The relevance of the martyrdom of Devasahayam Pillai for the Church and society today, especially in India could be drawn from two aspects: from the perspective of the permanent value that martyrdom has in the Church throughout the centuries and from the communally charged socio-political situation existing in India today.
1. From the Perspective of Permanent Value of Martyrdom
In our own times it is Bl. Pope John Paul II who helped the Church of today to see its own entire story of 2000 years as a continuous story of martyrs. “The Church of the first millennium was born out of the blood of martyrs”, he says and then brings the relevance of martyrdom to our days. “This was true at the beginning in ancient Rome and it was true later on. During the centuries and in various parts there have been persecutions against the Church: believers in Christ gave their life for the faith suffering all kinds of torture”.17 “(Today) the Church has once again become a Church of martyrs”.18 He calls on the universal Church not to forget the legacy of martyrs. He encourages taking up “these nameless, unknown soldiers as it were of God’s great cause.” According to him a suitable method for not forgetting the memory of the martyrs is to collect the essential documentation of their heroic testimony and update martyrologies.19 The past 259 years have shown such a continuity of presence of the Servant of God in the minds, piety, spirituality and prayer of the people of God in Tamil Nadu, south Kerala and northern Sri Lanka that he cannot be counted as one of “these nameless, unknown soldiers” in those areas. However, bereft of recognition by the Church and official acceptance by the authority in the Church, it is impossible to make such a meaningful event bear fruit in the Church and society at large.
2. Relevance of Martyrdom in the socio-political and communal situation in India today
During the talk of Bl. John Paul II quoted above, delivered at Lourdes, he spoke of “a new kind of religious persecution” spreading in the world today. It is very true in India today. There is an anti-Christian atmosphere being sread by Hindu fundamentalists, fully supported by certain political outfits for their own political motives. It is as if the Indian Church has already entered into “an era of persecution”. The Christian Secular Forum summarises the situation in the following points about the continuous attacks against Christians and Christian institutions going for the past two decades:
- The role of Hindutva elements, with specific culprits being identified, but no or little action taken.
- The attacks are brutal & inhuman, with even women and children, not spared from their wrath.
- Police or administration’s culpability established by inaction and no proper redressal or relief.
- Rural India Christians targeted mainly and attacks on urban Christians take a different form.
- Women and children of those affected are most vulnerable in many ways with no support.
- Christians socially & economically reduced to the periphery & isolated through sanctions.
- Churches desecrated, Bibles destroyed, religious articles vandalized, valuables stolen, etc.
- Christians jailed & fined, with most victims left to fend for themselves, as lives disrupted.
- Nuns, priests, pastors & church workers beaten, besides vehicles & property damaged.
- False cases continue for years against Christians, even though nothing proved to date.20 The spirituality, fortitude, charity and conviction seen in the martyrdom of Devasahayam Pillai makes it relevant to the Indian situation as never before.
The issue most at stake is the Church’s right to preach the Gospel. The world knows today the cost that one has to pay for carrying out this important mission of proclaiming the Gospel of Christ, when we know that 75% of the persons killed in the world today are Christians and they are killed for their faith.21 In this context, the heroic death of the Servant of God Devasahayam Pillai on 14 January 1752, is ever present in the minds of the people of Tamil Nadu and Kerala and of Kanyakumari District in particular.22
Another point that makes this martyrdom relevant today is the role the laity have to play in the mission of the Church Ad Gentes. The laity are not just “only belonging to the Church”, indeed “they are the Church”.23 It is then only natural that one speaks of the mission ad gentes of the Laity, because “The Church on earth is by its very nature missionary”24 and the missionary activity of the Church flows immediately from the very nature of the Church”.25
Finally the martyrdom of Devasahayam Pillai is relevant also in the Indian Church’s mission for establishing an egalitarian society according to the values of the Kingdom, since the system of caste and the caste discriminations, present not only in the Indian society but also within the Church as well, are still a challenge to the equality of all people as children of the One God, the Father of all – a principle to which the Servant of God bore witness by his death.