First Lay Martyr of India Beatified

Hindu Convert Blessed Devasahayam Pillai Followed in the Footsteps of Job

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By Paul Kurian

ROME, DEC. 4, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Devasahayam Pillai (1712-1752) was beatified on Sunday in his native diocese in India, exactly 300 years after his birth. He is the first Indian lay martyr to be beatified.

The celebration was held in the diocese of Kottar, in the state of Tamil Nadu. The organizers anticipated the participation of some 100,000 people. Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, celebrated the Beatification Mass along with Cardinals Oswald Gracias and Telesphore Toppo.

Pope Benedict XVI approved the decree recognizing Pillai’s martyrdom in June. Devasahayam (or Nilakandan, his Hindu name) Pillai was born in the present district of Kanyakumari, in Tamil Nadu, in a Hindu family of the "Nair" caste (hereditary social class), close to the Brahmins.

In an interview with ZENIT, the vice-postulator of the cause, Father A. Gabriel, talked about some particulars of the life of the new Blessed, such as his having occupied an important post with the Maharaja of Travancore. "He worked as an official in the palace and was very much loved by the king," said Father Gabriel, adding that Nilakandan (or also Neelakandan) was a good man who was "faithful to his duty."

However, “after several bad harvests, he lost his goods,” continued the vice-postulator who mentioned the "devastating" impact that this fact had on Nilakandan, who wondered: "Who will respect me now that I’m poor?"

Nilakandan decided to share his worries with a devout Catholic, a Dutch official by the name of Benedictus Eustachio De Lannoy who explained to him the meaning of suffering in the light of the Book of Job. For Nilakandan, Job’s example and his "trust in God was decisive," said Father Gabriel. Because of this revelation, he decided to follow in his footsteps as a disciple.

Convinced of the truth of the Christian mysteries, Nilakandan asked for Baptism which he received in 1745 from the hands of Father Giovanni Battista Buttari, a Jesuit missionary, after nine months of preparation. He took the name Devasahayam, the Tamil translation of the biblical name Lazarus, which means "God has helped."

On the day of his Baptism, Devasahayam dedicated himself solemnly to Christ: "No one [forced] me to come; I came by my own free will. I know my heart: He is my God. I have decided to follow Him and will do so my whole life." His life was no longer the same; Devasahayam dedicated himself to the proclamation of the Gospel for four years. His wife also converted as did other people within his entourage, explained Father Gabriel.

However, the heads of his native religion did not look kindly on his conversion to Christianity. They denounced him before the king who had Devasahayam arrested in February of 1749. He was ordered to return to Hinduism.

"He was threatened, beaten, mistreated, imprisoned and tortured uninterruptedly for three years," Father Gabriel said. Despite his sufferings, Devasahayam remained firm in his faith.

Noticing that his example caused many to do the same, the king ordered that he be put to death on January 14, 1752. His corpse was thrown into the forest, but was found by some Christians who buried him in front of the altar of the church of Saint Francis Xavier, which would later become the cathedral of the diocese of Kottar.

Very soon Devasahayam was venerated in the region. His beatification was already desired in 1756, but it was only in 1993 that his cause was opened canonically in the diocese. For the vice-postulator, the life of Devasahayam Pillai was an antidote to materialism. "Today the majority of people are attracted by ephemeral glitter, by material promises," he observed.

The life of the Blessed martyr, following Job in the service of the Lord, is a sign for modern times. Father Gabriel said he was convinced that through the life of Devasahayam Pillai "people can be touched by God."

"There’s no doubt that this beatification of a 'lay and converted martyr' is a real testimony that takes place [during] the Year of Faith and of the Synod of the New Evangelization, of which he is a pertinent model," he concluded.