In a historic move, the Vatican yesterday put two Indian Catholic laymen on the road to sainthood.
Pope Benedict XVI recognized Devasahayam Pillai, an 18th century Hindu convert to Catholicism in Tamil Nadu, as a martyr for faith and made him a venerable, the second stage in the Catholic Church’s four-tier canonization process.
On the same day, the Vatican congregation approved Changnacherry diocese in neighboring Kerala state to start the canonization cause of Puthenparampil Thommachan that allows him to be called the Servant of God.
Pillai and Thommachan are the only lay people from India being considered for sainthood. Six nuns and priests have reached the third stage, where a candidate is declared blessed.
Only two Indians have reached sainthood – Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception, a Franciscan Clarist nun who died in 1946 aged 36, and Gonsalo Garcia, who was martyred in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1957 at the age of 40.
Pillai, according to the Church records, was executed in 1752 for refusing to abandon his new faith.
He was killed at a place which is now under Kottar diocese Kanniyakumari district that initiated his canonization cause in 1984.
To speed up the process, the diocese in 1990 sent to Rome the case of a lame Hindu boy, who walked after seeing a vision of Pillai.
In a rare gesture ten years ago, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India endorsed his canonization cause, the first official attempt to have an Indian layperson declared a saint. It was also the first time the bishops’ conference directly took up a canonization cause.
However some historians have alleged that the Church case is based on "historical inaccuracies." According to the Church accounts, Pillai's conversion had upset King Marthanda Varma, who ordered his arrest and imprisonment.
Historian A. Shreedhara Menon said his studies could find no evidence of religious persecution during the king’s 29-year reign and dismissed the Church stand as a "concocted story" and "figment of imagination."
The other candidate for sainthood, Thommachan, was the father of two in Changanacherry archdiocese and was known as the Kerala Assisi for popularizing the Franciscan Third Order in Kerala. He died in 1908 at the age 72.
He began leading a life of piety at the age of 28 and gathered a group of lay people who prayed for sinners and engaged in charitable works.
India: I can never forget the support of the church, he said.