Joseph Vaz was born on 21st April, 1651, in the village of Benaulim in the territory of Goa, then the capital of the Portuguese colonies in the Far East. He received his basic education within the family, but then went to college – to the Jesuits to study humanities; to the Dominicans to study theology. Joseph was ordained priest in 1676 and after a period of almost free-lance work, was invited by the Patriarch of Goa to work at Kanara, where he remained for some years, distinguishing himself by his pastoral zeal.
He returned to Goa, and in 1686, with some other priests, started an Oratory, receiving the necessary information and help from the Congregations in Portugal. In April, 1687, however, he went as a missionary to the island of Ceylon (today Sri Lanka). He arrived incognito at Jaffna and remained on the island for 24 years, fulfilling his apostolate in very difficult circumstances – having to travel and celebrate the sacraments at night, always in disguise, and being constantly pursued by the Dutch Calvinist authorities, who sought to put an end to his single-handed attempt to keep the Catholic faith alive on the island. His work was blessed with success and he succeeded in strengthening the faith of many, comforting the suffering and the persecuted.
Joseph decided to make his base in the Kingdom of Kandy, in the island’s interior, but on arrival was arrested as a spy and put in prison. He was released after having prayed for and obtained a miraculous fall of rain, so ending a prolonged drought. After that the King of Kandy gave him his personal protection.
In 1696 the Oratory Fathers of Goa began to arrive on the island and so a properly constituted mission was established. Joseph refused the position of Vicar Apostolic. Preferring to remain a humble missionary, continuing his unstinting work for the people. He translated into Singalese and Tamil, (the local languages), various prayers and a catechism.
On 16th January, 1711, he knew he was dying. He asked for and received the Last Rites and his faithful followers gathered around his bed. ‘Always live according to God’s inspiration,’ he told them. At midnight, holding a candle in his hand, he pronounced the holy name of ‘Jesus’ with great clarity and fervour, and, commending his soul into his Saviour’s hands, he died. He left a marvellous legacy: 70,000 Catholics, 15 churches and 400 chapels.
The people called him ‘Sammanasu Swam’ – the Angelic Priest. Joseph’s character and talents made him an efficacious instrument of Divine Providence at a critical moment in the missionary history of S.E. Asia. His successes during his lifetime brought him to the attention of the Church authorities in both Portugal and Rome. After his death his example and methods of apostolic work made him a continuing inspiration for the missionary priests of his adopted island and beyond.
Unfortunately the exact whereabouts of his remains is uncertain. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 21st June, 1995
Saint Joseph Vaz, pray for us!