Pope Canonizes Covert Priest: ‘Each Individual Must be Free...to Seek the Truth'

By Terence P. Jeffrey | January 14, 2015 | 4:43pm EST

Pope Francis at the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Jan. 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

(CNSNews.com) - Pope Francis today canonized Saint Joseph Vaz, an Indian priest who traveled to what is now Sri Lanka in the 17th century to covertly serve persecuted Catholics there and to proselytize the Catholic faith.

In his sermon at the canonization Mass, which he celebrated in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the pope stressed that all people have a right to seek the truth and to openly express their religious convictions.

“Religious freedom is a fundamental human right,” the pope said. “Each individual must be free, alone or in association with others, to seek the truth, and to openly express his or her religious convictions, free from intimidation and external compulsion.”

A story about St. Joseph Vaz posted by Vatican Radio notes that he was born in Goa, India, in 1651. In 1676, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, he was ordained priest in Goa. A decade later, he went as a missionary to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) at a time when it was illegal for priests to do so.

“As a priest he volunteered to work in Sri Lanka amid persecution of Catholics by Dutch colonial rulers, who were Calvinists," said Vatican Radio. "Catholic priests were forbidden to preach; it would mean imprisonment and even death if they were caught."

He “went to Ceylon disguised as a laborer," said Vatican Radio. "He walked the rural paths through the tea-gardens, searching for Catholics, ministering to their needs, instructing them in the faith, regularizing their marriages, baptizing their children, and celebrating Holy Mass in their homes and villages. He was a veritable apostle for the Sri Lankan Church and he renewed the faith which had been affected by persecution. He also instrumental in converting a number of people to Christianity.”

Vatican Radio noted that St. Joseph Vaz’s ministry is particularly poignant today because of what is happening to Christians in Asia.

“There does seem to be a special role for Bl. Joseph Vaz to play at this moment of  history,” said Vatican Radio. “His life and ministry becomes very relevant specially now when we experience persecution against Christians in several countries specially in Asia.”

In his sermon, Pope Francis noted St. Joseph Vaz’s need to operate covertly.

“Because of religious persecution, he dressed as a beggar, performing his priestly duties in secret meetings of the faithful, often at night,” said the pope. “His efforts provided spiritual and moral strength to the beleaguered Catholic population.”

The pope also pointed out that the Catholic church does not discriminate in any way in its charitable services.

“She gladly and generously serves all members of society,” said the pope. “She makes no distinction of race, creed, tribe, status or religion in the service she provides through her schools, hospitals, clinics, and many other charitable works. All she asks in return is the freedom to carry out this mission.”

St. Joseph Vaz, the pope said, “teaches us, genuine worship of God bears fruit not in discrimination, hatred and violence, but in respect for the sacredness of life, respect for the dignity and freedom of others, and loving commitment to the welfare of all.”

The pope also applauded what he called the saint’s “missionary zeal.”

“Finally, Saint Joseph gives us an example of missionary zeal,” said the pope. “Though he came to Ceylon to minister to the Catholic community, in his evangelical charity he reached out to everyone. Leaving behind his home, his family, the comfort of his familiar surroundings, he responded to the call to go forth, to speak of Christ wherever he was led.”

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