They came in their thousands. Many had been queuing since afternoon of the previous day to secure the ‘perfect’ vantage point. They came from all corners of the island, and from many parts of the world. The very young and the very elderly, the sick, the disabled; they were all there. Though it was early morning, the hot January sun was starting to shine down on the sea of people. However, no one seemed bothered. By many estimates, over half a million people were at Galle Face Green and surrounding areas that day, all waiting for the arrival of His Holiness Pope Francis.
The date was Wednesday, January 14, the second day of the Pope’s visit to the island. All those that were gathered at Galle Face Green in Colombo were waiting for what was the highlight of the Pope’s Sri Lanka visit; the celebration of a special Holy Mass and the canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz as Sri Lanka’s first ever saint.
To Catholics and Protestants alike Holy Mass is said to be the highest form of worship. It is a constant reminder of the sacrifice Jesus Christ made in their name through the sacramental sign of bread and wine. In the words of Pope John Paul VI “the Mass is the most perfect form of prayer” Therefore for all Catholics to attend mass celebrated by none other than Pope Francis himself is an opportunity that will perhaps only come once in a lifetime.
As the Pope arrived for the Holy Mass he ensured that he greeted everyone there, going on to bless children among the crowds. Despite being clearly fatigued he was approachable to people, especially to the children, while smiling, waving and blessing the faithful who had gathered to catch a glimpse of their Holy Father.
The canonization of St Joseph Vaz was greeted with joy by all those present, including over 1,000 Indians who had flown in from St Joseph Vaz’s birthplace in Goa. The Pope’s Homily (address) was one of peace and understanding. He requested the faithful to follow St Joseph Vaz’s example and make an even greater contribution to peace, justice and reconciliation in Sri Lankan society. “This is what the Christ asks of you” he concluded.
Pope Francis still had a busy schedule that day. He was due to fly to the Church of Our Lady of Madhu for a special religious service. As he left, people again lined the sides of the road to catch a glimpse of the Holy Father. With the service over, the mass of human devotion that had gathered at the sea front that morning started scattering, albeit in orderly fashion. However, as the Galle Face Green gradually emptied, we were given a glimpse of what was left. All sorts of rubbish littered the entire area and surrounding roads. Cleaning crews had moved in and were doing their level best to quickly clean up as much of the area as possible. We questioned several of those who were leaving regarding the matter, inquiring whether there weren’t enough garbage bins located at the site. “It is not a question of having enough rubbish bins. Our people will litter no matter what,” said one woman, shaking her head sadly.
There were some complaints regarding lack of transport facilities for those returning to their homes. At the Slave Island Railway Station, we saw people crammed into trains. Some young men were seen courting danger by attempting to get on trains as they were moving out of the station.
However, all those whom we spoke to were universal in their praise for the Pope and arrangements in place at Galle Face Green for the Holy Mass.
Sister Wilma and her party of sisters from St Mary’s Church, Borella had been at Galle Face Green since 4.00am. “We are proud that we have a Sri Lankan Saint now,” she said smilingly after the canonization of St Joseph Vaz. Asked how she felt about Pope Francis and what it was like to see him, she and the other sisters described it as a blessing for all those who were present that day.
Maria Imaculada Rodriques had come with a group of 34 people from Goa. She said it was truly wonderful to see the Pope, and pointed out as St Joseph Vaz was originally from Goa, they were just as proud as Sri Lankans to see him canonized as a Saint.
Indeed it is a moment of great pride for Sri Lankan Catholics that Pope Francis was gracious enough to visit Sri Lanka in order to perform the Canonization rites of Joseph Vaz as pointed out by a visiting priest from Goa, Rev. Father Eusebio Diedade Gomes. “Usually canonization rites are conducted in the Vatican itself but the Pope has chosen instead to honour the people of Sri Lanka by conducting the rites here” he said.
According to him this is also a great honour for Indians, especially Goans. “He was a son of Goa who left his motherland to help the persecuted Catholics of Sri Lanka” he said adding that on Friday (16 January) great celebrations have been planned in Goa in honour of St Joseph Vaz. While the Bishop of Goa will celebrate a high mass at the St Joseph Vaz Sanctuary in Sancoale, Goa, another seven masses have been organized on the day. “Seven Masses will be celebrated in Konkani the language spoken in Goa, while the last Mass will be conducted in English” he said.
Sirima Perera had been in a group that had come in five buses to attend the Holy Mass. She said they had been at Galle Face since 8.00pm the previous day. “We were all thrilled to see the leader of our Church. I was there 20 years ago when Pope John Paul II came. It was amazing to see the visit of another Pope,” she added.
Many of those we spoke to also expressed admiration for the humility and conduct displayed by Pope Francis. Echoing these sentiments, Sirima Perera said they admired the Pope for his conduct towards the poor, the downtrodden and the disabled.
Mary Rita, Mary Prince and members of their group from a fishing community in Negombo were still waiting for their buses late afternoon. They had been at Galle Face since 4.00pm on January 13, they said. “We have a lot of children in our group. We were a little worried about them being separated and being lost. However, nothing like that happened. We believe God watched over us. We felt as if we were seeing Jesus Christ when we saw the Pope,” they said.
In the end, history was made at Galle Face Green. Those who were there would undoubtedly recall it many years from now. They would remember being there when Sri Lanka’s first ever canonization of a Saint by a Pope widely regarded as being one of the most admired and respected in the history of the papacy.