Colombo, May 15: Sunday May 15 would be a historic day for the Catholics of India. On this day, Pope Francis Canonizes Blessed Lazarus Devasahayam, an 18 th. Century South Indian martyr.
Devasahayam stands out for four reasons: He is the first Indian “lay person” to be Canonized; he was a convert from a wealthy high caste Hindu family of Kerala; he defied the powerful Hindu ruler of Travancore despite the fact that he was a close associate; and lastly, he doggedly held on to the Catholic faith though jailed, chained, dragged through streets and spat upon and tortured. Finally, he was shot dead. His tomb at St.Francis Xavier Cathedral in Kottar in South Tamil Nadu, is venerated.
On May 3, 2021, Pope Francis officially cleared Devasahayam and six others for Sainthood but had not set the date for the Canonization ceremony because of the pandemic. On November 9, 2021, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints declared that the Canonization Mass would take place in the Vatican on May 15, 2022.
Born on April 23, 1712 as Neelakanta Pillai in a Nair family in Nattalam in Kottar, Tamil Nadu, Neelakanta served in the palace of the Travancore King Marthanda Varma as Treasury in-charge. According to Hannah Brockhaus of the Catholic News Agency, Neelakanta became a close friend of a Dutch naval commander, Eustachius de Lannoy, who was also in the King’s service. When Neelakanta was depressed due to a fall in the family’s fortune, de Lannoy, introduced him to the Catholic faith which gave him solace. And when he showed an inclination to convert, De Lennoy introduced him to Fr. R.Bouttari Italus, a Jesuit priest working in Thirunelveli in Tamil Nadu. As in similar cases, the Jesuit priest wanted to be sure if Neelakanta would be steadfast in his faith. Once Fr. Bouttari was convinced that this man was ready to give up his life for Christ, he baptized Neelakanta in 1745. Fr.Bouttari named him ‘Lazarus’ or ‘Devasahayam’ meaning “God is My Help” in Tamil and Malayalam.
As ‘Devasahayam’ Neelakanta Pillai started spreading the Gospel with rare vigor. “He first evangelized his family, then his friends, his colleagues. And this is what this saint is asking us: How much are you sharing Christ with the people around you?” Fr. Harris Pakkam told the Catholic News Agency. Devasahayam showed how to live a life of holiness even in one’s daily life.
However, Neelakanta Pillai’s conversion did not go down well with the Hindus and the King himself, who regarded it as a betrayal, and even as a threat to the kingdom. Devasahayam had refused to participate in Hindu rituals and brazenly defied caste taboos regarding social inter-mixing which were very strong in Kerala at that time. But despite the torrent of criticism, he continued to spread the gospel especially among the poor and depressed castes.
In 1749, Just four years after his conversion, Devasahayam’s faith was put to the test when he was arrested on false charge of espionage. He was tied up and dragged through the streets, where people spat on him and struck him with thorny sticks. But he was unfazed. On January 14, 1752, however, just seven years after he became a Catholic, Devasahayam dragged to the Aralvaimozhy forest in Tamil Nadu and shot dead. Since then, he has been considered a martyr by the Catholics of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
In 2004, the Diocese of Kottar, along with the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council (TNBC) and the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI), recommended to the Vatican, the Beatification of Devasahayam.
Procedure for Canonization
Writing in Vatican News, Robin Gomes gives the procedure for Canonization in the case of Devasahayam. “The Diocese of Kottar received clearance from the Vatican on December 22, 2003, to open the cause of Devasahayam’s martyrdom at the local level. At the start of the diocesan inquiry, which took place from 2006 to 2008, Devasahayam was conferred the title ‘Servant of God’. Thereafter, the process moved over to the Vatican under the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. On November 15, 2011, documents were submitted for evaluation by the historical consultors, who concluded that the evidence collected was sufficient and reliable to demonstrate Devasahayam’s martyrdom. On February 7, 2012, a special meeting of theological consultors took note of the historical reliability of the documents collected, which demonstrated both the “odium fidei” [hatred of the faith] on the part of the persecutors and its acceptance on the part of Devasahayam. An ordinary session of Cardinals and bishops on May 8, 2012 gave its approval.”
“On June 28, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI authorized the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to promulgate the decree recognizing Devasahayam’s martyrdom. On December 2, 2012, Italian Cardinal Angelo Amato, former Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, presided over the Mass of Beatification at Carmel Higher Secondary School campus in Nagercoil, Kottar Diocese, on behalf of Pope Benedict, conferring on Devasahayam the title Blessed.”
A miracle through a candidate’s intercession is needed for the person to be cleared for Canonization or final Sainthood, Gomes points out.
“In the case of Devasahayam, an enquiry was initiated in the Diocese of Kottar regarding a possible miracle. The Congregation described it as “the resuscitation of a 20-week-old fetus of an Indian pregnant lady”. The medical board that examined the case, on 28 February 2019, unanimously declared that the healing could not be explained by current medical knowledge. On December 5, 2019, a special meeting of the theological consultors of the Congregation approved the miracle.”
“Cardinals and bishops, who met on February 18, 2020, also approved it. Three days later, on February 21, Pope Francis authorized the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to promulgate the decree officially recognizing the miracle, which effectively cleared Blessed Devasahayam for sainthood.”
Saints of Kerala
Kerala got its first Saint in 2008. She was Sister Alphonsa (1910-1946) of Pala in Kottayam district. In 2014, two more from Kerala got sanctified. They are Fr. Chavara Kuriakose Elias (1805-1871) and Sr. Euphrasia Eluvathingal (1877-1952).
Totally, six from India have attained Sainthood. The first was a Portuguese Indian lay brother, Gonsalo Garcia, of Vasai in Mumbai (1862). The other two are Goan priest Joseph Vaz (who worked in Sri Lanka under trying conditions during Dutch rule) and Mother Teresa, who were declared saints in 1995 and 2016 respectively.