Sri Lanka gets its first saint


By Rex Clementine and Norman Palihawadane

Sri Lankan Catholics have a special devotion towards St. Anthony and St. Jude and yesterday Pope Francis gave them a saint of their own with the canonization of St. Joseph Vaz. A priest from Goa, India, St. Joseph Vaz, served in Sri Lanka during the Dutch occupation in disguise as a beggar and a bangle seller. Church authorities said over one million devotees had been present at the Galle Face green and its vicinity to witness the historic moment as Sri Lanka received a saint of their own after a lengthy process.

Yesterday morning’s event was the highlight of Pope Francis’ visit to the island and the Ceremony of Canonization preceded the Holy Mass.

Pope Francis arrived at the Galle Face Green at 7:45am. He got into an open car driven around the Galle Face Green and the devotees got a closer look at their spiritual leader.

The Pope then proceeded towards a section where handicapped children were waiting for him and blessed them.

The day’s proceedings started around 8:30am with Bishop Vianney Fernando, the Bishop of Kandy asking the customary permission for the Canonization. St. Joseph Vaz primarily served in northern and central parts of Sri Lanka and the miracle that confirmed the Canonization of him came from Kandy.

Then the Archbishop of Goa, Rev. Filipe Neri Ferrao read out the biography of St. Joseph Vaz. The Litany of Saints was sung followed by the Formula of Canonization confirming Joseph Vaz as the first Saint of Sri Lanka. There was loud applause and ringing of bells at this point and a hymn was sung in honour of St. Joseph Vaz.

In his sermon Pope Francis spoke highly of the new saint. "Saint Joseph Vaz came to this island inspired by a great love of its people. Because of religious persecution, he dressed as a beggar performing his priestly duties in secret meetings of the faithful, often at night," Pope Francis said.

"His efforts provided spiritual and moral strength to the beleaguered Catholic population. He had a particular desire to serve the ill and suffering. His ministry to the sick was so appreciated by the king during a smallpox epidemic in Kandy that he was allowed greater freedom to minister. From Kandy, he could reach out to other parts of the island. He spent himself in missionary work and died exhausted at the age of 59," Pope Francis added.

Over 3,000 priests were present during the Holy Mass to give communion. A Church spokesman while thanking President Maithripala Sirisena and his government for the wonderful support extended since their appointment last week remembered the support given by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. During the former President’s rule of ten years Catholicism thrived.

The Church was able to get special train services from Jaffna, Galle, Bandarawela, Kandy and other places straight to Slave Island station, a stone’s throw from the Galle Face Green. There were also special bus services from all parts of the island. Devotees were also encouraged to use private transport and there were sufficient spots to park their vehicles in close vicinity.

The Security Forces and Police also did an extremely good job. Yesterday morning IGP N.K. Illangakoon was present at the Galle Face Hotel roundabout giving instructions to his officers and ensuring smooth functioning without any hassle to the public.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith was a key figure in bringing home Pope Francis having first suggested the idea at the end of the conclave in 2013. He was a key figure in St. Joseph Vaz being beatified 20 years ago. Since then he has done much work to ensure the canonization of Sri Lanka’s first ever saint.

His next task possibly could be to see his former mentor and the first Sri Lankan Archbishop Thomas Cardinal Cooray (OMI) being made a Venerable. The visionary Oblate Cardinal, who died 26 years ago, is a Servant of God at present. 

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