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, Saint 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.”
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.
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Although Sri Lanka is a mostly Buddhist country, with Christians accounting for just eight percent of its 20.4 million people, Pope Francis is the third Pope to visit the country. Pope Paul VI made a visit in 1970. Pope St. John Paul II visited Sri Lanka 20 years ago and beatified Joseph Vaz during his January 1995 visit.
The Thursday Mass followed a Wednesday arrival ceremony involving a massive welcome for the pontiff. Military groups marched in formation for the welcome ceremony, while forty elephants and their riders were among the thousands of people who greeted the Pope as he was through the streets of Colombo.
After his arrival, Pope Francis canceled a scheduled meeting with the Sri Lankan bishops amid delays in arriving at the apostolic nunciature in the country.
After his Sri Lankan visit, the Pope will fly to the Philippines, which he will visit through Jan. 19.