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A CHRISTIAN YOGI! - By Rev. Fr. Denis Pereira

Speaking of the man and his manners, contemporary and later biographers describe Joseph Vaz as a man of simple habits and few needs, a lover of the poor, who dressed and lived and was content with the lodgings of a poor man.  His diet of "rice boiled in water, without any seasoning and occasionally salt-fish, is what the poor people of his time, both in India and Sri Lanka, had to be content with.  He slept on a mat spread out on a cow-dunged floor, and sought no bodily comforts.  He had no box nor cupboard nor chest-o-drawers for his clothes.  He wore threadbare one cassock which he got patched until it could take no more patches or until a kindly soul replaced it with a new one, keeping the old as a precious relic.  He had worn no sandals since the day of his ordination, and only as a concession to his royal host did he wear shoes when summoned to the palace.  He carried, even on long journeys, enough food only for the day, trusting to Divine Providence.  He was in a constant state of prayer, and recited the rosary and the litanies with his companions when moving from place to place. Indeed, he was a Christian yogi  in  typical Indian sannyasi or holy-man tradition.

This may seem a rather surprising.  If interesting, description to us today who think of inculturation as a new concept and a rather novel approach to evangelisation.  Joseph Vaz, perhaps without thinking of it, that is, despite his Portuguese-influenced education and upbringing in the Seminar, and without even planning it, found himself caught in the stream of consciousness, of spiritual awareness of the Absolute coming down the centuries from the rishis and holy men of India.  These sequester themselves in mountain caves and deep forests and their asceticism, quest for the absolute, voluntary poverty, heroic self-denial and deeds of penance are the hall-mark of the religious tradition of India.  Joseph Vaz seemed to have imbibed it through his pores.  Why did most other Indian priests not experience this?  Or what in fact prevented them from having this experience?

In the Indian tradition of sannyasa common to both Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, the life-style prescribed for the sannyasi is that of the wandering mendicant.  "He should have no appreciation or greetings (for others) and he should be free of rituals.  He should have the body and soul as his support, and he should be dependent on circumstances." (Mandukya Kavika Upanishad.)  How akin this is to Jesus' advice to his disciples on their first "missionary" expedition to nearby towns and villages; "Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road" (Lk 10:4).  Joseph was faithful to both these traditions.

How different his life-style was from that of other foreign missionaries! This is all the more remarkable because both by upbringing and by training he would have been led to believe that he must turn his back on all that was "pagan" i.e. not (European) Christian.  Consciously or unconsciously he expressed our modern conviction that what is truly human can be also authentically Christian.

Joseph Vaz showed both in his life-style and missionary methods that he belonged to the centuries-old Indian yogi tradition.  Though nearly 300 years before their time, he could well be the model for the modern Indian native missionary, or rather, evangeliser! This fact is so little known and appreciated among Indian Christians who still regard Francis Xavier, Robert de Nobili, John de Britto  and other western missionaries with the very high esteem-which indeed they deserve, while burying in the graveyard of their ignorance the claims to similar, if not greater, renown of one of their own native sons! Of course, yogi-like our Joseph would renounce all claims to greatness and would spurn all the encomiums heaped on him.

Neither Joseph Vaz nor his Indian companion-priests, nor his Indian contemporaries ever expressed opinions on inculturation,  Indianization of Church practice or theology.  On the contrary, they could only think of Christianity in its western garb.  It is all the more remarkable therefore that instinctively, it would seem, Joseph realized, or was led by the Spirit to be a missionary in the true centuries-old Indian tradition.  We shall list some of the characteristics of this tradition numerically for the sake of clarity.


MODEL OF A TRUE CHRISTIAN: - By Rev. Fr. Cosme da Costa

“For this the Church was founded: that by spreading the Kingdom of Christ everywhere for the glory of God, the Father, she might bring all men to share in Christ’s saving Redemption; and that through them the whole world might in actual fact be brought into relationship with Him. All activity of the Mystical Body directed to the attainment of this goal is called the apostolate” (Apostolicam Actuositatem).

“This  apostolate is carried through faith, hope and charity which the Holy Spirit diffuses in the hearts of all members of the Church. Indeed, the law of love, which is the Lord’s greatest commandment, impels all the faithful to promote God’s glory through the spread of His Kingdom and to obtain for all men that eternal life which consists in knowing the only true God and Him whom He sent,  Jesus Christ (Jn.17, 3). On all Christians therefore is laid the splendid burden of making the divine message of Salvation known and accepted by all men throughout the world”.

These words of Vatican II found an echo in the heart of Fr. Joseph Vaz 300 years ago, long before they were formulated in the above terms in the document on the Apostolate of the Laity. The faith that his forefathers had received hardly 90 years before his birth, evoked from him a courageous response.




The virtue of hope shone as brightly as his faith in Fr. Joseph Vaz, who was able to achieve great feats for God beyond human power.


Fr. Joseph Vaz was burning with the love of God which was also reaching out to his neighbours, whether friends or foes.










THE "SAMMANASU SWAMI" - By Rev. Fr. Charles Gasbarri

There was nothing very striking in the personal appearance of Fr. Joseph Vaz. He was of medium height, fair-skinned, thin and often looking worn out with fatigue.  Constitutionally he was robust, always calm, dignified in bearing, dynamic and untiring.

He dressed according to the place where he lived and travelled.  In the Kingdom of Kandy and among the Vanni he wore a soutane, and among the coastal fishermen he wore a modest loin-cloth.  His cassock was often patched and faded, and sometimes it was changed for a better one by the Catholics, when they saw that it was becoming threadbare.  But he asked or wanted nothing for himself.  He dressed more decently only when he was called to an audience at the Court of Kandy.  On these occasions he wore shoes, otherwise he always walked bare-footed, and only after having had a present of a pair of sandals from one of his Brethren, and after the loving insistence of the faithful, did he decide to wear them.

The villages he visited were distant from each other, and he walked at a quick pace, absorbed in prayer, so much so, that those who went with him, generally young lay Brothers or some of the faithful, could hardly keep up with him while he invited them to say the rosary or the Litany.  And so he went on his way, constantly hurrying on, and on arriving at a place he used to start his work at once.

His food was always only cooked rice, which he took twice a day, lighting the fire only for the principal meal; when he saw that people were pleased to offer him something more, he accepted it, but he always refused any delicious food. Only when he was ill and during his last years did he obediently accept special food to sustain his strength.  He ate his simple food in the native manner, cross-legged on the ground and took his rice out of a copper plate: when he was on the coast, he sometimes took salted fish.  He slept on a straw mat on the ground for a few hours at night, when he was in free territory: otherwise in the Dutch territory he worked and journeyed by night, hiding himself in the houses of friends or in the woods and resting for a short time in the day.

But as Fr. Gonsalvez and others stated, at night he devoted himself not only to prayer, but also to reading in the two languages of the country, so that he could become more proficient in them. He read by the light of a candle.

When a Brother once respectfully asked him to sit at table and eat with him, and in winter at least to have a blanket, Fr. Vaz did not say anything, but just looked at him very severely.  Perhaps this humble priest, who always listened to the advice of others, did not want to accept these suggestions for the alleviation of his hard life, lest he might obey them.  But he did not say anything, because his way was only to speak about useful things, leaving out any superfluous talk.  In his last illness he accepted a blanket, but we know that at the end he gave it to a poor man.  Exhausted by weariness and illness, he allowed himself to be carried to Kandy in a litter, because his legs just could not carry him.  He was really overtaken by fatigue but, as we said, originally being of a strong constitution, he succeeded in bearing the great physical stresses of his very active life and he always seemed to have that strength which allowed him to go wherever the spirit called him.     

Besides there were the many and great difficulties of his surroundings - the climate, dangerous animals, big rivers, impossible and almost inaccessible paths, enormous distances and other dangers.  In a document, dated 1698, Fr. de Menezes said that once Fr. Vaz was walking alone, a little ahead of his companions, on the road between Maripo and Velavalli reading a book, perhaps his Breviary, when an enraged elephant suddenly appeared out of the wood.  His terrified companions ran away, each one looking to his own safety, but when the elephant came in front of the Father, it stopped, turned round and went off without molesting him.

This is only one of many such episodes, which nobody was able to record especially during the first years, as no one witnessed them, and Fr. Vaz himself never took care to refer to such events because it was his way never to speak of his own affairs, above all something that might call for admiration.  Among the people certain traditions still circulate about marvelous facts and spectacular incidents.  Of these facts the most interesting are, in some way, those, which happened to him in those long years, when he was hiding from the Dutch.

It would be enough to record what happened in 1703, at Mantota when the Jubilee was announced and Fr. Vaz was charged from Goa to organize it.  His preaching and the exceptional fact of the Jubilee made great crowds of Catholics come to the village, and this became known to the Dutch, who might have made a great haul, falling suddenly upon the assembly.  But they were obliged to give up the plan, because they could not arrest a crowd without running the risk of serious revolt.  It was the only time when a haul could really have succeeded and in which human prudence worked against the persecutors.  For the rest we have already seen how the continual escapes, surprises, threats, sudden attacks, against Fr. Vaz never succeeded.

The natives thought he was protected from on high, he was immune from harm by men and nature, actually the Dutch never succeeded in laying hands on him, however much they tried. It is not to be wondered at that the Ceylonese venerated him so much that they even risked their lives for him.

To the geographical and physical difficulties of the surroundings, must be added above all the moral, political and religious situation in the territory in which Fr. Vaz was called upon to organize his missionary work.

We have already referred to these facts; we must now summarize them to get a complete picture of his life and work.  The country in which Fr. Vaz worked was really in a strange condition.  The evangelization of the island and the planting of the Church had always been carried on by foreigners who had not understood the mentality of the people; instead they had westernized the natives.  All the same the faith had taken root, but though more than fifty years had passed, nothing had been done: no churches, no priests, no teaching, no Sacraments.  And there were persecutions followed by apostasy, and a very different religious climate imposed by threats, force and the penal laws.

The system, adopted by the Dutch and carried through with tremendous energy, would have been successful.  The older generation was obliged to submit to the tyranny.  They were obliged to attend Calvinist churches, to listen to the instruction of the 'predikants' and were obliged to be baptized and married according to the instructions of the Dutch.  The new generation was taught by the dominating foreigners and in a few decades they were absorbed in the new spiritual climate, which was meant to destroy them.

When a foreigner arrived in the country he was suspected of being a spy, because he was the subject of a State, which was at war with the occupying power.  Apostates, heretics, weak Christians and the pagans themselves were not favorable to him.  The dominating European power did their best to catch Fr. Vaz, but the fearless foreign priest was not to be frightened.  He organized his work as best he could.

The distant Portuguese, who were on the decline, wanted the spiritual reconquest of the island, but, according to the mentality of the time, they did not at all envisage the possibility of having missionary work done by native priests, so they failed to form a native clergy.  They expected that for the religious rebirth of Ceylon a military reconquest was necessary, which would help the European missionaries to re-enter the island.  The political condition of Portugal did not permit this reconquest. Everybody talked about spiritual rebirth, desired it, made solemn promises, but no one had the courage to move.  It was an Indian by race, language and culture who alone, without awaiting for anyone's help, began the great adventure.  Alone against terrible odds, alone with a cowed down and scattered flock, alone before hostile aggressive pagans.  Isn't this perhaps a unique case in the history of the Mission or even of the Church?

As we have already seen, Fr. Vaz never lost courage.  He started his missionary work relying only on the supernatural help of God.  Notwithstanding all the difficulties, he built up the Church in Ceylon.  Single-handed through nine long years he labored and gave it a local character, which made it strong against all set-backs and persecutions.  The benevolence and protection of the King of Kandy was certainly a very great help and can be considered one of the mysterious ways in which Providence guides human affairs.  So the Church arose with its own priests.  Its places of worship were built openly or covertly, and the faithful gradually acquired a proud consciousness of their own faith, which they showed courageously.  They were soundly instructed in religion and were zealous in the practice of their faith. It can be said without exaggeration that all this is due to the work of the 'Pioneer', who trained his co-workers; they followed him not so much for what he said as for what he did by his inspiring example.

On the contrary, the forced conversions and the superficial Calvinistic ministry proved to be a happy hunting ground - as long as the occupation lasted - and thousands of converts to the Faith of the Ruling power were recorded.  But in 1797, when the Dutch fell, these Calvinists either became Catholics or returned to paganism, and the work of the "predikants" fell to pieces.  Neither can it be said that the Calvinists were faced with persecutions and difficulties themselves, because the Dutch were officially Protestant.  But all their labors were futile and no one will ever remember them.  The only Church, which was really native, remained, because it was, and was felt to belong to, the soul of the country.  The end of the Oratorian Mission did not mean the end of Christianity in Ceylon, which still today is based on the descendants of those who were converted by the great missionary.

It has been already said that the secret of missionary success was the personal holiness of Fr. Vaz, which appears from the scanty reports in the documents we possess on his way of life, his apostolate and his method of work.

Like his spiritual Father St. Philip Neri, Fr. Vaz used to say with his fingers held up: that holiness is in the space of three fingers, because it just means the submission of one's will to that of God!  Like a child he was obedient first to the Voice of God, and then always to those whom he had to obey.  Though he was the senior he asked advice from the youngest of the Brethren and even listened to the advice of the faithful.  He realized that the Will of God could be manifested through the advice of his Brethren and he was so sure of this, that he even left it, on his death bed, as a spiritual counsel to the Fathers.

His invocation: "O my Jesus," which he often repeated, touched those who heard him, and guided all his prayers and actions.  "Memento ne recorderis, Pater!" was another invocation, which came instinctively to his lips. While working he prayed, and begged others to join him in his prayer.  He was often quite lifted up by his prayer.  So at the altar, like another St. Philip as a prominent Kandyan of Portuguese origin, named Pascal, said, - Fr. Vaz used to go into ecstasy and the server had to pull him by his alb, so that he could continue holy Mass. Fr. De Rego obtained under oath from witnesses, they had seen him rise from the ground.  Tears flowed spontaneously from his eyes during his prayer, so that he always had with him a handkerchief, truly a "manipulum fletus et doloris", according to the expression in the Liturgy.

Fr. de Saldanha, who was on intimate terms with Fr. Vaz for several years, called him a burning torch.  Fr. Ferrao compared him to St. Francis.  Fr. de Miranda wrote, "the life of Fr. Vaz is a miracle." Fr. de Menezes described him as a "sermon". Others said that he was the absolute application of the maxims in the "Spiritual Combat", a celebrated book of meditations.

It is not to be wondered at therefore, that the faithful were enthusiastic about Fr. Vaz and followed him in spite of dangers.  His inward burning spirit spread to those who came in contact with him and explains the constancy of the martyrs of Jaffna and Colombo.  In the island he celebrated the same spiritual atmosphere, which had animated the Church of the first centuries and produced the same spiritual effects.  Having recognized the prayer of his intercession, the people called him the "Sammana Swami" the 'Angelic Father', already during his life.  They begged for his prayers and after his death they chose him as their protector and even now he is greatly venerated.

What Fr. de Menezes wrote in 1698 can still be said today: "All I can say is that his life seems more supernatural than natural and we greet it as a miracle.  Even Muslims and Hindus refer to his marvelous deeds."

His official glorification would be the greatest honor and the most coveted recognition that the Universal Church could pay to the Apostle of Ceylon and to the people of the great continent of Asia.  


MODEL OF PRIESTLY ZEAL - By Rev. Fr. Cosme da Costa

"For he who is sent enters upon the life and mission of Him who emptied himself, talking the nature of a salve (Phil. 2:7). Therefore, he must be ready to stand by his vocation for a lifetime, and to renounce himself and all those whom he thus far considered as his own, and instead t become all things to all men" (1 Cor. 9:22).

Announcing the Gospel among the nations, he confidently makes known the mystery of Christ, whose ambassador he is. Thus in Christ he dares to speak as he ought (ch. Eph. 6:19f.; Acts 4:31), and is not ashamed of the scandal of the Cross. Following in his Master's footsteps, meek and humble of heart, he shows that His yoke is easy and His burden light (Matt. 11:29 f.) By a truly evangelical life, in much patience, in long-suffering, in kindness, in unaffected love (cf. 2Cor. 6:4 f.), he bears witness to his Lord" (Ad Gentes', 24).

These words of Vatican II on the life of a missionary are a resume of the priestly missionary vision and zeal of Fr. Joseph Vaz, as we have seen described in the second section "Model of True Christian" under the heading of each theological and cardinal virtue practiced by him to a heroic degree. In addition to those, in this chapter, avoiding repetitions, we present Fr. Joseph Vaz as a model for priests, religious and missionaries: -

  1. Model of Prayerful Priest :
  1. Model of Zeal for Souls:
  1. Model of Ascetic Life :
  1. Model of Humility :
  1. Model of Simplicity and Poverty :
  1. Model of Chastity :
  1. Model of Obedience:
  1. Spirit of Detachment and Self Sacrifice:
  1. Discernment of the Real Pastoral Needs of the Flock :
  1. Formation of Catechists and Lay Leaders:
  1. Inculturation :
  1. Independence From Political Power :
  1. Minister of Peace, Hope and Reconciliation :



An important non-Christian manuscript VIJITABALE RAJAVALIYA, written on 158 palm leaves in Sinhalese, exists in the British Museum in London and is transcribed in the Hugh Novelle Collection. It has 13 pages of introduction; from pg. 14 to 119 is the Rajavaliva or Cronology of the Kings of Sri Lanka; and from pg. 120 to 158 it refers to the British Government in Sri Lanka from the year 1796 to 1875.

From the introduction it is seen that the Rajavaliya is based on another Maha-Rajavaliya that was written by a Buddhist from Sri Lanka 120 years after the death of Fr. Joseph Vaz. On pages 116 and 117 after describing the unjust Dutch persecution of Buddhists, Hindus and Catholics, it confirms the veneration bestowed by non-Christians on Fr. Joseph Vaz: “Some holy ministers of the Roman Catholic Church, fearless and dauntless of the sufferings, were rendering the divine service in the tradition of the Roman religion. The head of these was on called Joseph Vaz. During his stay in Sri Lanka he visited the coastal districts of the North. When the smallpox epidemic assailed Sri Lanka (the vaccine against it was not, at that time, known), many people died of it.

Parents and children, wives and husbands, afraid of one another, abandoned those affected and ran away. The fierce savage animals devoured the corpses. The number of the dead went on increasing. The corpses were rotting without burial. At the same time the epidemic was spreading in Jayavardhanapura (i.e. Kandy), the Capital. Many were dying of this epidemic and were left on the streets. The King himself not being able to bear the stench of the corpses left the capital.

When the news reached one person called Fr. Joseph Vaz, he came from Colombo, bringing with him food, clothing and other things. He went in search of those affected, betaking himself into the forest, providing them with shelter, putting up tents and ministering to them in all their needs. In this way he was performing heroic works. Because of these great works, the people were fascinated by him and may embrace the Christian religion. In the year 1711 of the Christian era this Father Vaz died in Jayavardhanapura at Maharuwara.”

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