In touristic literature, the south Indian State of Kerala is known as ‘God’s Own Country’ for its lush green paddy fields, spice gardens, meandering waterways and thick forests. But it is ‘God’s Own Country’ in another way too: Kerala has produced the largest number of Catholic priests, nuns and even Saints.
Kerala is one of the smaller States of India with an estimated population of 36 million in 2022. But it has the reputation for being a major pool of educated manpower, temporal as well as spiritual. Malayalee priests and nuns abound in church-run educational institutions and hospitals across India. It is estimated that there are about 40,000 Catholic priests and 25,000 nuns across India, the bulk of them from Kerala.
There are several reasons for this: Firstly, the population of Christians in Kerala is large compared to other Indian states – almost 20 per cent. 60 per cent of these are Catholics of one order or the other. Secondly, Christianity is historically deep-rooted in Kerala, having been introduced by St. Thomas in 1 AD. It was enormously strengthened by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Joining the religious orders is considered noble and prestigious. Thirdly, Christians, especially the Syrian Christians, economically prospered under British rule and Fourthly, Catholics are a major force in Kerala’s educational sector, running more than 30,000 schools (36 per cent of the total) and institutions of higher learning, including 29 B.Ed colleges, 14 Engineering colleges, 4 medical colleges, four nursing colleges and 106 Arts and Science Colleges.
No wonder that out of this vast pool of believers, priests and nuns, Kerala has produced so many Saints. Out of the seven India-linked Catholic Saints, four are from Kerala: Sr. Alphonsa (1910-1946), declared a Saint in 2008; Fr. Chavara Kuriakose Elias (1805-1871) and Sr. Euphrasia Eluvathingal (1877-1952) sanctified in November 2014, and Devasahayam Pillai (1512-1752) who was conferred Sainthood on 15 May 2022. Of the saints from Kerala, Devasahayam Pillai has the distinction of being the first lay Indian to be raised to Sainthood. All others had been priests or nuns.
As of now, 21 Keralites are in the process of being Canonized. According to reports, Sisters Rani Maria from in Ernakulam, Mariam Thresia of Thrissur and Thevarparambil Kunjachan of Kottayam are in the third and final stage of Canonisation as the ‘Blessed’. Those in the ‘Venerable’ list are: Fr. Varghese Payyappilly (Kottayam), Bishop Thomas Kurialacherry (Alappuzha), Fr. Mathew Kadalikkattil (Kottayam) and Fr. Joseph Vithayathil (Thrissur).
It could take decades or centuries for a candidate to be Canonised. Research and inquiries are conducted at every stage by competent authorities sanctioned by the Vatican. The candidate has to have a verifiable record of commitment to the faith, exemplary work, impeccable conduct, and manifest sacrifice against great odds.
The Latest Case
Devasahayam’s is the latest case of Canonisation. Born Neelakanta Pillai in 1712, Devasahayam started spreading the Gospel with rare vigor immediately after conversion in 1745. He refused to participate in Hindu rituals at the palace of the Hindu King, even though he was a top official there. He defied caste taboos and mixed with the hoi polloi though he was a high caste Nair. Despite the torrent of criticism, he continued to spread the gospel among the depressed castes. In 1749, he was falsely accused of espionage, jailed and tortured. But still he would not stop spreading the gospel. On 14 January 1752, he was dragged to the Aralvaimozhy forest in Kottar, in Tamil Nadu and shot dead. Since then, he had been considered a martyr by locals. In 2004, the Diocese of Kottar, along with the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council and the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India, recommended to the Vatican, the Beatification of Devasahayam.
Writing in Vatican News, Robin Gomes described Devasahayam’s progress towards Sainthood thus: “The Diocese of Kottar received clearance from the Vatican on 22 December 2003, to open the cause of Devasahayam’s martyrdom at the local level. At the start of the diocesan inquiry, which took place from 2006 to 2008, Devasahayam was conferred the title ‘Servant of God’. Thereafter, the process moved over to the Vatican under the ‘Congregation for the Causes of Saints.’ On 15 November 2011, documents were submitted for evaluation by the historical consultors, who concluded that the evidence collected was sufficient and reliable to demonstrate Devasahayam’s martyrdom. On 7 February 2012, a special meeting of theological consultors took note of the historical reliability of the documents collected, which demonstrated both the odium fidei [hatred of the faith] on the part of the persecutors and its acceptance on the part of Devasahayam. An ordinary session of Cardinals and bishops on 8 May 2012 gave its approval. On 28 June 2012, Pope Benedict XVI authorised the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to promulgate the decree recognizing Devasahayam’s martyrdom. Pope Benedict conferred the title of Blessed on Devasahayam.”
All Saints should have performed a miracle and this has to be proved with evidence sanctioned by medical professionals. In Devasahayam’s case it was the “resuscitation of a 20-week-old fetus of an Indian pregnant lady.” The medical board that examined the case, on 28 February 2019, unanimously declared that the healing could not be explained by current medical knowledge.
Surge in Canonisations
There has been sudden surge in the Canonisation of men and women from Kerala. In a 2019 article in The Kochi Post: Babu K.Peter quotes the Pew Research Centre to say that Pope Francis had done 838 Canonizations, Canonizing more Saints than any other Pope in the last three centuries beating Pope John Paul II, who Canonized 482.
Explaining the surge, C.I. Isaac says in his piece in Vijayavani that granting Sainthood might be an incentive to produce more priests and nuns as the numbers are falling in Kerala and across the world too. When Pope John Paul II assumed office, the nun population had shrunk to one-fourth and the strength of clergy came down to half its real strength creating fears about closing churches and seminaries.