The tomb of Blessed Devasahayam Pillai in India's Tamil Nadu state. (Photo: UCA News)
Catholic leaders in India are celebrating after Pope Francis cleared the way for an 18th-century martyr to be declared a saint.
Devasahayam Pillai will become the first Indian lay Catholic to achieve sainthood after the pope confirmed his canonization at an ordinary public consistory at the Vatican on May 3.
“It is a great honor and pride for the people of India but especially the people of southern India where martyr Devasahayam Pillai is revered across the faith line. They see him as a role model, a messenger of peace and harmony,” Bishop Nazarene Soosai of Kottar said.
“It is also a time to celebrate and renew our faith because he is being declared a saint during a time when many fascist forces are trying to divide the people in the name of religion, caste and creed, but Blessed Devasahayam symbolizes a person who connects all people.
“It is moment where we can encourage more laypeople to follow great people like Blessed Devasahayam and build bridges between communities where all will be equal without making any differences between any religions.
“He is already a saint for us in the south. We are eagerly waiting the date from the Holy See when he will be declared a saint. A historic moment is waiting in this part of the world.”
When we celebrate the canonization of Blessed Devasahayam, we should also focus on evangelization through small deeds
Father Z. Devasagaya Raj, former secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India's office of Dalits and backward classes, told UCA News that “we should be thankful to the Vatican that it has recognized Devasahayam Pillai as a saint."
“Churches in Odisha state should also promote the canonization of laypeople who lost their lives for the Christian faith 10 years ago,” added Father Raj, who is based in Tamil Nadu’s Archdiocese of Pondicherry and Cuddalore.
“When we celebrate the canonization of Blessed Devasahayam, we should also focus on evangelization through small deeds. Be like him and ready to witness Jesus Christ during this present scenario where hatred has become deep-rooted in society.”
Pillai, an upper-caste Hindu convert to Christianity, was born on April 23, 1712. He was a member of the royal service and was close to King Marthanda Varma, the ruler of Travancore.
He converted to Christianity in 1745 under the influence of Lannoy, the commander-in-chief of the Travancore army, and was baptized by Jesuit Father R. Bouttari Italus. His given name Neelakanda Pillai was changed to Lazer, but he became popularly known as Devasahayam — God’s help.
Pillai’s wife Bhargavi Ammal also became a Catholic and took the name Gnanapoo Ammal (Theresa).
The Hindu king ordered Pillai’s arrest in 1749, charging him with treason and espionage. Pillai was imprisoned, tortured and finally banished to the Aralvaimozhy forest, a remote border area of Travancore.
According to church documents, en route to the forest, Pillai was beaten daily, pepper was rubbed into his wounds and nostrils, and he was exposed to the sun and given only stagnant water to drink. He was shot dead in the forest in 1752. He was a Catholic for only seven years.
Pilai is among seven blessed who will be declared saints soon, including Charles de Foucauld, a French soldier who traveled extensively in North Africa and was killed on Dec. 1, 1916, by a band of marauders.
Others listed for canonization include three priests who founded religious orders — Cesar de Bus, Luigi Maria Palazzolo and Giustino Maria Russolillo — and two religious founders, Maria Francesca di Gesu and Maria Domenica Mantovani.