Thursday, April 21, 2022

Today on the Almanac, we tell the story of Joseph Vaz and Christianity in Sri Lanka.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 21st of April 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at I’m Dan van Voorhis.

Something of a coincidence with today’s dates- today, I will tell you the story of St. Joseph Vaz, a Goan Saint in Sri Lanka. (Goa is on the West Coast of India, and Sri Lanka is the island off the tip of the Indian peninsula). It’s a fascinating story, that of the Church on this Island.

And Joseph Vaz was born on this day in 1651. And in looking at the story of Christianity in Sri Lanka, I was reminded of the tragedy three years ago when coordinated bombings ripped through Sri Lankan churches on Easter Sunday- killing over 350 people. Easter Sunday 3 years ago fell on this, the 21st of April in 2019.

Part of the modern struggle has been with ISIS and contemporary geopolitics. Part of the struggle goes back to the age of exploration and colonization when Sri Lanka- also called the Pearl of the Indian Ocean- became a desirable place to take for oneself.

But it seems that Christianity predates all of the Early Modern stuff- we have records of Christianity on the Island as far back as the 5th century. They may have been part of the group of exiled Jews who converted under the ministry of St. Thomas, the disciple. They may have been Nestorians (and real quick, whenever I hear of random Nestorians, I think of seeing the odd Blockbuster Video… it’s from a bygone era and makes me a little nostalgic)

But the golden age of Dutch and Portuguese exploration in the 16th and 17th centuries brought the usual collection of entrepreneurs, state officials, merchants, and missionaries. Joseph Vaz was born in Goa in 1651 to Christian parents of the Konkani Brahmin caste. He studied with the Jesuits on the Indian Subcontinent and was ordained in 1676. By 1686 he was made the Superior of the Oratorians and sent to Sri Lanka, where he had heard the natives were being treated harshly by Dutch Calvinists.

The more entrepreneurial than mission-minded Dutch (that’s fair, right?) wanted no competition from the Portuguese whether they were Catholic or not- but if you were in league with the Catholics, you must be pro Portuguese- thus, even the most ecumenical of the Dutch might have a reason not to want any Catholics around.

Because of the Dutch-influenced local kingdoms, VAZ had to travel secretly, using covert methods to find Catholics for whom he could celebrate the Mass.

He eventually made his way to the kingdom of Kandy. Yup… sit with that there. It’s spelled with a K, but still.

Here it is said the king and officials challenged him, but when a prayer for rain led to an immediate downpour, he was granted permission to be a missionary. He would travel across the island from this outpost, setting up Catholic chapels and establishing a collection of connected churches.

He would be known as the apostle to Sri Lanka- and the Catholic church considered making him a Bishop over the new diocese of Sri Lanka. Vaz rejected this idea as he didn’t want to emulate the Dutch Calvinists, who he thought brought too much of their own culture and way of life with them- thus obscuring the Gospel.

Vaz would continue, despite sickness, to set up churches across the island. He would continue to do so until his death in Kandy in 1711. Born on this day in 1651, he died at 59.

The last word for today comes from Acts 5:

12 The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. 13 No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. 14 Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. 15 As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. 16 Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 21st of April 2022, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man whose own Kandy Kingdom would have an obstacle course of hot chocolate lakes you swung across on Red Vines into oversized Peppermint patties. He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who thinks Peppermint Patties taste too medicinal. Also, shout out to the 100 Grand bar. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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