Thursday 22 January 2015

Two Missionary Saints

The following article was written by Fr Richard on his return from the Canonisation of St Joseph Vaz in Sri Lanka.


Two recent events in India and Sri Lanka have focussed the minds of Catholics on the Church's missionary activity.

From the beginning of December until early January hundred of thousands of people came to Goa from all over India, and further afield, to show their devotion to the relics of St Francis Xavier, exposed every ten years for the veneration of the faithful. The queues in the blazing sun lasted up to four hours. At the concluding Mass and Procession on 4th January Pope Francis was represented by Archbishop Salvatore Penacchio, the Apostolic Nuncio to India and Nepal. The Archbishop Patriarch of Goa, Filipe Neri Ferrão presided and many bishops from India and Africa concelebrated.

Ten days later, on 14th January, Joseph Vaz, the Apostle of Sri Lanka, became the Church's most recent saint when he was canonised at a Mass in Colombo that was the highlight of Pope Francis' visit to that country.

Twenty years ago, almost to the day, Fr Vaz was beatified by St John Paul II, on 21st January 1995. ‘Holy Father,’ the Sri Lankan bishops are reported to have said on that occasion, ‘if it were not for Fr Vaz we would not be here and you would not be here. He saved the Church in our land.’

What is is about these two saints that attract the fervent support of the Pope, the bishops and the people of India and Sri Lanka? What can we learn from them?

St Francis Xavier is well known. Pope Francis mentioned him at the start of his pontificate as his secondary patron after St Francis of Assisi. St Joseph Vaz is hardly known at all in Europe. But the lives and the background of both saints have important lessons for the Church today wherever there is mission - which means they have something for us all.

From the early 1500s the city of Goa on the west coast of India was the centre for the evangelisation for the subcontinent and the lands to the east. To this day the Archbishop of Goa holds the honorary title Patriarch of the Orient since all the oldest missions, especially those in Japan and China, were launched from his diocese.

The Jesuit, St Francis Xavier, is in some ways the model for all missionaries. Goa was his first port of call in the East and became the base from which he worked.

It is easy to miss the real significance of Xavier's work if we only think of him as sent to evangelise those who had never heard the Gospel at all. His mission was more complex and far richer. To understand the ministry of St Joseph Vaz we need to be aware of the range of St Francis Xavier's achievements.

The rise of the Ottoman Empire in the late fifteenth century closed the lucrative trade routes from Europe to the East causing economic crisis. When the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama opened up a route to India round the Cape of Good Hope Pope Leo X was prompted to support further Portuguese voyages. In 1514 he gave the King of Portugal the power of Padroado, the right to establish all the new dioceses in the East together with their privileges and revenues in return for his royal support for the missions.

This was a successful policy in so far as many priests and religious accompanied the voyagers as new trade routes were opened up. New churches and religious houses were founded. But the policy contained within it the cause of its own decline since mission was always subordinate to worldly ends. Compromise and decline were inevitable.

When St Francis Xavier landed in Goa in 1542 he was not arriving in a land that had never heard the Gospel but among people who had known Christianity and had been shown a very poor example of it in practice. Portuguese soldiers, sailors and merchants were drunken and debauched, lacked respect for the local women and enslaved some elements of the population. There was a gap between the Gospel as preached and the Gospel as lived that was fatal to mission. Before he could begin to work among those who had never heard the Gospel preached, Francis Xavier's first concern was the re-evangelisation of people who had heard it and ought to have known better.

The Pope and the King of Portugal had given Francis Xavier a further aim. It was well known that Christianity had been preached in India in apostolic times by St Thomas and St Bartholomew. These churches had been cut off from the main body of Christianity by distance and the rise of Islam. Among Xavier's tasks was to make contact with these Christians and encourage them to return to full communion with Rome.

St Francis Xavier was charged with three tasks: to reform the lives of the Portuguese colonists; to contact and if possible reconcile the Christians already in India; and to preach the Gospel to those who had as yet not heard it. We might say that he made goodness and unity the ambassadors for truth.

As with every endeavour the results of Xavier's mission were mixed. Some of the colonials reformed; others did not. Some of the Indian Christians were reconciled with Rome and remain so today; others did not. And while many thousands became Catholics as a result of St Francis Xavier's preaching (including many in Sri Lanka), he died within sight of mainland China at the age of only 46. He did not achieve what he himself had considered his main goal. But his work thrived. In the years between his death in 1552 and the birth of St Joseph Vaz in 1651, the church in Goa grew with many young native men wishing to become priests. Xavier's converts in Sri Lanka also grew and prospered.

From these mixed results new divisions emerged in the intervening hundred years. The failure of many of the Portuguese colonists to reform their way of life (and the resulting damage to the Catholic missionary endeavour) prompted Rome to find better ways to pursue its aims in the East. The renewed confidence of the Counter-Reformation Papacy made the Church less dependent on the resources of European monarchs. New dioceses were established and bishops were appointed independently of the King of Portugal through the newly established Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. Sometimes these Propaganda bishops were appointed to the same territory as the Portuguese Padroado bishops. Their refusal to recognise each other's authority caused great scandal to the newly-converted faithful and further undermined the Church's mission.

Meanwhile the balance of power in Europe had moved from the south to the north. The initiative in trade and exploration passed from Catholic Spain and Portugal to Protestant England and the Netherlands. The control of Sri Lanka by the Dutch East India Company was one result of this and brought Calvinist religion to the island. The Catholic Church established by St Francis Xavier was ruthlessly persecuted and driven underground.

This was the world into which St Joseph Vaz was born, at Benaulim, a fishing village at the southern end of Goa. His family along with many others had enthusiastically embraced the Catholic faith. For Joseph Vaz, this enthusiasm took shape in a vocation to the priesthood and to the religious life. The first of these was possible. Native Goans could be ordained as diocesan priests; but they were only permitted to serve as curates to European priests who alone were free to become Parish Priests. But none of the religious orders would accept native vocations. Goa by that time was known as the Rome of the East. Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans among many other orders, had made foundations there. Fr Vaz was not allowed admission to any of these.

In 1682 a Goan secular priest, Fr Pascoal da Costa Jeremias, together with another priest and a lay brother, began to live the religious life anyway. They retired to a hut in a hill outside their home city of Margao in southern Goa, close to the birthplace of Joseph Vaz. There they lived a life of prayer and asceticism while they waited for guidance about what to do next. Their first answer to prayer took the form of a disaster. Their hut was washed away by the monsoon rains. The fledgling community was given sanctuary in the sacristy of the Church of the Cross of Miracles on a hill just outside the city of Goa. It was here that they were joined in 1685 by Fr Joseph Vaz.

Almost at once they elected Fr Vaz as their superior. With advice from his spiritual director and the Archbishop of Goa, Vaz wrote to the superior of the Oratory of St Philip Neri in Lisbon, Fr Bartolomeu do Quental asking for a copy of the Constitutions of the Oratory. Finding the rule suited their purpose well the group began the process of establishing an Oratory in Goa.

Those who know anything of the life of St Philip Neri, the founder of the Congregation of the Oratory, will know that in his early life he longed to be a missionary. When he was a young priest Francis Xavier's letters from the East would circulate around Rome. Fr Philip read them on his knees. He went out to the Cistercian monastery of Tre Fontane to see his spiritual director. ‘No,’ he was told, ‘Rome is to be your Indies.’ The home mission is as vital as the dramatic life of the missionary far away as St Philip's life was to prove. But the saints have a habit of getting their way with God. St Philip was to have a whole community of his Oratorian sons engaged in the mission he longed for within a hundred years of his death.

But the process of the foundation of the Goa Oratory was a fraught one in the divided loyalties of the Church of the time. It was not until 1706 that final approval of the community was received from Rome. Meanwhile Fr Vaz and some of the other priests wanted to fulfil a second strand in their vocation, the call to the missionary apostolate, especially among the persecuted Catholics of Sri Lanka.

It was at this point that their status as a community of native priests came into its own. They could pass unnoticed among the native population. Trading relations up and down the west coast of India made the languages more or less familiar and certainly easier to learn. They would be Asians ministering to Asians.

In 1686 the Goan Oratorians were formally entrusted with mission to Sri Lanka. While pursuing the more usual Oratorian apostolates of prayer, preaching and the sacraments in the city of Goa, the Fathers and Brothers sent on the mission patiently went about rebuilding St Francis Xavier's work in Sri Lanka. In time missionaries also went to Madagascar and Mozambique and the Oratory took over the formation of the native clergy in the Diocesan Seminary until an anti-clerical Portuguese government suppressed all the religious orders in Portugal and its possessions in 1835.

Other Fathers came and went from the missions but Fr Vaz himself never returned to Goa. An Oratorian Father is usually called to remain in one place as St Philip Neri did in Rome. But in spite of the unconventional fulfilment of his vocation, St Joseph Vaz displays striking similarities with his patron St Philip Neri. Space does not permit a detailed account of the excitement and the inspiration of Fr Vaz's mission in Sri Lanka, which is more than a match for similar tales of heroism in the persecuted Church in the British Isles at about the same time. Like St Philip, St Joseph Vaz's holiness drew souls for Christ from every rank, and from other faiths and from many different sides in a divided Church. In his pastoral charity, his individual care for every person from the King to the meanest beggar, and above all in the miracles worked both in and after his life, St Joseph Vaz's life has much in common with that of St Philip, and not least in the spontaneous calls for his canonisation which began immediately after his death. Finally, after three hundred years, it has been achieved supported by the three most recent Popes.

In his speech to the Synod for Asia in 1998, Pope Benedict XVI, while still Cardinal Ratzinger, proposed Bd Joseph Vaz as a model for missionaries in the modern age and the present Patriarch of Goa, Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrão, has expanded the point. St Francis Xavier's mission was indeed extraordinary. But he had the might of the Pope, the King of Portugal and the Jesuits behind him. Fr Vaz had nothing. He went as a simple priest, a poor man among poor men, an Asian to Asians, and he achieved a lasting legacy of faith and love in both India and Sri Lanka.

We can learn much about mission from St Joseph Vaz however we have been called to serve the Lord.