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How a Hindu became the first layperson in India to be made a saint

Devasahayam Pillai, known as Lazarus, an 18th century Hindu convert to Christianity, became the first Indian layman to be canonized by the Church at the Vatican on Sunday, May 15.

A Hindu from what is now the southern state of Tamil Nadu, Devasahayam converted to Catholicism in 1745 while working at the royal palace, where he met a captured Dutch commander who taught him about Christianity.

But his faith, and his preaching of equality of all peoples — a revolutionary view at the time — caused a stir and when he refused to renounce his new religion, he was arrested.

After almost three years of imprisonment and torture, during which he began to be visited by pilgrims, he was shot dead in a forest on the orders of the king on January 14, 1752.

He was declared a martyr and beatified in 2012, before being later attributed the miracle of resuscitating a fetus in the 20th week of pregnancy.

Aside from Devasahayam, also named saints were Titus Brandsma, César de Bus, Luigi Maria Palazzolo, Giustino Maria Russolillo, Charles de Foucauld, Maria Rivier, Maria Francesca of Jesus Rubatto, Maria of Jesus Santocanale, and Maria Domenica Mantovani.

“The ten embodied holiness in everyday life and this is the idea that the Church needs to embrace,” said Pope Francis in his homily during the canonization Mass.

Devasahayam was recommended for the process of Beatification by the Vatican in 2004 at the request of the Diocese of Kottar, the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council, and the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India.

A miracle attributed to Devasahayam was recognized by Pope Francis in 2014, clearing the path for the canonization.

In 2013, a woman’s 24-week fetus was declared dead. The woman prayed to Devasahayam and drank water from the well of his house in Nattalam village in Tamil Nadu state. Within an hour, she felt better and underwent another scan.

“The fetus showed signs of life and three months later, the woman gave birth to a healthy baby boy,” said Father V Hilarius, vicar general of Kottar diocese.

Blessed Devasahayam is believed to have prayed on this rock and left imprints of his knee and elbow. (Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)

Born Neelakantan Pillai to a temple priest Vasudevan Namputhiri and Devahi Amma on April 23, 1712, at Nattalam village in Tamil Nadu’s Kanniyakumari district, Devasahayam was educated and trained in archery and the use of other weapons.

He was attached to the royal court of King Marthanda Varma. At that time, Neelakantan came in contact with Eustachius Benedictus De Lannoy, a Dutch military officer, who was arrested by King Varma after the Dutch were defeated in the Battle of Colachel in 1741.

De Lannoy introduced Devasahayam to the Catholic faith. On May 14, 1745, Father Giovanni Baptista Buttari baptized him and rechristened him as Lazarus or “Devasahayam” in Tamil language, meaning “God is my help,” said Father John Kulandai, vice postulator for the Cause of Canonization of Martyr Devasahayam.

Devasahayam began to evangelize in the region and converted many people, including his wife, to Christianity. He also championed the rights of lower castes, speaking vehemently against caste oppression.

His action aroused the hatred of higher classes and he was arrested in 1749. After enduring increasing hardships, he received the crown of martyrdom when he was shot on January 14, 1752.

“Nothing deterred him from his faith in Jesus, not even death threats. Nothing frightened him from preaching the equality of all people at a time and place where caste and religious differences were deep-rooted,” said Father Suresh Mathew, editor of the Indian Currents weekly.

Three of the seven years of his being Catholic were spent in prison.

Devasahayam’s mortal remains were interred near the altar at St. Xavier’s Church, Kottar, which is now the diocesan cathedral.

While furthering the cause of his canonization, the Vatican was urged to drop Devasahayam’s last name “‘Pillai” as it was a caste title.

The request was granted in February 2020, when the Vatican cleared him for sainthood and the name “Pillai” was dropped from his name, referring to him as “Blessed Devasahayam.”

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