St. Francis Xavier
Society Saint Pius X Asia
History of Asian Missions
FOR THE MISSIONS
- History of the Asian Missions - Catholicism in Sri Lanka (Ceylon)
Before the end of the XVth century, there are no signs of Christianity in Sri Lanka. It came with the Portuguese who founded for their establishments on the coast a mission whose action spread to the whole island. The mission bore abundant fruit, especially after the short visit of St. Francis Xavier, in the 1540ís. As Divine Providence often allows it, violent persecution was not long in coming to the mission. As early as 1546, 700 Christians were martyred together in Mannar, and among them some important people such as the very son of the king of Jaffna. But in Sri Lanka as elsewhere, Tertullianís word came true: sanguis martyrum semen christianorum, the blood of martyrs is a seed of Christians. By the end of the same XVIth century, the number of Catholics had risen to many hundreds of thousand. By 1628, the Jesuits had no less than 28 houses throughout the island.
The Portuguese forces declining however, little by little the Dutch Protestants took over all the establishment founded by their rivals whom they expelled of the island by the capture of Jaffna in 1656. A new persecution, more violent, more bloody, followed. Missionaries were expelled, death penalty was pronounced against whoever would give them hospitality (Sept. 16, 1658).
Catholic worship was rigorously banned and hundreds of Catholics were massacred for their faith. Alone, two Oratorian priests, Fathers J. Vaz and Gonzales, through wonderful astute and harshest privations, remained on the island hidden in the deep of forests. At the same time, true missionaries, they strengthened the true faith by their examples and by their words in this people fairly numerous in Christians.
Fr. Joseph Vaz, Saint Joseph Vaz, another St. Francis Xavier in the eyes of the Singhalese, was born on April 21, 1651, near Goa in India. After his ordination, He got permission to be sent to Sri Lanka. From Jaffna in the very North of the island to Colombo and to Tricomali, he visited all the faithful and left a profound mark everywhere. Two centuries later, missionaries could still see the fruits of his deep apostolate. He died in 1711 after a quarter of a century of extraordinary zeal, having converted nearly 30,000 natives. Soon after his death the cause of his beatification was introduced in Rome and only concluded these last years with his canonization by Pope John Paul II.
In the late 1790ís, when the English arrived in Ceylon, there remained about 50,000 Catholics. After some initial hesitations, the authorities tolerated the Catholic worship. The missionaries were breathing again. Nevertheless, priests were too few: barely 20 for the whole island against the wealthy Protestant missions. The threat for Catholics, more subtle this time was also more dangerous: it was the frequentation of the Protestant schools to which they had to send their children, not having any of their own.
It was in order to remedy to this dangerous state of affairs that Pope Gregory XVI detached in 1834 the missions of Ceylon from the diocese Cochin in India to which it had belonged so far and erected it as an Apostolic Vicariate, with its seat in Colombo.
The religious congregation that has had the greatest influence is the French congregation of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the O.M.I., the same that is well-known for its work with the Esquimos, in the North Pole. Their founder, Mgr. Eugene de Mazenod himself, sent the first Oblates. One of them even became a national scholar in Singhalese, the native language. Of course, other Orders and congregations have had a share in working on this missionary territory.
(Sources: Les Missions Catholiques Francaises au XIXe Siecle, 1905, Tome 2e, pp. 125-182.)
In August 1985, at the request of a group of faithful, a priest of the Society of St. Pius X came to Negombo, North of the Singhalese capital, for the first time. During the following ten years, other priests continued serving this new field of apostolate, on their way in or out of India. From 1993, the priest came monthly from the Philippines. (Although the Societyís priory in South India is only 30 minutes flight away, visa complications required the visiting priests to come from Manila, 8 hours flight away!) In 1994 a legal association was formed in view of a foundation which was to take place then. However it was postponed and only took place in August 1995: St. Francis Xavier Mission, in Negombo. Two French priests were appointed and a Filipino Brother. At first, the mission remained humble, with 20-30 faithful at Mass; however, in that small number there were already hopes of priestly and religious vocations.
In October 1995, the attendance raised to 70, and a catechism was started for about 20 children. Attacks from Conciliar church were not long in coming which nevertheless served the cause by spreading the news of the foundation.
In October 1996, the first Singhalese priestly candidate entered the Societyís French Seminary of Flavigny.
Now, in April 1997, Sunday attendance reaches regularly 100-150 and the number of children for catechism has doubled. Moreover two Franciscan Sisters have now returned to Tradition and as well as giving classes to children, provide a dispensary for about 100 families.
Fr. Denys came down from his motorcycle happy as ever. His Superiors had just sent him to this little Indian village to take care of a very poor mission on the banks of the Ganges river. It was December 8, feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the small group of faithful welcomed him with cries of joy.
The village did not yet have its chapel but one of the local huts had been converted to receive the faithful and the priest. Everything was done properly. As there was no altar, a traveling box fulfilled this office surrounded by rich Indian embroideries. The people had also brought flowers and palm leaves. In the middle of all, six brand new candles were waiting the burn for the Lord.
There were no bells. The gong, very common in these places, replaced them easily. The missionary placed the portable altar stone and the altar cloths; he took his white vestments from his bag and, having called all the faithful, he proceeded towards the altar. A tall Indian who had done the weirdest things in his life and knew as well how to answer the Latin Mass walked before him.
The devout faithful sang with all their heart. Father gave a fervent sermon on the Gospel ó of which not a word was lost as souls were starving for the Word of God. The singing continued during the Offertory as it was the custom there. After the consecration when the heads looked up at the altar again, all the prayers stopped abruptly in everyoneís throat. The children, all gathered near the altar on the sandy ground, were pointing to the altar with frightened eyes.
Father, however, was peacefully praying. He recited the Pater with his eyes fixed on the Sacred Host. "Et ne nos inducas in tentationem" whispered the servant so softly that it could barely be heard. Immediately, rising without noise, with the agility of a panther, he pressed his long fingers on the arm the priest.
"For Godís sake, do not move at all and breathe as gently as you can,"
The server said.
The gilded paten leaning on the altar near the corporal then trembled in his hand. He too had seen. A snake, small, but of the most venomous specie, had crawled out of the flowers brought there and, slowly, was zigzagging towards the middle of the altar.
The horrible little beast slid under the priestís hand, touching the paten, bumped against the consecrated Host and erecting itself in front of the chalice repeatedly tried its dart. Obviously the vivid gold of the chalice was fascinating it. After a moment, the snake got closer and with its head erected, rolled itself around the chalice.
Pale, absorbed in a silent prayer, Father Denys knew that the least movement could be fatal for him ó one sting of the snake would send him to the grave in less than one hour. He was motionless.
The Indian servant had quickly left the altar and had gone out of the hut with a man to whom he had nodded. He came back shortly after with a flute and some scissors and resuming his place at the foot of the altar he began to play the monotone and ever repeated complaint of snake-charmers.
The animal, still rolled, ceased to climb towards the Precious Blood.
The other man had also come back. He was bringing a little bowl filled to the brim with milk. The servant, put down his instrument, took the bowl, brought it on the altar at the end of the epistle side and without wasting a moment, resumed his flute and continued his calming melody.
All of a sudden, the snake let go the chalice, fell back on the corporal and slowly, obviously disturbed, headed towards the white liquid so loved by all reptiles. Its head disappeared soon in the bowl; it forgot all the rest.
Then the Indian, leaving his flute, grabbed the opened scissors and leaped towards the reptile. A string of blood reddened the altar cloth and the animal rolled off cut in two at the foot of the altar.
It was all over. The priest could continue his Mass.
That morning he prolonged his thanksgiving after Mass for a good while.
"In any case, Father," said the old server, "in any case, you are lucky that I was once a fakir and a snake charmer! Donít you dare reproach it to me again!"
began to laugh and as he had all his faithful around him at that moment,
he said: "Do you know what I was thinking a moment ago in spite of my
great fear? This snake rolled around the chalice reminded me of the serpent
Father Denys did not have to say anything else in order to be understood.