Pope in Sri Lanka
Pope Francis blesses the altar during a Mass in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. He canonized the country's first saint, Joseph Vaz, during the Mass. Reuters

Pope Francis spread a message of unity between Sri Lanka's Sinhalese ethnic majority and Tamil minority by canonizing Joseph Vaz, the country’s first saint, and visiting a church revered by Catholics from both groups on Wednesday. Francis used the second day of his six-day tour of Asia to declare Vaz a model of faith for his equal ministering to all people regardless of ethnicity.

“St. Joseph shows us the importance of transcending religious divisions in the service of peace,” the pope said in his service 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.”

In a country where only 7 percent of 20 million people are Catholics, more than half a million people attended the mass held by Francis in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital and biggest city, according to the Guardian. Some camped out overnight to ensure a good view for when the pope canonized Sri Lanka’s first saint.

After the Mass, the pope traveled north to Madhu to visit Our Lady of Madhu, a church sacred to Catholics across all ethnicities. It was the first visit by a pope to the predominantly Hindu region that contains a large Catholic minority and was at the frontlines of the civil war that spanned three decades between the Sinhalese and the Tamils.

Vaz was born in 1651 in Goa, India, then a Portuguese colony. At 36 years old, he traveled to Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon and under Dutch control at the time, dressed as a beggar after hearing about the Dutch persecution of Catholics. The Dutch rulers were Protestant Calvinists then. The pope said Vaz spent 23 years secretly ministering to the Catholic population -- dating from earlier Portuguese colonization -- on the island, despite the threat of Dutch persecution.

Vaz was eventually captured and accused of spying, but received protection from the Buddhist king Vimaladharna Surya II, who released him two years later after Vaz is believed to have performed a miracle by ending a drought. The king gave Vaz the freedom to preach in his kingdom, where Vaz was known as "Sammana Swami" or Angelic Father by his congregants.

Under traditional Catholic Church requirements for sainthood, candidates require two miracles to qualify, but the Vatican has never confirmed Vaz to have performed more than one miracle. Apparently, Francis circumvented that requirement and simply approved of Vaz’s canonization, which he also did for a far better-known new saint, Pope John XXIII, according to the New York Times. Vaz’s canonization is a sign that Francis believes the faithful need more models of holiness without the “technical, time-consuming and costly process of confirming inexplicable miracles,” according to the New York Times.

Vaz was credited with converting some 30,000 people to Catholicism before he died. The church says Vaz almost single-handedly re-established Catholicism on the island, according to NPR. He is credited as the first non-European native in modern times to found a mission and church outside Europe, and was given the title “Apostle of Kanara and Ceylon.” Vaz died in 1711 and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Colombo in January 1995.