Thousands see Sri Lanka's first saint canonised by Pope Francis in Colombo

Huge crowds gathered in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, to witness Pope Francis canonising the country’s first saint.

At the open air service at Galle Face Green this morning, the Pope made the 17th Century missionary Joseph Vaz a saint. Following on from his call yesterday for Sri Lanka to “reconcile and rebuild” after years of bloody civil war, the Pope used the example of St Joseph who, he said, showed “the importance of transcending religious divisions in the service of peace”.

“Religious freedom is a fundamental human right. 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,” the Pope said.

“As the life of St Joseph Vaz 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.”

He added: “In St Joseph we see a powerful sign of God’s goodness and love for the people of Sri Lanka. But we also see in him a challenge to persevere in the paths of the Gospel, to grow in holiness ourselves, and to testify to the Gospel message of reconciliation to which he dedicated his life.”

St Joseph was a 17th-century Oratorian missionary from Goa, India, known as the “apostle of Sri Lanka.” St John Paul II beatified him during the former pope’s first trip to Sri Lanka in January 1995.

Colombo's seafront Galle Face Green filled with people witnessing the canonisation ceremony (CNS)

Colombo’s seafront Galle Face Green filled with people witnessing the canonisation ceremony (CNS)

St Joseph, born in India in 1651, entered Sri Lanka in 1687 disguised as a poor labourer in order to minister to the underground Church. At the time, the Dutch had taken control of Sri Lanka’s coastal areas from the Portuguese. Fearing the island’s Catholics might remain loyal to the Portuguese, the Dutch made Catholicism illegal, banished Catholic priests and confiscated Catholic churches and schools.

Aided by lay leaders, St Joseph often went barefoot, with a rosary round his neck, ministering to and organising Catholics throughout the island where the church had had no priests for over three decades. He was the lone Catholic pastor of Sri Lanka until other priests joined him in 1697 at his request.

Surviving two years in prison for being a suspected Portuguese spy, he was then given permission to work as a missionary in the Sinhalese kingdom of Kandy until his death in 1711.

“As a priest of the Oratory in his native Goa, St Joseph Vaz came to this country inspired by missionary zeal and a great love of its people,” Pope Francis said.

“Because of religious persecution, he dressed as a beggar, performing his priestly duties in secret meetings of the faithful, often at night. His efforts provided spiritual and moral strength to the beleaguered Catholic population. He had a particular desire to serve the ill and suffering. His ministry to the sick was so appreciated by the king during a smallpox epidemic in Kandy that he was allowed greater freedom to minister. From Kandy, he could reach out to other parts of the island. He spent himself in missionary work and died, exhausted, at the age of fifty-nine, revered for his holiness.”

Before the canonisation, Pope Francis greeted a few of the thousands of people who had gathered to witness the service. Later today the Pope will visit the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Rosary in Madhu before travelling to the Philippines on Thursday.