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Pope Francis Catholic church leader canonizes Sri Lanka's first saint

Vaz was a 17th century Indian missionary who revived the faith in Sri Lanka during a time of anti-Catholic persecution by Dutch colonists, who were Protestant Calvinists

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Jan. 14, 2015: A devotee stretches out his hand to touch the hand of Pope Francis as he arrives to hold a mass at Colombo's seafront Galle Face Green for the canonization ceremony of Joseph Vaz. play

Jan. 14, 2015: A devotee stretches out his hand to touch the hand of Pope Francis as he arrives to hold a mass at Colombo's seafront Galle Face Green for the canonization ceremony of Joseph Vaz.

( AP/Saurabh Das)

Pope Francis has canonized Sri Lanka's first saint as on his 6-day tour at a water-front mass in the country's capital.

The pontiff seemed to be well as he arrived for mass after reports of exhaustion due to the grueling first day of his Asian tour. He happily greeted that crowd, getting off his popemobile to kiss the sick and handicapped.

He called for Sri Lankan reconciliation as he declared Joseph Vaz, a saint at the start of service in the presence of more than a half-million people who applauded upon hearing the news.

Vaz was a 17th century Indian missionary who revived the faith in Sri Lanka during a time of anti-Catholic persecution by Dutch colonists, who were Protestant Calvinists.

The Catholic Church considers Vaz a great model for today's faithful, ministering to the faithful of both of Sri Lanka's main ethnic groups and putting himself at great risk to spread the faith.

Francis told the crowd that Vaz lived at a time — like today — when Catholics were a minority and often persecuted, and yet he ministered to all, regardless of their ethnic or religious background.

"St. Joseph shows us the importance of transcending religious divisions in the service of peace," Francis said in his homily, delivered in English and then translated for the crowd in both Sinhalese and Tamil. "As the life of St. Joseph Vaz teaches us, genuine worship of God bears fruit not in discrimination, hatred and violence, but in respect for the sacredness of life, respect for the dignity and freedom of others, and loving commitment to the welfare of all."

He said the Sri Lankan church today only wants to continue Vaz's legacy of service to all, asking only for the freedom to preach in return. "Religious freedom is a fundamental human right," he said.

To underscore that point, Francis gave Sri Lanka's bishops a replica of a 17th century decree from the then-king of Kandy allowing Catholic conversions of Buddhists — a somewhat provocative message given the recent upswing in violence against Muslims and some Protestant churches by Buddhist extremists who want Sri Lanka exclusively Buddhist.

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