Indian who revived Catholicism in Lanka

The Apostle of Sri Lanka is Fr Joseph Vaz, a 17th century missionary from Goa, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Jun 06, 2006 10:14 IST

In the second half of the 17th century, two important developments took place in Ceylon as Sri Lanka was then called.

In 1658, the Dutch replaced the Portuguese as the European military, political and economic power; and Calvinism or Protestantism, displaced Roman Catholicism as the religion of the Christians in the island.

Catholicism, which was a force to reckon with during the 150 years of Catholic Portuguese rule, almost completely disappeared.

The Protestant Dutch, who saw the Catholics as a Portuguese political fifth column, persecuted them in such a way that practicing Catholicism was impossible.

In the areas controlled by the Dutch, those found practicing Catholicism were fined or flogged.

Their marriages and births would not be registered unless they joined the Reformed church.

At any rate, they would not get any government posts or favours, though a few were tolerated for practical reasons.

For decades after the exit of the Portuguese, the Catholics in the island had no priests to minister to them, no catechists to teach them, and no churches to congregate in.

This had resulted in many Catholics lapsing into their traditional Buddhist or Hindu faiths.

Some joined the Dutch Reformed Church for safety as well as social and economic advancement.

Some remained Catholics, but they were Catholics only in name, having adopted pagan customs.

Some did practice Catholicism tenaciously and secretly. But what they knew of it was precious little.

But Dutch persecution was not the only reason for this pathetic condition. The way the Portuguese had gone about converting Ceylonese and the attitude of their priests were also responsible for the collapse.

Many had converted to Catholicism because it brought liberation or because they were inspired by outstanding missionaries.

The fishermen along the Mannar coastline, for example, were ardent Catholics because they were converted by St Francis Xavier.

Over 600 of them were killed by a zealous Hindu monarch of Jaffna, and yet they did not give up.

But others were converted by the use of brute state power.

Prof Tikiri Abeyasinghe in his book Jaffna under the Portuguese (Stamford Lake, Pannipitya, Sri Lanka, 2005) says the predominant mode of conversion in Jaffna at least, was by official diktat and show of force.

A Portuguese priest would come to a village with government officials and "command" the rejection of false gods and the acceptance of one true God.

"Fear of a fine or corporal punishment with cane and stock would ensure their (the converts') regular attendance at church on Sundays and on feast days," Abeyasinghe says.

The priests exacted money from the members of their parish so harshly, that Jaffna at one stage was getting de-populated.

According to Father Simon Gregory Perera, an outstanding historian of the Catholic church in Ceylon, the Portuguese had made the mistake of treating the Catholic church as an arm of the state.

They saw the church and the priesthood as representatives of the political and economic interests of the Kingdom of Portugal.

As a result of these political and security considerations, as well as racial prejudice, the priests were Portuguese.

No Ceylonese was allowed to become a priest. And because of this, the Catholic priesthood was very small.

"The pastors of Ceylon were in consequence complete foreigners from the beginning to the end, apt to misunderstand the people and take little notice of their customs or the past or of the future," Fr SG Perera writes in his book Life of Blessed Joseph Vaz, Apostle of Sri Lanka (first published in 1942).

Therefore, when the Dutch came, all that they had to do to break the back of the Catholic community, was to expel the few Portuguese priests who were around.

Causes concern in Goa

The condition of the Catholic community in Sri Lanka was causing concern in Catholic circles Goa, which was the seat of Portuguese and Catholic power in India and the Far East.

But Goa was helpless. The fear of the Dutch was deep rooted and pervasive, because the Dutch were outdoing the Portuguese in ruthlessness.

While Portuguese priests could be easily detected, Indian priests could infiltrate Ceylon unnoticed.

But according to Fr SG Perera, Indian missionaries could not be sent to Ceylon because missionary work outside India was the monopoly of the religious orders, and these orders had closed their doors to Indians.

Enter Joseph Vaz

But there was one person who was determined to go to Ceylon, no matter what the danger. He was prepared to go on his own, without the aid or backing of any of the established religious orders.

He was Fr Joseph Vaz, a young priest belonging to a family of Konkan Brahmin converts of Sancoale in Goa.

In the words of the Belgian historian R Bowdens, Fr Joseph Vaz was a "meek brown man from Goa with a cloth about his waist, begging his way and racked by fever, seeking only the hearers of the word of Christ."

Though of high caste and well-versed in Konkani, Portuguese, Latin, and later in Tamil and Sinhala, Fr Joseph Vaz led a life of poverty, giving and ministering to the poorest of the poor, rather than hankering for power and position even within the church.

In Ceylon, he represented no power, no institution. But at the end of his 24-year, near solo mission in the island (he never left it) he had created 70,000 practicing Ceylonese Catholics, from Jaffna to Colombo and from Kandy to Trincomalee and Batticaloa.

Only the deep South could not be penetrated as Dutch power was particularly strong there.

As coolie and beggar

It was in 1681 that Fr Joseph Vaz started making his way to Ceylon. The process was arduous and seven years long.

First, he had to get the permission of the Bishop of Cochin in Kerala, under whose jurisdiction came Ceylon.

Second, he had to be undetected by the Dutch in Kanara and Tuticorin, through which he had to pass en route to Ceylon.

Kanara, a region south of Goa, was administered by the Dutch from Colombo, and Tuticorin was in Dutch hands.

He decided to go in disguise as a coolie (unskilled labourer) seeking work in Ceylon.

Discarding his robe and shoes, he went about barefoot with only a cloth around his waist.

He learnt to live on a diet of Conjee (rice gruel) and rice, with little else to go with it.

While in Tamil Nadu, he learnt Tamil, which stood him in good stead when he landed in Tamil-speaking Mannar and then went on to work in Jaffna.

The Indian was not needed in Mannar, which was already staunchly Catholic, but in Jaffna, as the Dutch had been very successful in their anti-Catholic campaign there.

Out of necessity, as well as to avoid detection by the Dutch in Jaffna, Fr Joseph Vaz went about disguised as a beggar.

Begging allowed him to study Jaffna society at close quarters besides letting him lead the life that Christ would have liked him to lead, a life of poverty.

Begging enabled him to quietly search for, and identify, Catholic houses at a time when the Catholics had to hide their faith from the prying eyes of the Dutch and their agents.

Soon, he discovered Catholics, who readily accepted him.

Going by the account of Fr SG Perera, the fact that Fr Joseph Vaz was a Brahmin, was a major factor inducing acceptance in Jaffna, because in Jaffna, more than in any other part of Ceylon, the Brahmin was held in the "utmost veneration."

And the fact that this Brahmin was humility itself, added to his appeal.

The Hindus too were attracted to him, as to them he was a venerable Sanyasi (ascetic).

Later on, throughout Ceylon, he was known as "Maha Swami". But he detested this.

And unlike the Portuguese priests during Portuguese rule in Jaffna, who exacted or extorted money for their services, and the Dutch Protestant ministers who lived a life of luxury, Fr Joseph Vaz neither sought payments nor lived a luxurious life.

According to Fr SG Perera, his requirements were so small, that even a beggar would have had no difficulty in having him as his guest.

First Published: Jun 05, 2006 13:15 IST