COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Pope Francis on Wednesday canonized Joseph Vaz, Sri Lanka’s first saint, praising the 17th-century priest’s love for the Sri Lankan people, his “missionary zeal” and his example for all Christians.

“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,” the Pope said in his homily.

“St. Joseph knew how to offer the truth and the beauty of the Gospel in a multireligious context, with respect, dedication, perseverance and humility. This is also the way for the followers of Jesus today.”

Pope Francis was the main celebrant of the Jan. 14 Mass held at the Galle Face Green in the national capital of Colombo. Hundreds of thousands of people attended the service, whose languages included English, Sinhalese, Tamil and Latin.

St. Joseph Vaz (1651-1711) was an Indian-born priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri. He founded the Oratory of the Holy Cross of Miracles in the Indian region of Goa, then journeyed to Sri Lanka at a time when Catholics were suffering persecution under the country’s Calvinist Dutch rulers.

Due to the threat of persecution, the priest dressed as a beggar and would visit secret meetings of Catholics, often at night, to bring them the Eucharist and other sacraments.

“His efforts provided spiritual and moral strength to the beleaguered Catholic population,” Pope Francis said, also praising the saint’s efforts to serve the ill during a smallpox epidemic.

Pope Francis said Joseph Vaz was “an exemplary priest” who showed “loving care for the Church of God.” He especially encouraged priests and vowed religious to look to the saint as a model.

“He teaches us how to go out to the peripheries, to make Jesus Christ everywhere known and loved,” he said.

“Like ourselves, St. Joseph Vaz lived in a period of rapid and profound transformation; Catholics were a minority and often divided within; there was occasional hostility, even persecution, from without,” Pope Francis added. “And yet, because he was constantly united with the crucified Lord in prayer, he could become for all people a living icon of God’s mercy and reconciling love.”

He said that St. Joseph showed the importance of “transcending religious divisions in the service of peace.”

“His undivided love for God opened him to love for his neighbor; he ministered to those in need, whoever and wherever they were,” the Pope said. “His example continues to inspire the Church in Sri Lanka today. She gladly and generously serves all members of society.”

 

Freedom to Serve

Pope Francis said the Church only asks for the freedom to carry out her service.

“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,” he said.

The Pope also denounced the abuse of religion, saying, “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 prayed that St. Joseph’s example might confirm Christians in their faith and contribute to peace, justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.