Christians make up 7.4 percent of the population of Sri Lanka and are outnumbered by Muslims. In the past they made up more than 8 percent of the population and outnumbered Muslims. Most of the Christians (6.1 percent) are Roman Catholics. Most Christians in Sri Lanka are Tamils (of which most are Catholics). Some are Sinhalese Christians.

Most Christians in Sri Lanka are Tamils and most Tamil Christians are Catholics. Sri Lankan Tamils are predominantly Hindus, but there are significant numbers of Roman Catholics and Protestants. Christian Tamils regard themselves every much as Tamils as Hindu Tamils. Many Christian Tamils converted to Christianity during the British colonial period. Many of them were members of lower castes who were educated at English-language schools. Even more might have converted where it not for a Hindu revivalist and reformist movement that try to get rid of many practices such as animal sacrifices that the Christians decried as barbaric. Many traditionalist Hindus were angry about the changes but the movement did restore pride about Tamil Hindu religious traditions and reduced the number of conversions.

There is a small number of Christian Burghers (descendants of Portuguese and Dutch Most Burghers are descendant of Portuguese rather than Dutch. For a while they were quite influential in business and political life. Their influence declined after independence in 1948. The number of Burghers has so sharpy declined that there are hardly any of them any more. Many have moved abroad.

It is said that Adam came to earth at Adam’s peak and his footprint there proves it. During a visit to Sri Lanka, travel writer Paul Theroux met a government officer that offered to show him the graves of Cain and Abel.

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Christians were historically the best educated. In 1901, approximately 55 percent of Christian males were literate, compared to only 35 percent of Buddhist males, 34 percent of Muslim males, and 26 percent of Hindu males. Among Christian women, 30 percent were literate, compared to 5 percent among Buddhist women, 3 percent among Muslim women, and 2.5 percent among Hindu women. By 1921, within just 20 years, literacy rates among the island's male population rose to 66 percent for Christians, 50 percent for Buddhists, 45 percent for Muslims, and 37 percent for Hindus. For women, 50 percent of Christians were literate, while literacy rates among Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu women rose to 17 percent, 6 percent, and 10 percent, respectively. [Source: “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

According to “Cities of the World”: English is spoken in many of the larger Colombo churches: Roman Catholic, Church of Sri Lanka (Episcopalian), Scots (Presbyterian), Baptist, Methodist, Christian Science, Mormon, and Dutch Reformed. No Orthodox churches are available. Sri Lanka has no synagogue. In Kandy, English services are held in Anglican, Roman Catholic, Baptist, and other churches. Most have Sunday school programs. Many churches also have services in Sinhala and Tamil. [Source: “Cities of the World”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

History of Christianity in Sri Lanka

According to Christian traditions, the Apostle Thomas was active in Sri Lanka as well as southern India during the first century. Small Christian communities existed on the coasts of Sri Lanka during the succeeding centuries, flourishing on the edges of the Indian Ocean trade routes as Islam did in later times. Christianity made significant inroads only after the fifteenth century, as aggressive Portuguese missionary efforts led to many conversions, especially among the Karava and other low-country castes. When the Dutch took control of Sri Lanka, they encouraged their own missionaries of the Dutch Reformed Church. Under their patronage, 21 percent of the population in the low country was officially Christian by 1722. The British, in turn, allowed Anglican and other Protestant missionaries to proselytize. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Professor Mathew Schmalz wrote: “Sri Lanka’s Christians have a long history that reflects the dynamics of colonialism as well as present-day ethnic and religious tensions. It was Portuguese colonialism that opened the door for Roman Catholicism into the island nation. In 1505, the Portuguese came to Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then called, in a trade agreement with King Vira Parakramabahu VII and later intervened in succession struggles in local kingdoms. Among those converted included Don Juan Dharmapala, the king of Kotte, a small kingdom near present-day Colombo on Sri Lanka’s southwestern coast. [Source: Mathew Schmalz, Associate Professor of Religion, College of the Holy Cross, The Conversation, April 22, 2019]

“Later, when the Dutch and the Dutch East India Company displaced the Portuguese, Roman Catholicism was revived through the efforts of St. Joseph Vaz. Vaz was a priest from Goa, Portugal’s colony in India, and arrived in Sri Lanka in 1687. Popular folklore credits Vaz with a number of miracles, such as bringing rain during a drought and taming a rogue elephant. Pope Francis made Joseph Vaz a saint in 2015.

“By 1948, when Sri Lanka gained independence from Great Britain, Catholics had established a distinct identity. For example, Catholics would display the papal flag along with Sri Lanka’s national flag during independence day celebrations. But tensions rose in 1960 when the Sri Lankan government compromised the Catholic Church’s independence by taking over church schools. In 1962, there was an attempted coup by Catholic and Protestant Sri Lankan army officers to overthrow the government of then prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, allegedly in response to increased Buddhist presence in the military.

The relative number of Christians in Sri Lanka has declined steadily since the end of colonial rule. In 1900 a reported 378,859 people, or 10.6 percent of the population, were officially Christians. Although in 1980, the number of Christians had increased to 1,283,600, the percentage of Christians in the total population had declined to approximately 8 percent. This decline occurred primarily because the non-Christian population expanded at a faster rate. Emigration abroad, conversions of some Christians to Buddhism and fewer conversions to Christianity among Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims also were reasons for the decline. In the 1980s, Christians still were concentrated heavily in the low country in the southwest. They comprised 30 percent of the population in Colombo. *

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”:“During Sri Lanka's protracted civil war of the late twentieth century, the Christian community on the island fragmented along ethnic lines. The Roman Catholic Church has been especially affected in this regard. For example, the National Seminary in Ampitiya, located just outside of Kandy, has become almost exclusively Sinhala, while some Tamil priests in the north and east of the island have actively promoted the separatist agenda of Eelam, rationalizing their activities by appealing to tracts of liberation theology. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Catholics in Sri Lanka

In the late 1980s, 88 percent of the Christians were Roman Catholics who traced their religious heritage directly to the Portuguese. The Roman Catholic Church has a well-established organization that encompasses the entire island. In 1985 there were 9 dioceses comprising 313 parishes, 682 priests, and 15 bishops (including two archbishops and a cardinal). [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Catholicism was introduced by the Portuguese in 1505. The Portuguese were able to win converts among both Sinhalese and Tamils. The descendants of these converts still have a strong presence on the west coast of Sri Lanka, where many towns have large churches. The Catholic community in South India and Sri Lanka have grown considerably, not by winning new converts but by avoiding family planning rules.

Professor Mathew Schmalz wrote: “The 25-year-long Sri Lankan Civil War, starting in 1983, divided the Catholic community. The war was fought against the government by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, who sought a separate state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil community in the northern and eastern parts of the island. The rebels included Catholics in military positions. But, the Sri Lankan army also had Christian members holding leadership ranks. Catholic bishops from Tamil and Sinhalese areas could not develop a coherent response to the conflict. They would not even agree on recommending a ceasefire during the Christmas season. [Source: Mathew Schmalz, Associate Professor of Religion, College of the Holy Cross, The Conversation, April 22, 2019]

“Recent years have seen the rise of militant forms of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Christians have been among its targets. For example, the ultra-nationalist Buddhist organization, the Bodu Bala Sena (also known as Buddhist Power Force) demanded that Pope Francis apologize for the “atrocities” committed by colonial powers.

“While being Catholic and being Sri Lankan are not considered to be contradictions, Catholicism in Sri Lanka still struggles with its colonial past. At the same time, Catholicism has a strong cultural presence in the country. For example, in the North, there is a large pilgrimage site, Madhu, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which Pope Francis visited in 2015. There is also an internationally known healing and prayer center, Kudagama, northwest of the Buddhist holy city of Kandy. Sri Lankan Catholics have also become prominent in global Catholicism. The cardinal archbishop of the capital Colombo, Malcolm Ranjith, was mentioned as papabile, or candidate for pope, prior to the conclave that eventually elected Pope Francis.”

“The churches in Negombo, where one of the” 2019 terrorist “attacks took place, are beautiful Renaissance and Baroque-style structures that are centers of activity throughout the day. Not only are there daily masses, but Catholics often come to light candles and pray to the saints. During worship ceremonies, women wear veils as was the Catholic tradition in the West until the mid-20th century. Shrines to the Virgin Mary are a common sight on Negombo’s roads along with arches decorated with coconuts, which are the usual markers of a parish festival and procession. In honor of this Catholic culture, Negombo is popularly called “Little Rome.” But now this “Little Rome” – with its beautiful churches, beaches, and lagoon – will also be known as the site of a horrific act of anti-Christian violence.

Protestants in Sri Lanka

In the 1ate 1980s, Christians who were not Catholics were almost evenly split between the Anglican Church of Ceylon (with two dioceses) and other Protestant faiths. The Dutch Reformed Church, now the Presbytery of Ceylon, consisted mostly of Burghers, and its numbers were shrinking because of emigration. Other Christian communities — Congregationalists, Methodists, and Baptists — were small in number. Since the 1970s, there has been a movement of all Protestant Churches to join together in a united Church of Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese community, however, has strenuously opposed this movement. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The Dutch did not have much success converted the population to Protestantism. Members of the Dutch reformist church are most numerous in Colombo. During the British colonial era Anglican church leaders discontinued Buddhism as the national religion and missionaries were busy trying to win converts. They had the most lasting impact in the hill country. After independence in 1948 there was a conflict between the Christian elite that largely dominated the country’s administration at that time and monks who were behind the Buddhist nationalist movement.

Professor Mathew Schmalz wrote: “Sri Lanka’s Protestant community is quite small, constituting only 1 percent of Sri Lanka’s population. Like Catholicism, it was through colonialism that Protestant Christianity gained a foothold on the island. With Dutch traders and governmental officers came Calvinism and Protestant missionaries who worked in Sri Lanka’s coastal areas. [Source: Mathew Schmalz, Associate Professor of Religion, College of the Holy Cross, The Conversation, April 22, 2019]

“While Calvinist Protestantism declined under British colonial rule, there was a revival in the Tamil-speaking northern areas of the island. The American Ceylon Mission began in 1813 and established a number of medical dispensaries and schools. Jaffna College, opened in 1872, remains an important Protestant educational institution that still has ties to America.

Christian Holidays in Sri Lanka and the World’s Tallest Christmas Tree

March or April — Good Friday and Easter. Both Easter and Sinhalese and Tamil New Year, the biggest holiday for Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils, fall during the same season of the year. In some years New year falls during or before the Holy Week, where Christians commemorate the Passion of Christ, in a penitential atmosphere. In that event Christians join New Year celebrations after the Holy Week. Some Christians want to combine Easter and New Year and celebrate them together. A request by the Catholic Bishops Conference in Sri Lanka to change the dates of Easter and Holy Week in Sri Lanka when it falls during Sinhalese and Tamil was rejected by the Holy See in Vatican.

December 25th—Christmas Day is celebrated by the Christian community in Sri Lanka on this day. It is also celebrated by Sinhalese and Tamils.W. T. A. Leslie Fernando wrote in The Island: The Catholics wherever they are, generally come to their native place for the Holy Week. They do so for Christmas as well. But at Christmas after the mid-night Mass, they spend the time on enjoyment and merry-making. At Easter however more emphasis is placed on religious observances. [Source: W. T. A. Leslie Fernando, The Island, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Other religious days observed by Catholics in Sri Lanka include Ascension, Assumption and Immaculate Conception of Our Lady. Florence Wickramage wrote in the Weekend Express: “While coinciding with the Esala moon, and held during this festive season are several Christian (Catholic) festival. Among them the most popular are the Feasts of Madhu and the Feast at St.Anne's shrine at Talawila. In keeping with the festive season, people from all walks of life, together will devotees flock to these shrines to pay homage to Our Blessed Mother and Saint Anne. [Source: Florence Wickramage, Weekend Express, July 24-25. 1999]

In 2016, Sri Lanka said it had set a world record for tallest artificial Christmas tree. Associated Press reported: “Sri Lanka unveiled a towering Christmas tree, claiming to have surpassed the world record despite constructions delays and a shorter-than-planned finished product. The 73-meter (238-foot) artificial tree in capital Colombo is 18 meters (59 feet) taller than the current record holder, organizers said. The tree's steel-and-wire frame is covered with a plastic net decorated with more than 1 million natural pine cones painted red, gold, green and silver, 600,000 LED bulbs and topped by a 6-meter (20-foot)-tall shining star. The tree costs $80,000 and was criticized by the Catholic Church as a "waste of money." The church suggested that the funds better be spent on helping the poor. [Source: Associated Press, December 25, 2016]

“Hundreds of port workers and volunteers struggled for four months to put up the tree in time for the holidays. Work was suspended for six days in early December after Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith — representing the island nation's 1.5 million Catholics — lambasted the project. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe responded to the criticism by saying the tree was not being built with public money, but with donations from individuals and private firms. The Guinness World Records is yet to confirm if this is the tallest artificial Christmas tree. Currently, the record is held by a Chinese firm that put up a 55-meter (180-foot) tree-like tower of lights and synthetic foliage, ornaments and lamps in the city of Guangzhou in 2015

“Sri Lankan organizers said they wanted the tree to help promote ethnic and religious harmony in the Buddhist-majority island nation, where a long civil war ended in 2009 but reconciliation remains a challenge. “This is just to show the world that we can live as one country, one nation," said Arjuna Ranatunga, a former cricket player and the minister of ports and shipping. He said Sri Lanka still is still grappling with issues regarding religion, caste and race. Minority Christian and Muslim communities complain of state-sponsored discrimination, and there are allegations of widespread abuses against minority ethnic Tamils both during and after the war.

Our Lady of Madhu

The most celebrated Christian shrine in Sri Lanka is Our Lady of Mahdu Matha, or Mother of Mahdu. Father Johann G. Roten, S.M. of the University of Dayton wrote: Mahdu is a village 185 miles [300 kilometers] from the capital of Colombo — situated in the Northern region of the island of Sri Lanka. It harbors the miraculous image of Our Lady of Mahdu, believed to be as old as the beginnings of the Sri Lankan evangelization by Franciscan missionaries (Juan de Villa de Conde, 1543). The crowned and sumptuously clad statue (61 centimeters) adorned with the crescent moon symbol of the Immaculata, features traits reminiscent of Guadalupe. [Source: Father Johann G. Roten, S.M., University of Dayton]

“Originally located in the imposing Sanctuary of Mantai, center of the flourishing Christian community of Mantote, it was hidden during the Dutch (Protestant) persecution (Spanish-Dutch War of 1638-1658) in the wild jungle east of Mantai, in the region of what is now Mahdu. Image and pilgrimage experienced a long period of spiritual importance following famine and 'black death' (cholera) decimating the Sri Lankan population in 1868-78. The first annual feast day was celebrated on July 2, 1870. The present Basilica Church — construction began in 1872! — was consecrated in 1944. The crowning of the image took place on July 2, 1924. The Sanctuary is flanked by an artificial lake allowing for daily ablutions to up to one hundred thousand pilgrims and natives.

“Our Lady of Mahdu is renowned for its protective power not only in times of war, famine, and epidemic, but also in cases of snake bites, purportedly by preventing them. Venerated as the "Queen of Snakes" in a region infested by up to thirty different species of snakes, Our Lady is said to protect pilgrims against the dangers of the snakes' deadly poison. Tradition attributes a special healing quality and power to the soil of Mahdu — still another favor granted through the intercession of Our Lady. As for many other origins of Marian images, it is said that the statue of Our Lady of Mahdu was rediscovered in 1670, miraculously hidden in the trunk of a tree.

“Maybe one of the most astounding characteristics of this Marian icon is its ecumenical appeal and outreach. Only about 7 percent of the Sri Lankan population, Sinhalese and Tamil, is Catholic, but the shrine attracts also Buddhist Sinhalese and predominately Hindu Tamils. The celebration of Assumption on August 15, 2009 drew, according to some news sources, up to five hundred thousand pilgrims bringing together Catholics, Buddhists and Hindus — Tamils as well as Sinhalese. This may be the most important miracle yet that we owe to Our Lady of Mahdu's intercession: that this venerated image of Mary can bring together all Sri Lankans.

Lady of Madhu and Sri Lanka's Civil War

Our Lady of Mahdu was moved from the front lines during the last phase of the civil war. After it was unveiled after the war ended on Assumption day in August 2009, Amantha Perera wrote in Time: “The voice coming through the public-address system was familiar yet strange. I had not heard it in at least 27 years, not since I had traveled to the sacred Madhu Shrine in northern Sri Lanka in August 1982 when I was a child and on pilgrimage with my family: "Aandavane" ("Oh, Holy Lord" in Tamil), "Aandavane." The words spread through the church compound where half a million others had made the same journey to see Madhu Matha, the Mother of Madhu, in her sacred precincts. [Source: Amantha Perera Time, August 17, 2009]

“For 25 years, Madhu remained well within the battlegrounds of the civil war between the predominantly Sinhalese government and the separatist Tamil Tigers. It was not until April 2008 that the military gained full control of the shrine; the Tigers, who demanded a separate state for ethnic Tamils on the island nation, were finally crushed in May 2009.

“Few made the pilgrimage amid the war, and those who did undertook the journey mostly during lulls in fighting. "We came, we worshipped, we left — that was it, we never wanted to stay back," says Lesley Fernando, who is Sinhalese and was brave enough to visit the shrine during the fragile truces in the war. (About 7 percent of Sri Lanka's population is Catholic, with adherents among both of the nation's major ethnicities: the Sinhalese, who are otherwise mostly Buddhist, and the Tamils, who are predominantly Hindu.) But never have pilgrims been seen in such numbers as they were last week. Numbering some 500,000, they still had to go through several security checkpoints to reach the shrine, though each stop was a formality compared to those during the stringent heights of the civil war.

“There was, however, no escaping the after-effects of the war on the road to Madhu. There were armed personnel on either side of the road, bunkers with dugouts manned by soldiers, occasionally a bomb-damaged building. The railroad that ran parallel to the trunk road had been reduced to a long mound of earth, as if it were the trail left by some giant worm. The iron tracks had long been removed to construct the many bunkers.

“Pilgrims also passed through camps where some of the more than 280,000 people who were displaced by the last phase of the fighting now live. At the turnoff to the shrine, pilgrims were strictly warned not to stop on the side of the road till they reached the church compound. They were told that the jungles on the sides of the road were still littered with mines and other ordnance; red skull-and-crossbones signs drove the message home. Still, the pilgrims arrived in the tens of thousands, in vans, buses, trucks, public transport, an old British double-decker bus, some in tuk-tuks, the three-wheeler rickshaws that traverse the island. At the shrine, the faint but constant hum of prayers and hymns rose above the rustling of pilgrims' feet. Large piles of slippers, sandals and an assortment of shoes of every nature accumulated by the doors outside the church. Families prayed together, others lined up in a long queue that slowly snaked around the church to get a brief moment to touch the altar where the venerated statue is kept. I saw four young girls kneel and walk the entire length of the church on their knees to pray at the altar.

“Though the main church has survived almost unscathed, the side church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on its right still bears the marks of years of war. Its roof was blown off and at the end is a ruined statue of Jesus Christ, destroyed by something that hit the building. Worshippers have tied coins to the statue as part of their vows. You can see the sides of its pedestal pockmarked with shrapnel.

“The last year of the civil war was particularly perilous for the shrine. The military had begun a multipronged advance into the Tiger-controlled area in late 2007, and Madhu was about six miles (10 kilometers) north of the line. Earlier that year, 10,000 people were still taking refuge in the church compound, believing the Virgin would protect them. But by February 2008, recalls the Rev. S. Emilianuspillai, then caretaker of the shrine, it was clear that the shrine itself was in danger — and part of the war. On April 3, 2008, fighting had isolated 17 people at the shrine, including four priests and three nuns. Emilianuspillai tells TIME that the Tigers, breaking an agreement not to enter the compound, had moved mortar launchers into church property and started firing. Says Emilianuspillai: "I went into the shrine and hid there. The shelling went on for hours."...

Pope John Paul II Visits Sri Lanka in 1994

Pope John Paul II visited Sri Lanka in 1994 for the beautification of Joesph Vaz, an 18th century Indian missionary and priest who preached in Sri Lanka. Buddhist monks refused to meet with him II and leading Buddhist clergymen refused to attend the pope's interfaith conference. Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka were outraged that the Pope said "Buddhism is in large measure an atheistic system" in his bestselling book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope."

When the Pope John Paul II visited Sri Lanka in 1994, government officials were worried he might be a target of assassins or suicide bombers. Peace negotiation between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government were aided by Pope John Paul II’s 1994 visit, when 100,000 Tamils from northern Sri Lanka asked for permission to travel south to see the pope.

Pope Francis Visits in Sri Lanka in 2015

In January 2015, Pope Francis visited Sri Lanka as part of a six-day tour of Asia which also included a trip the Philippines. The trip was seen as part of an effort by Francis to shift power within the Roman Catholic Church away from Europe and towards growing communities in Asia. He oversaw mass in Colombo and travelled to Madhu in the north, which has seen some of the fiercest fighting in the Sri Lanka civil war. In a prayer at a local shrine, he said: "We ask also for the grace to make reparation for our sins and for all the evil which this land has known." The pontiff also met a group of Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim leaders, urging reconciliation.

Reuters reported: “The pope tired after starting his trip under a blazing sun” but “looked relaxed against a backdrop of rolling waves” on his his second day “ as he led mass in Colombo. Pope Francis called on the Buddhist-majority country to uncover the truth about the bloody civil “Earlier, Francis stepped out of his Popemobile to greet people, placing his hands on childrens’ heads. He traveled by helicopter to a shrine in the north that was shelled as part of a week-long tour, his second trip to Asia, to shore up the Church’s presence in developing nations. [Source: Frank Jack Daniel, Philip Pullella, Reuters, January 14, 2015]

“Francis’s visit, the first papal visit to the country in 20 years, has added to the sense that a new chapter is opening on the island, which voted the wartime leadership out of power a week earlier. Some nationalists highlight the violence of the Church’s early years and say it led to the destruction of many Buddhist temples. “The Church is legally responsible,” said Susantha Goonatilake, president of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, and Francis should offer an apology.

Pope Francis Visits Buddhist Temple in Sri Lanka in 2015

Pope Francis squeezed in a visit to a Buddhist temple on his trip to Sri Lanka in 2015. St. John Paul II had visited a Buddhist temple in Thailand during his 1984 trip there. Associated Press reported: “Pope Francis became the second pope to visit a Buddhist temple, changing his schedule at the last minute to pay his respects at an important place of worship in Sri Lanka's capital and to witness a key ritual for Buddhists: the opening of a casket of relics of two important disciples of the Buddha. Francis listened respectfully as Buddhist monks chanted and prayed while opening the stupa, or casket, containing relics in the Agrashravaka Temple, the Vatican said. [Source: Associated Press, January 14, 2015]

“Usually, the relics are only put on display once a year, and Buddhists from around Sri Lanka line up for days to pay homage to them since it is such a rare privilege. The head monk at the temple, Banagala Upatissa, told The Associated Press that allowing the pope to witness the relics "is the highest honour and respect we can offer to his holiness." Upatissa had invited Francis to visit the temple when he greeted him at Colombo's airport, the Vatican said. Upatissa, who heads the Mahabodhi Society Headquarters, an important Buddhist organization, is active in interfaith dialogue and visited the Vatican during Pope Benedict XVI's papacy; a photo of the two men is in one of the Mahabodi reception rooms.

“The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Francis didn't pray or meditate during the visit, though he did take off his shoes as all visitors to the temple must do. He noted that unlike Francis' recent visit to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul - where the pope did pause for a moment in prayer with the chief imam - this visit was a much shorter affair, arranged at the last minute. "There was not a time of silence in this sense," Lombardi told reporters. "I can only say the pope was listening with great respect, and listening also to the prayer of the monk showing the relics and this was all."

“The visit to the temple was one of three last-minute additions Francis made to his busy schedule. After canonizing Sri Lanka's first saint and traveling to a northern jungle to Sri Lanka's holiest Christian shrine, Francis also met with the ousted president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, at the Vatican embassy. Lombardi said Rajapaksa, who lost power in an election he called just days before Francis arrived, wanted to keep the encounter private. Francis then met with Sri Lankan bishops, whose meeting had been scuttled the day before because Francis was too tired after greeting dignitaries and crowds upon his arrival.

Hundreds and Thousands Attend Pope Francis Mass in Colombo

Crowds estimated to be around a half million watched Pope Francis celebrate Mass in Colombo and observe him canonizing Sri Lanka first saint, Joseph Vaz. Caroline Wyatt of the BBC reported: The pontiff urged people to follow the example of 17th Century missionary Joseph Vaz at the service in Colombo. The Pope, who has now travelled to a northern region that was devastated by a 26-year civil war, earlier called for the "pursuit of truth". The authorities have so far refused to co-operate with a UN inquiry into war crimes. [Source: Yogita Limaye, Caroline Wyatt, BBC, January 14, 2015]

“Hundreds of thousands showed up for the Pope's sea-front service at Galle Face Green. In keeping with his message of unity for Sri Lanka, Pope Francis urged its citizens to follow the example of Joseph Vaz and learn to overcome religious differences. The Pope said St Joseph dedicated his life to the gospel message of reconciliation, and showed "the importance of transcending religious divisions in the service of peace".

“The atmosphere at Pope Francis's morning Mass was electrifying. Many of the faithful had camped out overnight to ensure a place. This morning, for hours ahead of the service, families with children of all ages sheltered under sun umbrellas as the heat intensified. They mingled with nuns dressed in all-white robes, sitting under the shade of their own black brollies. Many had travelled from Goa, birthplace of the missionary Joseph Vaz, who became St Joseph.

“At the outdoor service by the beach in Colombo, the Pope said the missionary's life showed the importance of transcending religious divisions, emphasising that genuine worship of God bore fruit not in violence or hatred, but in respect for the sacredness of all life. It was a message that struck a chord with many, after 26 years of fighting and tensions between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority until the conflict ended in 2009. Although the deep scars of ethnic and religious divisions remain, there is a new sense of hope after last week's elections passed off peacefully and delivered Sri Lanka a new president.

Pilgrims came from all over Sri Lanka, and parts of India, to see the pontiff. Pamela Mackay, 64, arrived in Colombo late on Tuesday night from her home about 100km (60 miles) away. "What I'm feeling right now, I just can't describe," she said. However, some Buddhist activists have objected to the canonisation and complain that the Catholic Church's violent campaigns during its early years led to the destruction of Buddhist temples.

Joseph Vaz, Sri Lanka’s First Christian Saint

Joseph Vaz was born in Portuguese colony of Goa in India in 1651. He arrived in Sri Lanka in 1687 when Sri Lanka was under Protestant Dutch control. He dressed as a beggar to disguise himself and jailed several times by Dutch authorities for helping Catholics, Vaz produced prayer books in Sinhalese and Tamil. By the time of his death in 1711 he had earned himself the title Apostle of Sri Lanka

The BBC reported: There has been a great deal of enthusiasm for Joseph Vaz's sainthood, not just from the Catholic community of Sri Lanka but also from India's Catholic community. The Church usually stipulates a potential saint must have two miracles attributed to them, but St Joseph has apparently been fast-tracked. He is credited with just one miracle, whereby a pregnant Indian woman who was told that her baby was in danger prayed to St Joseph and the child was saved. [Source: Yogita Limaye, Caroline Wyatt, BBC, January 14, 2015]

Reuters reported: “Vaz was captured as a suspected spy after he crept on to the tropical island in disguise. He travelled south at the age of 36, dressed as a beggar, to a country then divided into kingdoms and European colonies, after hearing about the Dutch persecution of Catholics. He worked for years under the protection of a Buddhist king. [Source: Frank Jack Daniel, Philip Pullella, Reuters, January 14, 2015]

“Vaz spent five years secretly preaching in the lush lowlands before making his way to the fortress-like Kingdom of Kandy in the hill district’s rainforests, where he was captured and accused of espionage for Portugal under the guise of religion. He was detained for nearly a year until he convinced the king that he was a priest, according to texts from the 17th century cited on a website about Vaz run by Sri Lankan Catholics. Vaz remained in Kandy until his death in 1711, by which time the Church says he had almost single-handedly re-established Catholicism in Sri Lanka.”

During the mass in Colombo, “Francis, speaking slowly in English, said Christians should follow the example of Vaz to build peace, justice and reconciliation. “We really need people like him to ensure peace and harmony in this country,” a woman who identified herself as Fathima, wearing traditional Muslim dress, said of the pope. The canonisation is an example of Francis’s no-nonsense approach to creating saints to meet the demands of the flock for new holy figures, particular in parts of the world where the Church is still growing. He bent Church rules and dispensed with a regulation that normally requires a second miracle to be attributed to a candidate for sainthood. Pope John Paul beatified Vaz during a visit to Sri Lanka in 1995.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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