A History in Outline




The following pages contain an outline history of the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka, covering the Portuguese, Dutch. British and Independence periods, in short, the whole history of the Church in Lanka. It is meant for those who have no time to read big volumes, but wish to have a quick glance at the history. Though brief, I presume it is as comprehensive and informative as an outline history could be. A select bibliography of printed works in English is added for the benefit of the reader who might want to have further information.

W. L. A. Don Peter
Daham Sarana Institute,
Tudella, Ja-Ela,
Sri Lanka.
25 March 1996.


A History in Outline


The central figure as viewed in this history of the Catholic Church In Sri Lanka is Fr Joseph Vaz, venerated as its Apostle, who was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 21 January, 1995 at a solemn ceremony in Colombo. The background to the history of the life, labours and times of Fr Vaz is the history of Lanka's Portuguese period (1505-1658), when the Catholic faith was brought to the country by European missionaries. A knowledge of the history of the Portuguese period is essential to appreciate the worth of Fr Vaz's life and work, not only in relation to Sri Lanka but also ecclesially. Hence we begin with the history of the Portuguese period.

Next comes the Dutch period (1658-1796). Fr Vaz worked in Sri Lanka in the early decades of this period, but his life and work had an impact on the Lankan Church for long afterwards. The Indian missionaries who came from the Oratory he had himself founded at Goa served the Lankan Church till the end of the Dutch period and in the early decades of the British period. Not only was it because of him that they became available for work in Sri Lanka, but they, looked upon him as the pioneer, founder and trail-blazer of the mission who should be emulated by them, even though some of them fell short of the standards set by him. Fr Vaz is pre-eminent in the history of the Dutch period which has therefore to be told in relation to him.

The progress made by the Church in the British period (1796-1948) would not have been possible if Fr Vaz and his companions and successors had not saved the faith in the island. If they had not come to Lanka's rescue and looked after the Church for a century and a half, it is very doubtful there would have been any Catholics left in the country when European missionaries began coming again about the middle of the 19th century. Thus Fr Vaz's work has a bearing on the British period as well.

In spite of all the efforts made by the Church during the past two millennia to spread the Good News of the Gospel, there is still much to be done, to which the encyclical Redemptoris Missio draws our attention. If there have been failures, it may be because of faulty methods. Maybe in this respect Fr Vaz has lessons for the Church. Hence, too, the importance of the study of his life and work against the background of the history of the times.


26 August 1999