After assuming the Vatican in March 2013, Pope Francis is focusing on martyrdom in the Roman Catholic Church. The Pope has given the Catholic Church a long catalogue of new saints, such as the 813 martyrs of Otranto and 499 martyrs of the Spanish Civil War.
As Rachel M. McCleary and Robert J. Barro discussed in their study, ‘Opening the fifth seal: Catholic martyrs and forces of religious competition, ‘ saint-making is one strategy at the disposal of each pontiff, reflecting his theological focus, political agenda, and geographical influence. In his 1994 apostolic letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, John Paul II noted that Christianity began with martyrs and continued, in the twentieth century, with an even greater role for martyrdom. On the eve of the third millennium, the pontiff’s Apostolic Letter of November 10, 1994, directed the Church to take stock of martyrs of the second millennium. Taking the Vatican Council II as his theological grounding, John Paul II appealed for Christian unity in its shared “religious memory” of the first martyrs. In the new millennium (2000), the pontiff ordered that the Church would “update the martyrologies for the universal Church.
In May 2022, Pope Francis canonised and blessed Devasahayam during the Canonisation Mass in St Peter’s Basilica, which was attended by over 50,000 faithful from all over the world and government delegations honouring him and nine other new saints.
This event also unveils some events of the past and raises crucial questions on the outlook of the Catholic Church in India.
Neelakanda Pillai, who was rechristened as Devasahaya Pillai, was born to a Brahmin father who was a priest at the Adikesava Perumal Temple in Thiruvattar, and Devaki Amma, an affluent Nair lady in present-day Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu.
In 1741, Captain Eustachius De Lannoy, a Dutch naval commander, was sent on command of a naval expedition by the Dutch East India Company to capture and establish a trading port at Colachel under the control of Travancore. De Lannoy, who was a Protestant, came in acquaintance with Neelakanda Pillai and converted him into Christianity, christening him as Devasahayam Pillai. Why should De Lannoy, a Protestant send Neelakanda Pillai to a Catholic denomination for baptism into Christianity?
According to Church chroniclers, Hindus brought false charges on Devasahayam to the Dewan, Ramayyan Dalawa. He was prosecuted, and later the soldiers shot him dead. His body was then carelessly thrown out near the foothills at Kattadimalai in Kanyakumari on January 14 1752. Pillai’s body was later recovered by some people of the region and carried to the Church at Kottar, in present-day Nagercoil, and his mortal remains were interred near the altar inside St. Xavier’s Church which is now the diocesan Cathedral.
After the martyrdom of Apostle Thomas at Mylapore in the hands of the temple priest, a new martyr saint takes birth through Devasaayam.
In 2004, the diocese of Kottar in Kanyakumari, along with the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council (TNBC) and the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI), recommended Devasahayam for beatification to the Vatican. He was declared Blessed by the Kottar diocese in 2012, 300 years after his birth. In February 2021, the Vatican declared he was eligible for sainthood.
Devasahayam’s ascent to sainthood was not without controversy. In 2017, two former IAS officers wrote to Cardinal Angelo Amato, who was then the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, urging them to drop Devasahayam’s last name ‘Pillai’ as it was a caste title. In their letter to Angelo Cardinal Amato of the Congregation for the Causes of Saint, which supervises the elaborate and multiple processes involving the canonisation of a saint, former IAS officer M.G. Devasahayam and chairman of the Annai Velankanni Group of Educational Institutions S. Devaraj had requested that the “caste title ‘Pillai’ be detached from Devasahayam’s name when he is canonised and proclaimed a Saint”.However, at the time, the Vatican declined their request. It was only in February 2020, when the Vatican cleared him for sainthood, that they dropped ‘Pillai’ from his name, referring to him as ‘Blessed Devasahayam’.
Did the Catholic Church get only an upper-caste martyr-like Devasahayam Pillai to be canonised and made a saint?. Thadam Thedi, a pilot report on the status of Dalit Christians in the Catholic Church of Tamil Nadu, says, though Dalits account for 22,40,726 of the total population of 39,64,360 Catholics, they have not been given any important posts in Church administration. Of the 18 Archbishops in Tamil Nadu, only two are Dalits. Dalit Christians in Punnaivanam, Rayappanpatti, Chithalacheri, Hanumanthanpatti, Pullampadi, Poondi and Eraiyur are fighting for their rights (The Hindu June 6, 2016).
The Church cannot turn a blind eye to reports released by the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front in April 2018 alleging that the practice of caste can be found in the formation of parishes, denial of share for Dalit Christians in the administration of the parish, construction of separate chapels in the same village for Dalits and orthodox Christians, discrimination in facilities provided on caste considerations, denial of employment opportunities and priesthood. (The Hindu, April 10, 2018)
In May 2021, Catholic activists in India were upset that Pope Francis appointed a non-Dalit, Father Arulselvam Rayappan, as bishop of Salem in Tamil Nadu. M. Mary John, the president of the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement (DCLM) and the National Council of Dalit Christians (NCDC), said the appointment of a non-Dalit to Salem was a “grave disappointment and regret.”
In October 2021, at a seminar organised by the Dalit Christian Liberation Forum, which represents Dalit Christian priests and nuns in the state, at Acharapakkam in Chingleput Diocese of Tamil Nadu, demand was raised. This demand urges a separate rite for Dalit Catholics as a solution to caste-based discrimination in the Indian Church. Dalit Christians demanded an end to caste-based discrimination in the Church and have in the past urged Pope Francis to create a Catholic rite like the Kerala-based Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara churches.
When such huge Dalit discrimination is going on in churches in Tamil Nadu, didn’t they find a Dalit martyr to be canonised and adored with sainthood?
When the Church accuses Travancore rulers of murdering their laymen, they should read what historians observed on the erstwhile princely state. Regarding the religious toleration of the rulers of Travancore, Lieutenants Ward and Conner, who surveyed Travancore and Cochin from 1816 to 1820, stated that ‘Christianity is fully acknowledged by the chief authorities in those countries, and whether from their justice or indifference does not appear to have been exposed to persecution. Dewan V.P. Madhava Rao stated at the first meeting of the Sri Mulam Popular Assembly in 1904 that ‘equality of treatment to all religions’ was one of the principal features of the Travancore state. J. Knowles, an LMS missionary, stated in 1898 that ‘the Travancore State has been conspicuous by its toleration of non-Hindu religions.
MGS Narayanan, former Chairman of ICHR, said he had never come across anyone named either Neelakanda Pillai or Devasahayam Pillai as the army chief of Marthanda Varma in Kerala’s history. Nagam Aiyya, who recorded the history of the Travancore state, observes that such propaganda is one evidently started by the later converts, from a habit of apotheosising their ancestors or heroes.
When Devasahayam is accused of having been murdered by the Hindu society, the Church accuses Sanathana Dharma of religious intolerance and persecution.
Nine hundred years after the first crusaders reached Jerusalem on a mission to free the Holy City from Islamic control, massacring tens of thousands of Jews and Muslims in the process, the second wave of western Christians arrived in June 1999 to apologise for the actions of their ancestors. They wore Reconciliation Walk T-shirts, which say “A Pilgrimage of Apology” in both Hebrew and Arabic. It consisted of groups of evangelical and protestant Christians, which included thirty nationalities, but predominantly British and US citizens, who apologised to Jews, Muslims and Eastern Christians who were encountered for the violence of the first crusaders.
Mike Neibur, the Israel co-ordinator of the Reconciliation Walk, said the participants had reflected on the violent events of 1099, in which looting and pillage continued along with massacres. He said they had concluded that “it was a good idea to go and apologise to the Chief Rabbinate of Jews, the Higher Islamic Council and the Eastern Orthodox community”. In 2000, a document cataloguing the Church’schurch’s errors, including antisemitism, was published despite fierce opposition from Vatican hardliners. A team of theologians, led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, spent three years drafting the report titled The Church and the Mistakes of the Past.
The Pope also apologised to Muslims for the Crusades. For the past two decades, the Pope has made efforts to atone for the Church’s role in schisms, racism, wars, crime, corruption and genocide. In June 2004, Pope John Paul II delivered an emotional apology to Orthodox Christians for the Catholic plundering of Constantinople eight centuries ago, saying it caused him pain and disgust. He made his comments during a visit to the Vatican by Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and the head of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians. As Archbishop of Canterbury in 2005, Rowan Williams had referred to the crusades as “serious betrayals of many of the central beliefs of Christian faith”.
Today whether in the name of Apostle Thomas or Devasahayam, Hindus have no such apology for mythical crimes of the past.