Memorial – St Joseph Vaz – Mark 1:14-20

Memorial – St Joseph Vaz – Mark 1:14-20

St Joseph Vaz was a Catholic Oratorian priest from Goa. He was born on April 21, 1651 in Benaulim. He is known as the Apostle of Ceylon. Ordained in 1675, he was a highly sought after preacher, and desired to follow in the footsteps of the great apostle of the Indies, St Francis Xavier. He was pious, spending much time in prayer, and caring for the poor and sick.

The Portuguese government wanted to propagate Catholicism in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), which was under Dutch (Protestant) rule in those days. Calvinism was the official religion in Ceylon and no catholic priest was allowed on the island. Fr. Vaz entered Ceylon disguising himself as a coolie wearing a loin cloth around his waist. His wheatish brown complexion helped him slip onto the island. Under the fear of being caught by the Dutch who were ruling in Sri Lanka, he disguised himself as a baker, dhobi, coolie, servant, businessman, porter and even a fisherwoman. He would work during the night by the light of the moon. 

He traveled throughout the island bringing the Eucharist and the sacraments to clandestine groups of Catholics. He worked alone in Sri Lanka for 10 years and the next 14 years was accompanied by Goan Oratorians. He learnt their culture, sang their songs, and helped build their own local Church, never imposing the western Church on the faithful. Another important innovation came in the formation of lay leaders and catechists by Fr Vaz. He entrusted the local churches to the laity, something that was unheard of and unthinkable in his day.

Later in his mission, he found shelter in the Kandyan kingdom where he was able to work freely. At the time of his death, Fr. Vaz managed to rebuild the Catholic church on the island. He served 30 years as a priest, 24 of them in the Sri Lankan Vineyard. On 21 January 1995, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Colombo. He was canonized on January 14, 2015 by Pope Francis at Galle Face Green, Sri Lanka. I was very privileged to be at this canonization

The Gospel of Mark set aside for today’s memorial records the first homily that Jesus preached and it was all of eighteen words, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Jesus pulls back no punches. He is not here to win a popularity contest for the religious. His message is short, direct and hard hitting.

To most religious leaders, such a homily would only serve to drive away a congregation. As St. Paul says, ‘congregations have ‘itchy ears’ and sadly these are pandered to.’ Yet the Lord has a method to what might seem like madness.

The world was in need of a Messiah, not a magician or a great king. It was in need of one who would free them from their sins. Sin cannot be washed away unless it is preceded by sincere repentance. The word ‘repentance’ in Greek, translates loosely as putting on a new mind, a new way of thinking. Jesus’ first homily was a radical demand – change your mind and change your heart and then the Gospel comes alive.

The Gospel records two callings. The first was to all and it was a call to repentance. The second was also vocational (from the Latin, vocare=to call) but deeply personal. Both have a sense of urgency (Euthus in Greek), especially the call to all, because the “time is fulfilled”.

The time that harkens back to the prophecy of Isaiah, has now come to pass with the coming of Jesus. The call of the disciples is equally urgent as the kingdom of God is at hand and ministry must now be set in motion. The response of the first four disciples chosen by Jesus along the shores of this harp shaped Lake of Galilee, was also immediate. The Gospel uses the word “immediate” each time in response to the brothers who left their profession and their family to follow Jesus.

What can we take home from today’s Gospel? Firstly, the proclamation of the kingdom of God by Jesus is a gift. The Good news is freely given! However, this gift once accepted (also freely) is accompanied by a demand; “repent and believe”. Make no mistake, Christianity is not for namby-pambies. This is not some happy-clappy feel good bunch of followers. Christianity makes clear demands.

Secondly, the call of Jesus is also a personal one, yet with no personal assurances. The Lord is calling many young men and women to work in His vineyard. Ironically those who say ‘yes’ to the Lord don’t end up meeting a check list of assurances from the Lord. You can’t ask Jesus for job security; salary raise or perks. Ironically the only benefits are ‘out of this world’. When Peter, Andrew, James and John were called, they simply left their nets, left their father, left everything and turned right towards Jesus.

Do leave your reflections and comments below. Do share this article with friends and family. Be an evangelist 

Fr Warner D’Souza

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