Indian Church’s initiatives for canonization of Devasahayam
By Robin Gomes
India’s Latin-rite bishops are planning a series of events to celebrate the life and holiness of the country’s first layman and martyr who will be officially declared a saint in 3 months’ time. They are holding up the figure of Blessed Devasahayam as a model to the country’s Christians.
He is an 18th century Indian Hindu convert to Catholicism who suffered martyrdom in 1752, in what is southern India’s Tamil Nadu state today. He is among the 7 candidates from around the world who will be officially declared saints by Pope Francis at a canonization Mass in the Vatican on May 15, 2022.
Model for youth
“We have here a wonderful opportunity to tell the heroic story of our martyr especially to our young people, who will be helped by it to face courageously the exigencies of Christian life and witness today,” the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI) said in a statement on Wednesday.
“In martyr Devasahayam we have the first Indian who is acknowledged to have won the crown of martyrdom on Indian soil,” said the statement signed by CCBI president Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrão of Goa and Daman, vice president Archbishop George Antonysamy of Madras-Mylapore and secretary general Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi. “He is also the first lay person and the first married person from India to be conferred sainthood. This canonization, therefore, has a special significance for the Church in India,” they stressed.
Born on April 23, 1712, as Neelakanda Pillai, in the village of Nattalam, Devasahayam served in the palace of southern India’s Hindu kingdom of Travancore, which stretched from what is Kanyakumari district today, right up to Cochin in Kerala state.
At Baptism in 1745, he assumed the name 'Lazarus' or 'Devasahayam' in the local language, meaning ‘God is my help’. However, his conversion did not go well with the leaders 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. He was imprisoned and subjected to harsh persecution. A Catholic for only seven years, he was shot dead in the Aralvaimozhy forest on January 14, 1752. He was 39.
Sites linked with his life and martyrdom are in Kottar Diocese, in Kanyakumari District of Tamil Nadu state. The tomb of Devasahayam at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Nagercoil attracts large numbers of devotees.
To celebrate the sainthood of Devasahayam, the Latin bishops have released a prayer to him and a brief outline of his life focusing on his outstanding qualities.
In collaboration with the canonization committee of the Diocese of Kottar in southern India’s Tamil Nadu state, where he was martyred, the CCBI plans to hold a 7-step national quiz competition on his life and message. Similarly, a national essay competition will be held for young people and married laity and school and college students.
Following the May 15 canonization, a national thanksgiving celebration will be held on Pentecost Sunday, June 5, 2022, in Aralvaimozhi where Devasahayam met his martyrdom.
And on June 24, the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, all families will be consecrated to the Sacred Heart. The bishops have invited the faithful, both in the country as well as abroad, to join in the prayer as a family and “plead for the intercession of martyr Devasahayam for our country”.
The Indian Church
The CCBI has been behind the sainthood cause of Devasahayam. In 2009, the Latin-rite bishops decided to request the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints to expedite the process of Devasahayam, and in 2013 it decided to include his memorial in the liturgical calendar of India.
Bishops from India’s 132 Latin-rite dioceses form the CCBI, the largest of the 3 groups that make up the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), the apex body of the Catholic Church of India. The other two bishops’ organizations belong to the eastern rite Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic Churches that have 32 and 11 dioceses respectively.