Pope Francis gave Sri Lanka its first saint on Wednesday at a Mass for hundreds of thousands of people packed on a Colombo oceanfront, in a climax to a 300-year campaign to recognise the holiness of Goan-born missionary Joseph Vaz.
The pope, who on Tuesday was tired after starting his trip under a blazing sun, looked relaxed against a backdrop of a sparkling sea and rolling waves as he told the hushed crowd that Vaz was an example of religious tolerance relevant to Sri Lanka.
"Saint Joseph shows us the importance of transcending religious divisions in the service of peace," he said in his homily, delivering a message resonant for the nation recovering from a long war between mainly Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils.
Vaz, who was captured as a suspected spy after he crept into the tropical island in disguise was born in 1651 in India's Goa, then a Portuguese colony.
He travelled south at the age of 36, dressed as a beggar, to a country then divided into kingdoms after hearing about the persecution of Catholics by the Dutch, and worked for years under the protection of a Buddhist king.
On Monday, Francis called on Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka to uncover the truth about its long civil war and bring religious communities closer together.
Francis, speaking slowly in English, said Christians should follow the example of Vaz to build peace, justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Catholics make up about 7 percent of Sri Lanka's population, while 10 times as many people follow Buddhism.
"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. About 10 percent of the population follow Islam.
Earlier, Francis drove through the crowd and greeted some people on foot.
He was due to go by helicopter to a shrine in the north that was shelled in the war, then move on to the Philippines on Thursday as part of a week-long tour, his second trip to Asia, to shore up the Church's presence in developing nations.
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. Vaz was beatified by Pope John Paul during a visit to Sri Lanka 20 years ago.
Vaz spent five years secretly preaching in the lush lowlands before making his way to the fortress-like Kingdom of Kandy in the highland 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 powerful king that he was a priest, according to texts from the 17th century cited on a website run by Sri Lankan Catholics (www.josephnaikvaz.org).
King Vimaladharmasuriya II protected him from the Dutch and Vaz's reputation was further bolstered when he was said to have made rain during a drought and by his work with the sick.
Vaz remained in Kandy until his death in 1711, by which time the Church says he had converted 30,000 people and created a network of priests, almost single-handedly re-establishing Catholicism in Ceylon.
Some Sri Lankan 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, who says Francis should offer an apology.
Updated Date: Jan 14, 2015 12:51 PM