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02 December, 2012

The Church’s quest for non-white saints

 With the beatification of Devasahayam Pillai (picture above), whom the Vatican has recognized as a martyr to the Christian cause, at a function at Nagarkovil in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu today, there is one more prospective Indian candidate for sainthood.   

Saint Alphonsa (1910-1946), who was canonized in 2008, is the first Indian saint, and also the first one belonging to the Syro Malabar Catholic Church, one of 22 eastern churches “in full communion with Rome”.

The process of declaring a deceased Christian a saint is a long one which usually takes many years. It starts with a group of people from the candidate’s church and community making a request to the local bishop. The decision rests with the Pope.

Sister Alphonsa’s transition to sainthood was one of the fastest. With the beatification of Devasahayam Pillai (1714-1757) there are now four Indians in line for possible sainthood, the others being Father Kuriakose Elias Chavara of Kainakari (1805-1871), who was beatified along with St Alphonsa in 1986, Sister Euphrasia Eluvathingal (Rosa) of Kattoor (1877- 1952), who was beatified in 2006 and Maria Theresa Chiramel of Puthenchira (1876-1926), who was beatified in 2000.

The quest for non-white saints and the elevation of more and more non-white prelates as cardinals mark a new phase in the evolution of the Catholic Church.

Like the story of the visit of Thomas the Apostle to Kerala, the story of the martyrdom of Devasahayam Pillai is riddled with questionable facts.

The Vatican considers Thomas the patron saint of India, but does not accept the tradition of the eastern churches, including those in communion with Rome, that the Apostle reached Kodungallur through the sea route in 52 AD and spread the gospel. Another tradition has it that St Thomas reached  a north Indian kingdon through the land route.

According to a 2004 document of the Catholic Bishops Council of India, Devasahayam Pillai converted to Christianity in 1745 under the influence of Captain Eustachius De Lannoy, a Dutch naval commander, who was captured by the forces of the Maharaja of Travancore after defeating the forces of Holland in the Battle of Colachel in 1741. He was persecuted for embracing Christianity and killed.

Some Hindu spokesmen like Bharatiya Vichara Kendran director P. Parameswaran and the well-known historian A. Sreedhara Menon questioned the CBCI report. They pointed out that there was no evidence of persecution of Christians in Travancore at that time, and said the charge against Devasahayam Pillai was sedition, not conversion. The CBCI countered this argument with the claim that conversion by those in the service of the Maharaja was not tolerated.  

The epitaph on De Lannoy’s tomb within the Udayagiri Fort on the Thiruananthapuram-Nagerkovil highway records that after his capture he had “served Maharaja Marthanda Varma and Travancore faithfully for three decades”. It is difficult to believe that the Maharaja who held the Dutchman in such high esteem would have allowed someone close to him to be persecuted and killed.

According to a report in Malayala Manorama, there are documents to establish that Devasahayam Pillai was subjected to severe torture in the Anchuthengu (Anjengo) Fort. That fort was built by the British and under their control at the relevant time. It is most unlikely that the British would have tormented a local man for converting to Christianity.

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