His witness to Christ is an example of that attentiveness to the coming of Christ recalled by this first Sunday of Advent.
Saint Pillai was born on April 23, 1712 for an affluent Hindu family in Nattalam. His father, Vasudevan Namboodiri was a priest at the Temple in Thiruvattar. His wealthy and affluent family had a fair amount of influence within the court of the King of Travancore, Maharaja Marthanda Varma and this influence would lead to Saint Pillai being employed in the court as a young man. He rose to the ranks before being place as the Official in charge of State affairs under the Dewan of Travancore. Little did Saint Pillai how quickly his entire world would change by the arrival of Dutch navy on his shores.
In 1741, a naval expedition under the command of Captain Eustachius De Lannoy arrived at the port of Colachel (then under control of the kingdom of Travancore) with orders to capture the port for the Dutch East Indies. Through a valiant defense of the port, the Kingdom routed the Dutch forces and captured both Captain De Lannoy and his assistant. Both escaped death with a pardon from the King under orders to help train and modernize his army. By all accounts this training was extremely successful as the kingdom of Travancore soon expanded, annexing several of the territories on it's borders.
Captain De Lannoy and Saint Pillai soon became close friends and the Captain began sharing his Christian Catholic Faith to him. In 1745 he asked the Captain for baptism and so the pair travelled to the village of Vadakkankulam where a small Jesuit mission led by Reverend Father R Bouttari Italus S.J. led a sub-parish. At his baptism, Saint Pillai took the name Devasahayam (Help of God) which is the translation of the name LAzarus, a name he would frequently be called (alongside Lazar). His wife and extended family members likewise asked for Baptism - his wife changed her name to Gnanapoo Ammaal (Flower of Knowledge, the equivalent of Theresa in Tamil and Malayalam).
Almost immediately following his baptism, the Brahmin Chief Priest and members of the Royal household brought false charges to the Dewan. These allegations included divulging state secrets to the Europeans and using his power, state wealth and official position to buy converts to Christianity. His wealth and position were stripped before he was arrested. Three years Saint Pillai sat in prison while the Dutch petitioned for his release, a petition that finally was answered by the King on the orders that Saint Pillai be sent to exile. An original order that would have seen him brought into Dutch controlled territory was instead altered to send him to a mountainous area near the capital.
To punish and humiliate Saint Pillai, he was placed backwards atop a water buffalo (the water buffalo was the mythical vehicle of Yama, the lord of death in Hinduism), painted with red and black spots across his body and beaten daily with eighty strips. Given only stagnant, stale and dirty water to drink, Saint Pillai faced daily excruciating pain and torture. In the town of Puliyoorkurichi, it is said that God quenched his thirst by allowing a stream of cool water to break forth from a rock (the water hole is now in the compound of a church in the town). In 1752 Saint Pillai was released into the forested territory near Aralvaimozhy. It was here he lived a monastic lifestyle - a lifestyle that frequently attracted visitors from the surrounding villages and country side who hoped to seek out his holiness and learn about this Christian faith.
On January 14th, 1752 a group of soldiers, likely under orders of Hindu priests from the area, attempted to shoot Saint Pillai.. The rifle, however, did not fire when the trigger was pulled. Saint Pillai took the weapon, blessed it, and handed it back to the soldier, telling him that they were free to kill him if they so wished. The soldier took the weapon, and after a brief pause, opened fire. His body was struck five times by bullets from the group before thrown carelessly into the forest. A group of Christians recovered the body and had it interred near the altar at Saint Xavier's Church, Kottar, Nagercoil.
Calls for his canonization began in 1780 when Kariattil Ouseph Malpan submitted a formal petition to his Vatican and the Church historian C M Agur wrote in 1903 that it was very likely that Saint Pillai's apostatizing from the Hindu faith as a Christian led to his martyrdom. Another attempt in seeking the beatification occurred in 1984 when a group of lay persons from the diocese of Kottar petitioned the Vatican. Through several years of petitions, prayers and various initatives the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India alongside the Tamil Nadu Bishops' Council formally recommended the beatification move forward. On December 2nd, 2012, Cardinal Angelo Amato presided as the Delegate of Pope Benedict XVI at the Diocese of Kottar where Saint Pillai was officially declared a Martyr and Blessed. During his Angelus, Pope Benedict XVI in Rome spoke:
Today in Kottar, India, Devasahayam Pillai, a faithful layman, who lived in the 18th century and died a martyr, was proclaimed Blessed. Let us join in the joy of the Church in India and pray that this newly Beatified sustain the faith of the Christians of that great and noble country.
I welcome all gathered here today to pray with me. I especially greet the people of Kottar who celebrate today the beatification of Devasahayam Pillai. His witness to Christ is an example of that attentiveness to the coming of Christ recalled by this first Sunday of Advent. May this holy season help us to centre our lives once more on Christ, our hope. God bless all of you!
A miracle in 2013 would pave the way towards being officially recognized a Saint. A woman in her seventh month of pregnancy rushed to the hospital, fearing for her unborn child. At the hospital, the fetus was declared to be medically dead with no movement in the womb. As doctors began to discuss next steps the woman fell to her knees and prayed that Pillai would intervene for her - miraculously she felt the baby begin to move again. After a careful examination, the Vatican declared this miracle to be genuine, paving the path forward for the canonization process. On May 15th, 2022, Pope Francis formally declared him a Saint along side 9 others in Saint Peter's Square.