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Who Is Devasahayam Pillai, First Indian Layman To Be Declared Saint By Pope?

Devasahayam was an official in the court of Travancore’s Maharaja when he converted to Christianity in 1745, taking the name 'Lazarus'.

The tapestry depicting Titus Brandsma (top) and Devasahayam at  St. Peter's Square
The tapestry depicting Titus Brandsma (top) and Devasahayam at St. Peter's Square AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

Devasahayam Pillai, who converted to Christianity in the 18th century, was on Sunday declared a saint by Pope Francis at the Vatican. He became the first Indian layman to be canonised.

Devasahayam was canonised along with nine others during a Canonisation Mass at St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. 

First recommended for Beatification by the Vatican in 2004 — the first step towards canonisation, a miracle attributed to Devasahayam was recognised by Pope Francis in 2014, clearing the path to his canonisation in 2022.  

Here is all you need to know about Devasahayam life, the meaning of sainthood, what does layman mean, and the process a person becomes a saint. 

Who was Devasahayam Pillai?

Devasahayam Pillai was born on April 23, 1712 as Neelakanta Pillai into a Hindu Nair family, at Nattalam in Kanyakumari district, which was part of the erstwhile Travancore kingdom. 

Devasahayam was an official in the court of Travancore’s Maharaja Marthanda Varma when he was instructed into the Catholic faith by a Dutch naval commander in 1745. He then took the name "Lazarus". 

"Lazarus" or "Devasahayam" in Malayalam, translates to "God is my help". 

Devasahayam was recommended for the process of Beatification by the Vatican in 2004, at the request of the Kottar diocese, Tamil Nadu Bishops' Council and the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India. He was declared Blessed on December 2, 2012, in Kottar, 300 years after his birth.

The Vatican earlier said about Devasahayam in a note, "While preaching, he particularly insisted on the equality of all people, despite caste differences. This aroused the hatred of the higher classes, and he was arrested in 1749. After enduring increasing hardships, he received the crown of martyrdom when he was shot on 14 January 1752."

Sites linked with his life and death are in Kottar Diocese, in the Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu.

What does sainthood mean and who is a layman?

A layman is a person who is not a member of the Catholic clergy. Devasahayam Pillai is the first Indian layman to become a saint.

Mathew Schmalz of the College of Holy Cross explained in an article for The Conversation that while a person is commonly called a saint to mean they are pious or holy, a saint in the Catholic faith is a person who has led a life of “heroic virtue”. 

The sainthood is a five step process, as per a BBC article.

What's the sainthood process?

First, there is a five years waiting period after a person's death before they are considered for sainthood. However, the Pope can waive off this requirement.

Second, after the five year period, the BBC article notes that the bishop of the diocese where the person died can open an investigation into their life, to see whether they lived their lives with sufficient holiness and virtue to be considered for sainthood. 

Once their case is accepted, they are called "servants of God".

Third, The Congregation for the Causes of Saints scrutinises the evidence of the candidate's holiness, work and signs that people have been drawn to prayer through their example, notes BBC.

The Congregation passes the case to the Pope, who has to clear it further.

Fourth, a miracle related to the person is to be confirmed in a process called beatification. Once confirmed, a person is called "Blessed".

However, the BBC lists one exception to the miracle requirement. A martyr, someone who died for their faith, can be beatified without a verified miracle.

Fifth, the person is declared a saint in the canonisation ceremony. The BBC notes, "To reach this stage, a second miracle normally needs to be attributed to prayers made to the candidate after they have been beatified. Martyrs, however, only need one verified miracle to become a saint."

(With PTI inputs)

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