Excited Church Awaits Canonization of India’s First Lay Martyr Saint

Blessed Devasahayam, an 18th-century lay convert soldier who was tortured and killed by a Hindu king because he refused to renounce his Catholic faith, will be canonized in May.

Statue of Blessed Devasahayam installed at St Mary's parish church in Thrissur.
Statue of Blessed Devasahayam installed at St Mary's parish church in Thrissur. (photo: Anto Akkara)

The Church in India, especially in southern Tamil Nadu state, is “exuberant” after the Vatican set May 15, 2022, as the date for canonization of Blessed Devasahayam, a much-revered lay convert soldier who embraced martyrdom under the Hindu king of Travancore in 1752.

“Finally, the long-awaited day is before us,” Bishop Nazarene Soosai of Kottar, in India’s southern peninsula, told the Register Nov 19.

Though the Vatican had decided to confer sainthood on Blessed Devasahayam in February 2020, beatified in 2012, the announcement of the canonization date was delayed due to the COVID pandemic. While Pope confirmed the canonization at the consistory in May 2021, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints announced the date on Nov. 9.

“Devasahayam was a Christian for just seven years. But he gave amazing witness to Christ and those who pray to him report miracles,” said Father John Kulandai, vice postulator for the canonization process of Blessed Devasahayam and who prepared the positio document for his beatification in 2012, told the Register.

Born in an upper-caste Hindu family in 1712, Neelakandan became a trusted soldier of Hindu king Marthanda Varma, Father Kulandai noted in his profile. Neelakandan’s encounter with Christianity began with Eustachius Benedictus De Lannoy, a Dutch Catholic military officer, who had been imprisoned by the Hindu king after the Dutch were defeated in a war in 1741. 

When Neelakandan confided his personal tragedies and a series of misfortunes, including losing most of his properties, the Dutch prisoner Lannoy narrated the story of Job and encouraged him to read the Bible.

Soon, Neelakandan approached the Catholic Church for baptism, but Church officials were hesitant as they feared that this might anger the Hindu king because he was a “royal officer.”

But the Dutch prisoner provided a recommendation letter and sent Neelakandan to Jesuit missionary Father Giovanni Baptista Buttari, who baptized him in May 1945 after several months of catechism.

True to his firm faith, Neelakandan embraced the Christian name “Devasahayam” (which is a Tamil version of the biblical name of Lazarus, meaning “God has helped”) at his baptism at the of 33, started preaching and converted his wife and many others.

 

Martyrdom

Despite being a high caste himself, Devasahayam also opposed the caste system that treats lower castes as inferior human beings and sanctioned ruthless discrimination against them, and even started living with the lower castes.

Infuriated over “the marked changes in Devasahayam because of his Christian life,” Father Kulandai said, members of the high-caste people accused him of “betrayal of Hinduism, insult of gods, and the royal throne.”

On Feb. 23, 1749, Devasahayam was condemned to death by the king and was tortured in several ways: “He was paraded to many towns and villages, both hands bound by chains, seated on a buffalo, with chili powder applied to his wounds, for refusing to give up the Christian faith.”

Despite all the torture, Father Kulandai notes that, “Every morning and night he spent time for contemplative prayer, and often during the day he turned to God in moments of brief prayer. He spent time also in reading books on lives of saints. ... A lot of people continued to visit Devasahayam in the prison he exhorted them to remain strong in faith.”

Due to his popularity, Father Kulandai said, “the king’s court decided to eliminate him secretly. On the midnight of Jan. 14, 1752, they took him to the place of execution. There he knelt and prayed for a while intensely. (The impressions left by his knees and elbows can still be seen today). Then he was shot dead by the soldiers with five leaden bullets. ... His body was thrown in between rocks and left there to be eaten by wild animals. His mortal remains were discovered by the Christians and buried in front of the main altar in the most prominent church of St. Francis Xavier, which is the present Cathedral of the Diocese of Kottar.”

 

Family Connection

“I have no words to describe the joy over the announcement of the canonization date,” Ezhil Antonimuthu an engineer who takes immense pride in his family’s connection to Blessed Devasahayam.

While his father Amalagiri Antonimuthu was one of the key people behind reviving the canonization process of Devasahayam in 1980s, Ezhil pointed out that his great-great-grand father — a poet named Thomman Thirumuthu — had been in the prison with Devasahayam “for refusing to compose poem on Hindu gods” and had even composed a 190-verse couplet on Devasahayam’s days in captivity with him.

“We have witnessed several miracles in our family and community due to Devasahayam’s intercession. We are awaiting the day he will be declared a saint,” said Ezhil, whose family traces its own Christian faith to its ancestors being baptized by St. Thomas the Apostle.

Bishop Soosai, whose Kottar Diocese is located in the Kannyakumari district of southern Tamil Nadu state, reports that the “enthusiasm of the faithful and the clergy over the canonization date announcement is just amazing.” 

“We had several meetings already on how to prepare for the canonization day. Everyone wants to make the ‘thanksgiving day’ an unforgettable one,” said bishop Soosai.

The 2022 canonization of Devasahayam is “‘very significant for the country as it will inspire those facing persecution,” bishop Soosai said.

“Caste discrimination is a serious issue facing the nation and Devasahayam’s model will inspire all those who are fighting for equality and end to caste discrimination,” he predicted.

More than 400,000 people had attended the beatification ceremony of Devasahayam on Dec. 2, 2012, held at his hometown of Nager Coil within the Kottar Diocese. The vibrant diocese, with more than half a million Catholics, was bifurcated into the dioceses of Kottar and Kuzhithurai in 2015, with key pilgrim centers related to Devasahayam such as his martyrdom site and his tomb spread across both dioceses.

Father Kulandai said that Devasahayam has made some unique history recently, after the Vatican dropped its use of his caste name “Pillai” following requests from local Catholic groups because Devasahayam was opposed to the caste system and never used his caste name. It consequently has been deleted from the beatification decree.

 

‘Icon of Religious Freedom’

“Devasahayam's martyrdom as a layman will inspire anyone,” said Father Francis Alappat, vicar of St Mary's parish at Kolangattukara in the Archdiocese of Thrissur in Kerala.” So, I decided to install this statue in our parish when the Vatican announced the canonization date.”

The senior priest is a medical doctor who quit his profession to become a priest. With respect to the statue, he has also installed an audio system that will play automatically the “amazing life” of Blessed Devasahayam whenever anyone walks close to the statue, on the sideways to the church.

“We are happy that India is getting the first lay saint and the first one from Tamil Nadu,” Father Gnani Raj Lazar, editor of the leading Catholic weekly Nam Vazhvu (Our Life), told the Register.

“From the Second Vatican Council to the 16th World Synod of Bishops, the laity-oriented ecclesia is the Church’s priority,” he said. “I hope the elevation of this lay saint will pave the way for dismantling the clerical colonialism that exists in the Church in India too.”

The Catholic editor described Blessed Devasahayam as an “icon of religious freedom” and a model to follow at a time when the Hindu nationalist BJP, which currently forms India’s national government, and its political allies have passed anti-conversion laws in several states, curtailing the religious freedom guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. 

“In a such a critical situation, the canonization of Devasahayam will boost the morale of the Indian Church and send a strong message to Hindu fundamentalists,” Father Lazar said.

“Christianity does not believe in forced conversion,” he noted. “Devasahayam came to know Jesus Christ, the Redeemer, experienced miracles and believed. And despite the threat of ghar vapsi [‘return home’ to Hinduism], Father Lazar noted, “He embraced martyrdom.” 

Pope Francis conferred on Catholics the lay ministries of catechist and lector at a Mass for the Sunday of the Word of God on Jan. 23.

Pope Francis: The Word of God Rekindles Hope

Pope Francis celebrated Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica for the fourth-annual Sunday of the Word of God, during which he, for the first time, formally conferred upon lay Catholics the ministries of lector and catechist.