CANONISED: Devashayam Pillai, who was a layman born in Kanyakumari, was canonised by Pope Francis. This is the first case of a lay convert being canonised by the Church. Among the new saints there is a priest who was a leading journalist who defied Hitler in Nazi Germany.

Devasahayam Pillai, an Indian layman convert, was canonised by Pope Francis, recently. Devasahayam was born a Hindu in Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu which is also the birth place of Abdul Kalam, former Indian president. Pillai’s family converted to Christianity in the 18th century.

Devasahayam Pillai, who was born a Hindu in Tamil Nadu and converted to Christianity in the 18th century, became the first Indian layman was declared a saint by the Vatican on Sunday May 19.
Pope Francis canonised Blessed Devasahayam during the Canonisation Mass in St Peter’s Basilica, which was attended by over 50,000 faithful from all over the world, as well as government delegations honouring him and nine other new saints, PTI reported.
Besides Devasahayam, the Pope proclaimed five other men — Titus Brandsma, Cesar de Bus, Luigi Maria Palazzolo, Giustino Maria Russolillo, and Charles de Foucauld — and four women — Maria Rivier, Maria Francesca of Jesus Rubatto, Maria of Jesus Santocanale, and Maria Domenica Mantovani — as saints.
Devasahayam was born on April 23, 1712 in Nattalam village in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu, and went on to serve in the court of Marthanda Varma of Travancore. After meeting a Dutch naval commander at the court, Devasahayam was baptised in 1745, and assumed the name ‘Lazarus’, meaning ‘God is my help’.

“His conversion did not go well with the heads of his native religion. False charges of treason and espionage were brought against him and he was divested of his post in the royal administration,” the Vatican said in a note in February 2020. According to the Vatican, “while preaching, he particularly insisted on the equality of all people, despite caste differences”, which “aroused the hatred of the higher classes, and he was arrested in 1749”.
On January 14, 1752, Devasahayam was shot dead in the Aralvaimozhy forest. He is widely considered a martyr, and his mortal remains were interred inside what is now Saint Francis Xavier’s Cathedral in Kottar, Nagercoil.

Sainthood Road
In 2004, the diocese of Kottar along with Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council and Conference of Catholic Bishops of India recommended Devasahayam for beatification. He was declared blessed by the Kottar diocese in 2012, 300 years after his birth.
During the midday ‘Angelus’ prayer in the Vatican that day, Pope Benedict XVI described Devasahayam as a “faithful layman”, and urged Christians to “join in the joy of the Church in India and pray that the new Blessed may sustain the faith of the Christians of that large and noble country”, the note from the Vatican said.
In 2014, Pope Francis recognised a miracle attributed to Devasahayam, clearing the path to his canonisation. He was approved for sainthood in February 2020 for “enduring increasing hardships” after he decided to embrace Christianity, according to the Vatican, which last November announced May 15, 2022 as the date for the ceremony.
While clearing Devasahayam for sainthood in 2020, the Vatican dropped ‘Pillai’ from his name, and referred to him as “Blessed Devasahayam”.

Coincidentally the Governor of Goa Sridharan Pillai is also a Christian from the Pillai community. The governor is on record congratulating Pope Francis on recognising the contribution of the Devasahayam. The newly sainted layman has dropped the Pillai surname post canonisation.
It is not widely known that the first Christian converts in the country came to the present day Tamil Nadu in the 5th century AD. It is believed that St Thomas one of the disciples of Jesus Christ had even visited India or more specifically Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Unlike Catholics in Goa, the Christians in the south retained their caste surnames. Moreover the masses are conducted in the local language whether Malayalam or Tamil.
Following a split in the Church there are several Christian sects in Keral, the most prominent being the Syrian Catholics. The Syrian Catholics are among the most influential groups in the country. Pope Francis was one of the first Popes to elevate one of the Syrian Catholic Bishops to the position of Cardinal.

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