Devasahayam Pillai, who converted from Hinduism to Christianity in the 18th century in the then kingdom of Travancore in what is now Kerala, was declared a saint by Pope Francis at the Vatican Sunday, the first Indian layman to be so venerated by the Catholic Church. Devasahayam, also known as Lazarus, was canonized at a ceremony for what the Vatican calls “enduring increasing hardships”.
“This sainthood is an invitation for us to live and lead a life free of discrimination,” said Father John Kulandai, who attended the canonisation at the Vatican as a key member of the team in Kanyakumari that worked on this matter. The original invitation from the Vatican had mentioned Devasahayam’s former caste “Pillai”. However, following protests that adding the caste name defeats the purpose of what Devasahayam stood for, the Vatican removed it, NDTV said.
“Saint Devasahayam stood for equality and fought against casteism and communalism. His sainthood comes at a time India is facing a surge in communalism,” said retired Indian civil servant M G Devasahayam, who had written to the Vatican, seeking removal of Devasahayam’s caste name.
“This canonization is a great opportunity for the Church to stand against the prevailing communal poison. The church should have made this a people’s movement, but they failed and made it a clergy-centric event,” he added.
The announcement comes at a time when the Christian community has been under assault in parts of southern India from Hindu chauvinists who have been accusing the Church of using their missionary work to convert poor and vulnerable Hindus and have attacked many churches.
Born Neelakandan Pillai in Hindu upper caste family in present-day Kanyakumari, he worked at Travancore palace. In 1745, he converted to Christianity and took the names of Devasahayam and Lazarus. He went on to fight against caste discrimination among Hindus and was persecuted and then killed.
In 2012, the Vatican recognized his martyrdom after a rigorous process. Devasahayam was chosen for the sainthood after a woman in her seventh month of pregnancy testified to a “miracle” after praying to him in 2013.
The woman said that her foetus had been declared “medically dead” and that there was no movement. However, she said, she experienced movement “after praying to the martyr”. The Vatican accepted this and recognized Devasahayam for sainthood, NDTV said quoting Church sources.