A million worshippers have packed the Colombo seafront to greet Pope Francis as he canonised Sri Lanka’s first saint in the biggest public celebration the city has witnessed.
Many had waited through the night to see the first pope to visit the island in two decades canonise Joseph Vaz, a 17th century missionary who disguised himself as a beggar to evade persecution.
The pontiff called on the sea of people, many holding umbrellas to shield themselves from the blazing sun, to follow Vaz’s example of religious tolerance as he delivered his homily on Colombo’s imposing Galle Face Green.
Francis, whose visit has focused on post-war reconciliation, said the missionary had shown “the importance of transcending religious divisions in the service of peace”, ministering to those in need regardless of their creed.
“I pray that… the Christians of this country may be confirmed in faith and make an ever greater contribution to peace, justice and reconciliation in Sri Lankan society,” he said.
“This is what Christ asks of you. This is what Saint Joseph teaches you. This is what the Church needs of you.”
Wednesday’s mass on the shores of the Indian Ocean was a colourful mix of the country’s diverse cultures, with hymns sung in both the Sinhala and Tamil languages as well as traditional dancers and drummers from around the island.
Crowds leaned in to touch Francis as he arrived in a customised open-topped car, before kissing the altar to mark the start of the service.
As a choir sang welcoming hymns, the pontiff greeted people in wheelchairs who had been pushed forward to the front of the vast crowd to receive his blessing.
Many held up mobile phones to film the 78-year-old, who smiled but appeared tired as he made his way to the specially-constructed stage.
On Tuesday Francis cancelled a meeting with Sri Lankan bishops saying he was “exhausted” after his overnight flight from Rome and long journey from the airport exposed to the hot sun.
Police estimate a million people attended the mass, making it the city’s biggest ever public celebration.
Sri Lanka’s Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith said the pontiff had brought “great joy” to the island as it struggled to recover from a long civil war that killed 100,000 people.
He asked Pope Francis to help Sri Lankans find “the strength to ask pardon from each other for the senseless violence unleashed then”.