The Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Sri Lanka has proclaimed a special year dedicated to St. Joseph Vaz to start off from the 16th January 2017 to 16th January 2018 in order to achieve a greater sense of awareness of this great gift of God’s loving mercy to the Church in Sri Lanka, at a time when a severe persecution of the Catholic community by the Dutch colonial rulers posed a serious threat to its survival and to effect a strengthening of its faith in God and a renewal of its pastoral and missionary effort. The year is also to be an occasion to thank God for Him on the basis of the core values that St. Joseph Vaz stood for. In short, the year is to generate among all sections of the Church a new sense of enthusiasm in the faith and in its fervent practice.
Brief Biographical note:
St. Joseph Vaz was born on 21st April 1651 in Benaulim, Goa, India to Christopher Vaz and Maria de Miranda who were devout Catholics. He was baptized on the 8th day as is customary in the parish Church of St. John the Baptist by its Pastor Jacintho Pereira. From his early days Vaz was a devout boy and soon a priestly call was beckoning him. He joined the archdiocesan seminary and was ordained a priest in the year 1676. He was known for his profound sense of asceticism and holiness and had a great sense of devotion to the Blessed Mother consecrating himself to her as “her slave” and signing in his own blood a “deed of bondage”. Having heard about the suffering to which the Dutch colonies had subjected the Catholic community in Sri Lanka he requested permission from the Cathedral chapter in Goa to go as a missionary to that country. The chapter instead directed him to a difficult part in Goa itself, Canara. After a dedicated mission there where he tried his best to stay clear of a conflict that was going on between the Padroado community and those who belong to the Propaganda Fide administration, he returned to Goa. There he joined an Oratory of St. Philip Neri and became its provost. It is then that he could realize his dream of serving in Sri Lanka and in the year 1687 disguised as a coolie he reached Sri Lanka. Landing in Jaffna, exhausted and sick, he was looked after by the local Christians who recognized him to be a Catholic priest. Fr. Vaz served in Jaffna initially learning the Tamil language and the cultural orientations of the people in this area. He then moved on to Puttalam and from there tried to enter the central Kingdom of Kandy. He was arrested by the border guards at Weuda as a Portuguese spy and imprisoned in Kandy. The king of Kandy, however having heard about his saintly qualities released him from Jail and allowed him to function in his kingdom. As time went by Fr. Vaz started entering secretly those areas in Sri Lanka under Dutch occupation ministering to the Catholics there too.
Later on, he was joined by some confreres of his from the Oratory in Goa, like Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez and with their help he worked tirelessly to revive the faith of the Catholic community in this country. On his missionary journeys’ he had to make many sacrifices. And so, failing health and the effort he had put into his mission, gradually weakened him and on 16th January 1711, he died in Kandy at the age of 59. The labours he initiated were then completed by the Oratorians of Goa up until religious freedom was later restored and more missionaries could come to Sri Lanka. He thus saved the Catholic community from extinction. And so we can state that the life of Fr. Vaz was the greatest act of God’s love and mercy to the Catholic community in Sri Lanka at that crucial moment. He not only saved the Church here from possible extinction but also gave it a new missionary impetus.
Much can be learned from him and given the latest threat to our Catholic faith from many real and even more virulent sources today he could be a very good example for the Church to be more effective and strong in its mission. The many facets of his life and spirituality need to be imitated by us in order to do this.
Beset by the assaults of secularism, consumerism and rampant materialism as well as a resultant crisis of faith, lack of knowledge and awareness of what it really means to be Catholic among most of our faithful, the assaults of disinterestedness, easy and uncritical capitulation to the campaigns of Christian fundamentalists, and a routine type of pastoral approach becoming obsolete in the present time, the Church in the Archdiocese of Colombo considers the person of St. Joseph Vaz a true role model and a powerful heavenly intercessor who could inspire us to effect such a renewal of our faith. It is for this reason that this special year of St. Joseph Vaz can be considered a God given opportunity to work zealously for a renewal of our Catholic faith and missionary commitment among all the components of the Church; bishops, priests, the religious and all the laity and at all its different levels; parishes, schools, families, BCC groups, confraternities, associations, youth, adolescents and children as well as cultural and socio political as well as spiritual groups.
I therefore call upon all our dear priests, reverend sisters and brothers, families, heads of associations, confraternities, schools and institutions as well as the various apostolates to give their very best towards the working out of the programs of this special year.
More than anything else, I call upon all concerned to storm heaven with their prayers, holy hours, Rosaries, Liturgical celebrations, family prayer calling upon the Lord through the intercession of our beloved saint to effect a true renewal of the Catholic faith in this country. The situation of the Church today is not much different from that of the time of St. Joseph Vaz. All the above-mentioned factors seek to disorient, weaken and drag away our Catholics from their joyful belonging to the one, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. And so may this special year be celebrated with intensity by all.
A. Opening and closing ceremonies:
On Saturday the 14th January 2017 at 6.00 p.m. the formal opening ceremony of the year will take place at St. Lucia’s Cathedral, Kotahena with the participation of the Archbishop and the Auxiliary Bishops, all the Episcopal Vicars, the Fathers of the three deaneries of Colombo and of Kotte who will also send a representative group from each of the parishes to take part in the event. The cloak relic of St. Joseph Vaz will be brought in procession to the Cathedral for this ceremony and would be made available to the public for veneration thereafter in the Cathedral.
The year of mercy will be closed on Sunday 15th January 2018 on the feast of St. Joseph Vaz at a solemn ceremony to be held at the same venue. In all the parishes of the Archdiocese the solemn opening ceremony of the year will be held on Sunday the 15th January at a suitable time to be determined by the Parish Priests and the Parish Pastoral Councils. It could also be organized on Monday the 16th January which is the feast day proper of St. Joseph Vaz. The Liturgical texts for the opening ceremony will be sent to all the parishes by our Archdiocesan Liturgy office.
The hymn recognized and already known all over Sri Lanka “Vandaneeyawu, Pujaneeyawu” composed by the late Mr. J K S Perera will be the official hymn of the year and is encouraged to be sung at every public Mass in all our parishes and institutions during the year.
The Archdiocesan Liturgy Office will also prepare and distribute to the fathers in the parishes and institutions, the logo for the year, theme, special prayer to be recited by our people. It will be made available to you soon.
Banners and pennants for display in your parishes and Churches will be made and sold by the Liturgy office for a reasonable amount. You may purchase these from the Liturgy office directly.
I also wish to encourage the Rev. Fathers who are talented in this field to compose suitable hymns bringing out the spiritual message of St. Joseph Vaz nearer to our youth, children, the families and the laity.
B. Faith Animation Team
As the Bishops’ Pastoral Letter pin points, St. Joseph Vaz was a missionary par excellence who single handedly walked the length and breadth of our country, celebrating the Eucharist devoutly, administrating the Sacraments with great pastoral charity and dignity, seeking ever new ways of sharing his own personal faith in God with the people, taking the trouble to learn not only the vernacular languages but also adapting the message of the Gospel to the local culture. He lived “very close to the flock”. He “ate the food of the people, slept on the ground and walked barefooted” (cf. Bishops’ Pastoral Letter). He loved the people and gave so much of personal and loving attention to the people.
And so during this special year, I intend to:
a) Strengthen and intensify our faith animation programme even further adding more priests for this task. It is important that using every means at our disposal we go looking for the “lost ones” instead of waiting in our mission houses till they come to us serving only the needs of those who come to the Church.
b) Organize one or two bands of priests who will be available for programs of conscientisation on the life and virtues of the saint at Church feasts, special retreats, etc.
c) Organize with the help of the Faith Animation Team an exhibition on the life of St. Joseph Vaz which can be made available to the parishes, schools, apostolates, etc., as a way of conscientisation of the people on the virtues and pastoral zeal of the Saint.
d) The cloak worn by St. Joseph Vaz during his missionary journey will be permanently exhibited at St. Lucia’s Cathedral and pilgrimages encouraged during the year to pray to the Saint for a deeper experience of our faith and a renewal of the Church as well as protection from the wiles of satan.
e) The diocese will motivate and strengthen the practice of daily family Rosary and Holy Hours every month in the parish Churches to pray for the intentions of a renewal of our faith. The Family Apostolate is to coordinate this family prayer at the level of all our families. Liturgy office is to motivate the celebration of the holy hours.
f) We will also encourage pilgrimages to the sites visited by St. Joseph Vaz in our diocese as well as in the other dioceses and also pilgrimages to Goa by parish groups during the year. A discussion on this will be held with the Catholic tour operators in order to get the best offers possible.
C) Parish Visits
1) The Parish Pastoral visits of the bishops in their different regions will be resumed as follows:
* Colombo Region and Kalutara Deanery: The Archbishop
* Ja-Ela Region and Gurubewila Deanery: His Lordship Bishop Maxwell Silva
* Negombo Region and Gampaha Deanery: His Lordship Bishop Emmanuel Fernando
It is hoped to try and conclude all these visits by the end of the year.
2) I call upon all parish priests to, even if they have done so already, once again to undertake a special house visiting program during this year in their parishes. A coordinating secretariat to monitor and assist this programme will be established under the care of the three bishops and the Mission Region’s Episcopal Vicar. Special informative material to be distributed among the families during their visits, will be made available. The religious in the parishes could be harnessed to help this programme.
The Archdiocesan Commission for the Biblical Apostolate will help in whatever way it could to ensure that Catholic families who do not have a Bible will be provided with one.
The Deva Dharma Nikethanaya will with the help of its present and past students try and set up in each parish a Bible study group. All Parish Priests are encouraged to help the DDN achieve this target during the year.
D) Education and Catechesis
A committee comprising Rev. Frs. Ivan Perera, Lester Nonis, Pradeep Kumara Fernando (YCS), Malcolm Perera (Youth), Freddie Shanthi Kumar Fernando (Holy Childhood) with Rev. Frs. Freely Muthukudarachchi, Cecil Joy (Seminaries), Rev. Fr. Edmund Thilakaratne (Media) and Rev. Sr. Rita Gunawardena (Religious) will plan and organize the following programs in the year:
- Production and diffusion of leaflets, DVDs, CDs and other media material to introduce St. Joseph Vaz, spirituality and life to Daham Pasal and School Children,
- Organize at school and Daham Pasal level special lessons on St. Joseph Vaz,
- Encourage for the formal opening of the year at school level and Sunday School level with special ceremonies on a suitable date,
- Prepare material for conducting these opening ceremonies at school and Sunday school levels,
- The Diocesan Liturgy Office to produce and disseminate banners and prayer cards marking the year to the schools and Daham Pasals.
The Archdiocesan Media Office is to with the help of the Catholic weekly newspapers and the national papers, carry a series of articles in the year on the life and heroic witness of St. Joseph Vaz bringing out specially his spiritual disposition and openness to the challenges arising from the local contexts.
It is to prepare leaflets or booklets with the help of the DDN on the fallacies propagated against the Catholic faith by the fundamentalist Christian sects which leaflets are to be distributed in the parishes.
It is necessary also for the same office to prepare a DVD clip or clips on what is uniquely rich in the doctrine and life of the Catholic Church and its apostolic nature which could be shown in the parishes. The Archdiocesan media office is to organize the projection of such clips at parish, apostolate level and major events for the edification of the faithful.
The diffusion of the film made in Sinhala on St. Joseph Vaz should also be considered an important part of this grass roots campaign by the Archdiocesan media office.
It is to also work in close collaboration with Verbum TV in order to organize several programs of value on the life and mission of the Saint and what challenges they bring to us.
F) Family Apostolate
- The family pastoral should be further strengthened in the Archdiocese through the establishment of the family service committee at the level of the parishes. These are to be guided, formed and resources built up among these families, for assistance to other families through counseling, care and strengthening of everyone in their faith and commitment.
- The CFM and ME are to be further strengthened to engage actively in parish level post Cana care. They too are to be encouraged to join the parish family service committees to make their experience available to the parishes for the family pastoral.
- Encourage through them and the parish family service committees to organize family days, celebration of wedding anniversaries, special talks and seminars on parenting, building mutual fidelity and unity within the families and other such initiatives.
- Encourage the faithful recitation of family Rosary at parish level and obtain the service of the Legion of Mary in order to organize regular programs to monitor these initiatives.
- Organize remote and proximate marriage preparation campaigns, especially to bring out the sacramental and profoundly spiritual aspects of a truly Catholic holy family.
- As a special tribute to St. Joseph Vaz organize training programs for the formation of parish based family counsellors and try and work towards the establishment of a few more counseling centers for family guidance.
G) Small Christian Communities
It is known that during the time of St. Joseph Vaz he went around visiting and encouraging small groups of Christians to get together in prayer and reflection in their own villages and neighbourhoods. He even appointed lay Catechists and prayer leaders for such groups. The Bishops of Asia have underlined the value of the small Christian Communities and their role in the renewal of the faith at the grass root level. Following upon this policy, the Archdiocese wishes to strengthen the SCC programme further. So, during this special year a full time Director for the organization of the SCC programmes will be appointed and he will be expected to ensure that in every parish such groups are established or strengthened further with follow up programs and monitoring.
It is important that in all the parishes before the end of 2018, such groups are formed and the restructuring of the Parish Pastoral Council based on this system is completed. It is auspicabile that these in turn be organized at the deanery and diocesan levels leading up to also the eventual establishment of the deanery and diocesan pastoral councils.
H) The Social Action Apostolate
St. Joseph Vaz’s profound sense of charity which came out into the fore especially during the small pox epidemic that hit Kandy during his stay there and the way he, taking the risk of contagion, served those stuck by it, without leaving the city is well recorded.
Let us then during this special year both at the level of the Archdiocesan office for Development and Peace, Seth Sarana, and the parishes organize programs of generous help for the poor. These could be organized especially at Lent and then Christmas.
The Lenten housing program should be implemented by building houses at parish level for the parishioners who are in dire situations of homelessness. Seth Sarana is to take the initiative to make a special collection at Lent and at Christmas and provide grants to the parishes to build or help complete houses for the poorest of the poor.
A special program needs to be launched this year in favour of the welfare of the prisoners, especially their families. This is to be visualized and carried out by Seth Sarana with the support of the Prisons Chaplains. Needless to say, that St. Joseph Vaz himself was a prisoner in the Bogambara jail for a few years and would have blessed and served his fellow prisoners. Efforts to help these prisoners in whatever way possible should thus be undertaken.
I) Formation on St. Joseph Vaz
It would be auspicabile if the Archdiocesan Commission for Vocations and Ongoing Formation were to intensify its activities further by :
a) Organizing the priests’ retreats in the year 2017 with a special accent on the spirituality of St. Joseph Vaz and the challenges it offers us priests.
b) Special programs highlighting the spirituality and missionary zeal of the Saint should be devised, of a day’s length, to be conducted by invited speakers and audio, video clips on the Saint for the priests, religious, for prefects of schools, for the different deaneries, for youth, for confraternities and associations, for lay movements and for professionals as well as for adolescents and children.
c) Such programs should also be introduced to Daham Pasal teachers, teachers in schools, private and Government and to any other sector of faithful who serve the Church in different capacities.
d) The support of the Faith Animation Team and the Preaching Band should be obtained for this by the same Commission. This will be coordinated by the Executive Secretary of the Commission for formation and the Director of the Ongoing Formation Centre for Priests.
e) The spirituality of St. Joseph Vaz which includes his profound love of God, deep faith in God’s providence, his filial and tender love for the Blessed Mother, his tremendous sense of thirst for the souls and missionary and pastoral zeal, his deep spirit of self-denial and asceticism and the zeal to look out for the last person in the periphery who thirsts for Christ should be highlighted in this spiritual program.
f) It would be good to explore the possibility of organizing a diocesan level pilgrimage to Goa for our priests so that they may be better exposed to the life and times of the Saint and visit sites connected to his life. At the same time the Commission is called upon to coordinate a programme of parish level pilgrimages at national level to the sites connected to the life of St. Joseph Vaz in Sri Lanka.
St. Joseph Vaz truly is the apostle of Sri Lanka like St. Thomas for India, St. Paul to Rome and St. Augustine to Africa. He is the palpable sign of God’s merciful love for the Catholic Community in Sri Lanka. His deep faith in God, his love of the Eucharist and of the Blessed Mother, his missionary zeal, his profoundly tangible life of charity and self-effacing faithfulness to God and his obedience and veneration of the Church are all blessings which need to be revived today more than at any other time, here in Sri Lanka. The challenges we as a community face from external causes as well as those springing from our own weaknesses should be overcome. We need a renewal of our faith urgently. Maybe we are already too late. But trusting in the goodness of God we should move on with the zeal and enthusiasm of this great man of God and missionary.
These and other such initiatives could be organized at parish level by the priests according to the Inspiration and Guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Let us then honour St. Joseph Vaz, follow his example as best as we could, give a new impetus to our faith and commitment to the cause of evangelization, for as St. Paul so aptly described, “But how could they call upon the Lord without having believed in Him? And how could they believe in him without having first heard about Him? And how will they hear about Him if no one preaches about Him? And how will they preach about Him if no one sends them? As scripture says: how beautiful are those coming to bring the good news?” [Rom. 10: 14-15]
Mary, Queen of the Missions, Pray for us!
St. Joseph Vaz, pray for us!