Sri Lanka Pioneer Beat Persecution By Msgr. John Condon
SRI LANKA is a large island at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent. It has had a civilization from pre-Christian times. It had its own rulers and was politically independent up to the 16th century in spite of repeated invasions from South India. The religion of the great majority of its people is Buddhism, brought into the country by their missionaries sent by the Indian emperor Asoka in the third century B.C. Early in the 16th century the Portuguese built a fort in Colombo, the present capital, and their influence began to be felt in the country. With the Portuguese came also the Catholic faith: Missionaries of several religious orders worked on the island. The first to come were the Franciscans, in 1543. The Jesuits came in 1602, and soon after, in 1606, the Dominicans and Augustinians. They made many conversions and firmly planted the faith in the island.
By the middle of the seventeenth century another colonial power from the West came on the scene: the Dutch. They overthrew the Portuguese in Sri Lanka and occupied the territories that had been held by them. The Dutch were Calvinists. Through fear that the Catholic faith might remain a political link between the Sri Lankans and the Portuguese, they began to persecute the Catholics. determined to root out Catholicism from the island. For about 30 years after the advent of the Dutch. the Catholics had no priests to minister to them. It was then that in 1687, a remarkable man of God, an Indian priest of the Archdiocese of Goa, Father Joseph Vaz. hearing of the sad situation in which Sri Lanka’s Catholics found themselves, came into the country in secret and in disguise to tend the abandoned flock. First alone on the entire island, and later assisted by a small group of other Indian priests, he labored in Sri Lanka, tirelessly and relentlessly and without ever going back up to his death in 1711. In the quarter of a century of his labors in Sri Lanka he rebuilt and rejuvenated the Church which sustained by the impact of his saintly personality successfully weathered the storm by persecution under Dutch rule (1658-1796) until, with the coming of the British, freedom was restored to Catholics in 1806. The influence of Father Vaz on the Church in Sri Lanka has endured and is felt even today. Father Vaz’s extraordinary achievement in Sri Lanka is itself reason enough for him to be ranked among the great missionaries of the Church.
When the Dutch persecution of the Catholics of Sri Lanka began, it was no longer possible for European missionaries to come into the country. Even if they were willing to come, it would have been difficult for them to hide their identity. The color of their skin itself would have betrayed them. Indian missionaries wouldn’t have that difficulty. Providentially, at this critical moment in the history of the Church in Sri Lanka, a society came into being in Goa which, thanks to the efforts, enterprise and foresight of Father Vaz, began to supply Indian priests to Sri Lanka, with Father Vaz himself as pioneer, leader and trailblazer. Had he come alone as just a priest of the Archdiocese of Goa, he certainly would have achieved much, as he actually did, but there wouldn’t have been others to follow up and continue his work. The Oratory, a community he founded, on the other hand, became a means of recruiting worker, for Sri Lanka. In reality it became a missionary society. It supplied Indian missionaries to Sri Lanka for over 150 years until with freedom restored to Catholics by the British missionaries from the West were again able to resume work on the island. Saviour of the Catholic faith in Sri Lanka founder of a native religious congregation at a time when such institutions were non-existent, coordinator of a missionary society which supplied Asian missionaries, to another Asian country and capable Church administrator even during times of persecution. Father Joseph Vaz holds a very special place in mission history.