Pope Francis at a mass in Colombo
Pope Francis blesses the altar during a mass in Colombo,wherein he gave Sri Lanka its first saint, a climax to a 300-year campaign to recognize the holiness of Indian-born missionary Joseph Vaz.Reuters

Pope Francis, on Wednesday, presented Sri Lanka with its first Catholic saint during a public mass in Colombo. It is after a 300-year long campaign that the Indian-born Joseph Vaz is being decorated with the extraordinary honour.

The missionary, who was beatified exactly 20 years ago by Pope St. John Paul II during his own trip to Sri Lanka, had first entered the island country after travelling from his hometown Goa in India, disguised as a porter, The Wall Street Journal reports. Mistaking him for a Portugese spy, the Dutch officials had imprisoned him in 1691, and was sent to the central province of Kandy. Two years later, he was let go by the Buddhist King Vimaladharna Surya II, believing that he miraculously ended a drought by bringing rain through prayer.

Fearing that the Portuguese might try to win back the colony, which was under the Dutch rule, under the pretext of protecting the Church, the Dutch launched a fierce campaign to wipe out every trace of the faith in Sri Lanka. All priests were expelled from the island nation, and a few who resisted even wound up dead. 

Vaz, who often ministered in secret at nights, is credited with the revival of Catholicism in Sri Lanka, which currently houses up to 1.2 million Catholics. CruxNow reports that Vaz converted 30,000 locals in Ceylon and took gratification in serving the poor, essentially re-establishing the Catholic faith in a nation predominantly filled with Buddhists and Hindus. 

Pope Francis, determined to honour Vaz, who is popularly known as the "Apostle of Sri Lanka", is even setting aside one of the norms for bestowing sainthood: performing a second miracle. Calling him as "an exemplary priest", who went "out to the peripheries" to search out the people who needed him most, Pope Francis said that Vaz set the perfect example of "transcending religious divisions in the service of peace."

In Colombo, at least 500,000 gathered at the waterfront Mass, to watch the Pope honour the 17th century missionary from India as the first saint of Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, special masses are expected to mark the auspiscious occasion across Goa, Vaz's hometowm.