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MUMBAI, India – The announcement that India will get its first canonized laymen next spring will be a “great encouragement” to the Christian faithful, according to a prominent priest in the country.

Nilakandan Pillai was born in 1712 in what is now the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, in the south of the Indian subcontinent. When he was baptized, he took the name “Lazarus” – Devasahayam in the local Tamil language. He stopped using the name “Pillai” after his conversion, since it was a Hindu caste name.

After his conversion, Devasahayam suffered severe harassment and persecution – including beatings and imprisonment – until he was finally shot and killed in 1752. He was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.

Pope Francis approved a miracle attributed to his canonization in May, but did not set a date for the ceremony due to the pandemic. Last week, it was announced it would take place on May 15, 2022.

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“Indians are proud of their new saint Devasagayam, the first lay saint, martyr saint, and a convert too,” said Father Zackarias Devasagayaraj, the former National Secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India’s office for Dalits and other lower-caste Indians.

“It is a great encouragement for the Christian faithful to bear witness in India where Christians are minority. The occasion is special since the Christians are experiencing persecution and attacks from the right-wing groups,” he said, referring to the increase in harassment against religious minorities by militant Hindu groups in the country.

Devasagayaraj said that he hopes more Dalit and Tribal Christians will be made saints, and specifically referred to the Martyrs of Kandhamal, who died during the anti-Christian pogrom in Odisha state in 2008.

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Bishop Nazarene Soosai of Kottar said there was “great rejoicing” in his diocese at the news of the date of canonization. Saint Francis Xavier Cathedral in Kottar is the final resting place of Blessed Devasagayam.

“We received the news of Martyr Devasahayam from the Vatican and immediately I wrote to all the priests of the diocese: Let us rejoice and be glad for the news that we have received today,” the bishop told Crux.

“This was long long-awaited news, and many were saying and asking why a martyr should go through such a long process like this. Formerly, a martyr was immediately recognised by the Universal Church, but we are very happy that Martyr Devasahayam will be officially declared a saint on May 15,” he said.

“God has been gracious to us, and granted us such a holy man like Martyr Devasagaram as our new saint.  It is the first lay person to be canonised a saint from India, and a first native of Tamil Nadu, and we are very happy. The whole diocese rejoices,” Soosai said.

The bishop also said Devasahayam will become the second patron of the Diocese of Kottar.