The first Indian Martyred in India!

July 11, 2012 by  
Filed under newsletter-india

Happy conclusion to Cause of Servant of God Devasahayam Pillai
Decree signed by the Pope on 28th June 2012
Beatification/declaration of martyrdom On 2 Dec. 2012


“Martyrdom and the vocation to martyrdom are not the result of human effort, but the response to an initiative and a call from God, they are a gift of his grace, which makes one capable of offering one’s life for love of Christ and of the Church, and thus of the world. If we read the lives of the martyrs, we are amazed by their serenity and courage when facing suffering and death: The power of God is manifested fully in weakness” (Cf. 2 Cor. 12:9). These words of Holy Father Benedict XVI (Catechesis of Benedict XVI, Castel Gandolfo, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2010), with its reference to the Pauline allusion to the work of grace in the midst of human weakness and suffering for the sake of the Gospel, are fully applicable to the life, sufferings and the valiant death of the Servant of God Devasahayam Pillai, of the Roman Catholic (Latin) Church in India, the first Lay person from India to be beatified, and the first Indian to be declared martyr in India.

Nilakandan – Lazarus-Devasahayam (a brief life-summary based on contemporary documents)

 The Servant of God Devasahayam Pillai was born in the year 1712 in the hamlet called Nattalam in the present district of Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, India. His father was Vasudevan Namputhiri, a Brahmin, and his mother Devahi Amma of the Nair Caste. His name was Nilam also expanded as Nilakandan. Because of the social tradition which followed a matrilineal lineage of inheritance in which the children were identified by the caste of the mother, Nilakandan was considered to be of the Nair caste, a high caste next to the Brahmin caste. He and his family were rooted in the Hindu faith and practice. “Pillai” was a popular appellation referring to his high caste and social position.

Nilakandan Pillai was by nature a good person, enthusiastic, ingenious and with a natural inclination to oppose evil and to do good. Educated in languages, science and martial arts, he started his career as a soldier. Then he was also an official in the Nilakandaswamy temple at Padmanabhapuram and a palace official working in the king’s treasury. Nilakandan Pillai married Bhargaviammal of his own Nair caste.

Nilakandan Pillai experienced heavy losses of property which caused great perturbation of his mind. Finding no relief in performance of family religious rituals, he shared his problems with a Catholic, Eustachius Benedictus De Lannoy, a Dutch military officer, arrested by King Marthandavarma after the Dutch were defeated at war at the Port of Colachel in 1741. The latter explained to him the Christian meaning of sufferings in the light of the Book of Job. Nilakandan Pillai was impressed by Job’s sense of absolute confidence in God in the face of unbearable tragedies. Subsequently De Lannoy also explained to him the Mystery of Christ and other mysteries of Christian faith. Convinced of the truth of Christian mysteries, Nilakandan Pillai expressed his desire to be baptized. Fr. Giovanni Battista Buttari, a Jesuit Missionary instructed him for nine months and baptized him at the church of the Holy Family, Vadakkankulam, the residence of the Jesuit Neman Mission, on 14 May 1745. At baptism the Servant of God was given the name “Devasahayam” which is a Tamil rendering of the biblical name Lazarus, which means “God has helped”.

Convinced Christian – Committed Missionary:

Having joined the Catholic community, Devasahayam Pillai himself started exhorting others to receive Baptism and even converted some to Christian faith, one of them being his own wife and  continued leading others to Christ. Because of his newly found faith he disregarded caste distinction. Noticing the marked changes in Devasahayam Pillai after his conversion, the high caste people accused him of the crime of betrayal and contempt of religious practices and of insult of gods, of the Brahmins and the royal throne.

Arrested – tortured – killed for faith

Since no offer of high positions or menace of threats could force Devasahayam Pillai to renounce his Christian faith, the King arrested Devasahayam on 23 February 1749. He was paraded to different places and cruelly tortured in public to make him give up his faith, to warn other Christians and to stop conversion. After three years of tortures, and being thrice condemned to death, he was finally shot to death, on 14 January 1752, after an exemplary life of virtue, prayer, penance and mortifications, and the body was thrown into the forest to be eaten away by the wild beasts. His mortal remains were discovered by the Christians and buried in front of the main altar in the most important church of St. Francis Xavier, which is the present Cathedral of the Diocese of Kottar. The Bishop of the diocese when he heard of the heroic death of the Servant of God, decreed that Te Deum be sung in all the churches in gratitude to God for “palm of martyrdom” obtained by Devasahayam Pillai.

Mass conversions after martyrdom – popularly hailed as saint

Soon after death of the Servant of God, the turn of events took place, clearly indicating the great regard people had for Devasahayam Pillai:

1. The places connected to his life and death became important places of pilgrimage by all people.

2. Many interior villages of the present district of Kanyakumari witnessed mass conversions to Catholic Faith following the death of Devasahayam Pillai, just as the mission work of St. Francis Xavier was the main cause of conversions of the people along the coast.

3. The name “Devasahayam” has become one of the popular names for Catholics or non-Catholic Christians in Tamil Nadu.

4. From the years following his courageous death there are witnesses of poetry, folklore and drama, which as living traditions, have narrated from generation to generation the story of Devasahayam Pillai.

CAUSE: (Brief history of the Cause)

Diocesan Process

After more than 240 years, during which several attempts were made to present the Cause to the Holy See, including the Ad Limina visit report of the then Bishop Clemens Josephus, SJ, to Pope Benedict XIV, dated 15 November 1756, finally the Cause was instituted Canonically in the diocese of Kottar in the Year 1993 by Bishop Leon A. Tharmaraj. The formal “instruction of the Cause” to the Congregation for Saints was sent ahead of the Ad Limina Visit of the Bishops of Tamil Nadu in 2003, and the Bishop’s’ under the leadership of Archbishop Peter Fernando went as a group to the Cardinal Prefect and recommended the Cause. The Nihil Obstat from the Sacred Congregation for Saints was issued on 22 December 2003. Fr. George Nedungatt SJ was appointed by the diocesan Bishop as the Postulator of the Cause (in Rome).

A new Tribunal was canonically set up, so also a Historical Commission in 2004. Both started working intensely. The historical having completed its work, under the guidance of the Postulator, the diocesan enquiry was started with the solemn Opening Session by Bishop Leon A. Tharmaraj on 3 July 2006. 106 witnesses were interviewed. The solemn Concluding Session was presided over by the present Bishop Peter Remigius on 7 September 2008. The boxes containing the documents of the Diocesan Enquiry were duly sent to the Congregation for Saints in September 2008. The authorities of the Congregation examined the documents and issued the Validity of the Diocesan Process on 18 March 2010.

The Roman Phase

In July 2010, the Congregation of the Saints appointed Fr. Zdzislaw J. Kijas, OFM Conv., as the Relator of the Cause and nominated Fr. John Kulandai as External Collaborator with the task of drafting the Positio. Under the Direction of the Relator, the Positio was completed  by Fr. John Kulandai in June 2011.

The Committee of Historical Consultors during their sitting on 15 November 2011 unanimously voted positively that

1. that the documentary investigations on the life, activities and death of Lazarus v.d Devasahayam Pillai were correctly and completely carried out;

2. that the documents collected and inserted in the Positio are genuine historical value;

3. that those documents offer solid foundational evidences on the historicity of the martyrdom of the Servant of God and of the fame of his martyrdom.

The Committee of Theological Consultors, in their session on 7 February 2012, voted positively and unanimously that

1. The Servant of God, a married lay man, member of the Catholic Church of the Latin rite could, if it pleased the Holy Father, obtain the desired Beatification.

2. They accentuated the fortitude of faith of Devasahayam Pillai coupled with a generous eagerness to proclaim the same faith, his immense love for God and his expectant readiness to lay down his life for the sake of faith.

3. They also underlined the relevance of the message of martyrdom and spirituality of the Servant of God Devasahayam Pillai who by his life and death bore witness to the value of  equality of  all people irrespective of race, religion and culture, a message significant for the situation in India and the world today, because, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28)

The Fathers of the Congregation, the Cardinals and Bishops, during their Congress on the Cause on 8 May 2012, after listening to the presentation by the Cardinal Head of the group clearly maintained that the Servant of God Devasahayam Pillai was subjected to martyrdom in odium fidei.

The Decree Signed

During a  a private audience with Cardinal Angelo Amato S.D.B., the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, on June 28, Pope Benedict XVI authorized the Congregation to promulgate the decrees of four  martyrs of the Church in  preparation for their beatification. Among them is the Indian layman Servant of God Devasahayam (Lazarus) Pillai (1712-1752), killed in hatred of the faith in 1752.

Declaration of Martyrdom/Beatification of the first Indian Martyred in India

There is something special about the Cause of a martyr. The Declaration of Martyrdom takes the place of and is equal to Beatification. It is to take place on 2nd of December 2012 in the dioceses of Kottar. The mortal remains of valiant layman martyr of India were buried in front of the main altar of the then “most famous church” if St. Francis Xavier, which is the present Cathedral of the diocese of Kottar. The diocese and the district of Kanyakumari are gearing up to the great event. Cardinal Angelo Amato, the Prefect of the Congregation for Saints is going to preside over the ceremonies and the celebrations. The Papal Nuncio Archbishop Salvatore Pennacchio, the Cardinals and many bishops of India are expected to participate in the eventful function, honouring the first Indian who has received the palm of martyrdom on the home soil.

– Fr. E. John Kulandai

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