain as there was no rain. He turned to Father Vaz, who erected an altar and cross in the middle of the square and prayed. Abundant rain began to fall, while Father Vaz and the altar stayed dry. This prompted the King to grant Father Vaz license to preach throughout the kingdom.

Making the most of his new-found freedom, he made a mission visit to the Dutch controlled areas and visited Catholics in Colombo. Three missionaries from the Oratory of Goa arrived in 1697 to help him with the news that Bishop Pedro Pacheco of Cochin had appointed Vaz as Vicar General in Ceylon. He was organizing the basic mission structure when smallpox broke out in Kandy. His work with the sick convinced the king to allow Father Vaz freedom in his labors.

Father Vaz carried his mission to the main centers of the island. He returned to Kandy in 1699 with Father Joseph de Carvalho who had been expelled at the instigation of Buddhist monks. He completed the construction of his new church, and went into service for the king, translating Portuguese books into Sinhala. From this vantage point, he intensified his ministry, and converted some Sinhalese notables. New missionaries arrived in 1705, which enabled him to organize the mission into eight districts, each led by a priest. He worked on the creation of Catholic literature comparable to that of the Buddhists, and to affirm the rights of Catholics with those of the Dutch Calvinist Government.


King Vimaldharna Surya II, Father Joseph Vaz's patron, died in 1707, but Narendra Sinha, his successor, was an even greater supporter. New missionaries arrived in 1708. In 1710, despite health problems, Father Vaz took another apostolic trip. On his return, he fell ill. He recovered from a series of infections and fevers, but was left weakened. He undertook eight days of spiritual exercises prescribed by the Rule, but before the seventh day he died at Kandy on January 16, 1711, at the age of 59.


The subject of his beatification was first urged upon the consideration of the Holy See about 1737 by Dom Francisco de Vasconcellos, S.J., Bishop of Cochin, who also claimed jurisdiction over Ceylon.

The process was begun in Goa, and a number of miracles were registered. But the non-fulfillment of certain essential formalities led Benedict XIV to cancel the proceedings, with an order, however, that they should be re-instituted. In South Kanara, he is generally known as Venerable Father Joseph Vaz. On January 21, 1995, Joseph Vaz was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Colombo, Sri Lanka.


Michael Mascarenhas, SDB. Through Storm and Tempest. [Also available in Konkani (Roman script and Kannada script).]

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