Pope Francis confirms Indian who opposed caste system reaches sainthood

Lazzarus Devasahayam was shot dead in the 18th century for opposing the rigid hierarchy system

Statue of Devasahayam Pillai, St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, Kottar, Nagercoil. Kumbalam / Wikimedia
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An Indian convert to Christianity has been canonised by Pope Francis at the Vatican, making him the first layman to be bestowed with sainthood by the Catholic Church.

Lazzarus Devasahayam, who joins notable Saints from India including Mother Teresa, was canonised during the canonisation Mass for ten new saints in St Peter’s Square, the iconic plaza in Rome’s papal enclave, on Sunday.

Nine others including four women were also canonised at the ceremony that was witnessed by some fifty-thousand believers in the Vatican City.

“Our calling is to serve others and offer our lives without expecting anything in return,” the Pope said at the ceremony.

It was the first canonisation ceremony at the Holy city in over two years, owing to the pandemic.

“This is the first time when an Indian layman, martyr has become a saint,” Bishop Peter Remigius of the Diocese of Kottar in Kanyakumari, told The National.

Born Neelakandan Pillai in 1712 in present-day Kanyakumari in southern Tamil Nadu, Lazzarus hailed from a Hindu upper-caste family.

He converted to Christianity in 1745 and took the name Lazzarus Devasahayam.

He fought against the rigid Hindu caste system and championed the cause of equality for low-caste communities, which made him a target of the powerful upper caste. He was persecuted and shot in 1752, Bishop Remigius said.

Devasahayam was recommended for the process of Beatification by the Vatican in 2014, at the request of the Diocese of Kottar, Tamil Nadu Bishops' Council and the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India.

Sainthood is a long, four-step process that requires a formal request explaining how the person lived a life of holiness, pureness and devotion, a report that is sent to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints at the Vatican.

The Congregation, comprising theologians, cardinals, archbishops and bishops, studies the person who lived their life in line with the teachings of the church.

Then comes Beatification, the step right before sainthood when the Church proclaims that the person is in heaven and is able to plead to God on someone’s behalf.

It is a rigorous process that requires proof that the person was either a martyr or performed a miracle.

The Vatican had recognised Lazzarus Devasahayam’s martyrdom and declared him Blessed in 2012.

His sainthood was recognised two years later when a pregnant woman whose foetus had died prayed to him and testified to his “miracle” that she had experienced the movement of her foetus, the local reports said.

“He believed that all humans were equal and spoke against caste discrimination and traditional Gods because of which he was humiliated and tortured in many ways. He was persecuted and killed,” Bishop Remiguis said.

Devasahayam’s sainthood is a special occasion and the Christian community will celebrate it in June, he added.

With Devasahayam’s sainthood, the Catholic Church of India has eight saints including European missionaries such as Mother Teresa who was declared a saint by Pope Francis in 2016.

Updated: May 17, 2022, 11:03 AM