Devasahayam Pillai, a Hindu turned Christian in the 18th century in the Kanyakumari region of Tamil Nadu, became the maiden Indian layman to be designated a saint by the Vatican. The Vatican dropped the ‘Pillai’ from his name and referred to him as Blessed Devasahayam.
Blessed Devasahayam was canonized by Pope Francis during a mass in St Peter’s Basilica attended by almost 50,000 people from all around the world, as well as government delegations honoring him and nine other new saints.
Who is Devasahayam Pillai?
Devasahayam Pillai was born on April 23, 1712, into a Hindu Nair family in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu. His father was a priest in a Hindu temple in the Kingdom of Travancore during the time. Devasahayam was fluent in Sanskrit, Tamil, and Malayalam.
At the maternal uncle’s residence, Devasahayam was raised according to Nair traditions, with Hindu beliefs and rituals. Under the Diwan of Travancore, Devasahayam was assigned authority for affairs concerning the state.
How did he come into the fold of Christianity?
The Dutch East India Company dispatched Captain Eustachius de Lanoy, a Dutch navy commander, to take a Travancore-controlled port in 1741. Travancore’s army beat a force led by the Dutch commander in battle. The commander and his men were taken into custody. After earning the king’s pardon, the Dutch officer became the general of Travancore’s army, which fought numerous battles and conquered numerous areas before merging them into Travancore. Meanwhile, the Dutch commander and Devasahyam came into contact. The Dutch commander was the one who introduced him to Christianity, and he converted to Christianity in 1745.
Neelkanth Pillai was Devasahyam’s name. After Baptism, which is the ceremony of taking the oath of becoming a Christian, his name was changed to Lazarus (God’s assistance). Devasahyam is how it is translated in Tamil and Malayalam. This name helped him gain more recognition.
Devasahayam had to face the wrath of the state of Travancore, which was opposed to the conversion. According to a note from the Vatican in February 2020, his conversion was not acceptable to the heads of his home church, wrongly accused of treason, and espionage, and removed from the job of royal administration and subsequently imprisoned. On January 14, 1752, he was assassinated. He was thereafter given the title of martyr.
Journey of his Sainthood:
- Devasahayam was recommended for beatification by the Diocese of Kottar, the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council, and the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India in 2004. In 2012, the Kottar diocese declared him blessed, 300 years after his birth.
- Pope Benedict XVI described Devasahayam as a faithful layman during the midday ‘Angelus’ prayer in the Vatican that day 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,” according to the Vatican note.
- Pope Francis acknowledged a miracle attributed to Devasahayam in 2014, paving the way for his canonization. He was recognized for sainthood by the Vatican in February 2020 for suffering greater adversity after deciding to become a Christian.