ST. DEVASAGAYAM AND THE GRACE OF MARTYRDOM

‘Martyrdom’ in its true meaning signifies ‘witnessing to Christ’. It is God’s grace, a gift to us from the day of our baptism, and also our task. These are the last words of Our Lord Jesus Christ to his disciples before his Ascension:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1: 8).

“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Lk. 24: 46-47).

The Church in India has offered to the Universal Church some great saints who manifest the unique facets of sanctity and evangelical witness:

- St. Joseph Vaz, a model of evangelical courage in the midst of extremely difficult circumstances

- St. Alphonsa, a model of divine joy and unflinching fidelity to Christ within the monastery

- St. Mother Teresa of Kolkota, a model of evangelical love for the poorest of the poor

- Blessed Rani Maria, a model of firm commitment unto death for justice and human rights

- St. Devasagayam, a model of unshakeable Christian faith in the midst of tortures and pain.

The sealing in the gifts of the Holy Spirit given to us at Confirmation is to make us unswerving disciples of Christ who witness to him in all circumstances whether favourable or unfavourable. No amount of tortures, insults, indignities and pain inflicted on us can diminish our faith in Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life, the Resurrection and the Life, in whom we have placed all our trust. This is the courage the martyrs have shown throughout the history of the Church; therefore the Church places them as models and exemplars of true Christian discipleship, from whom we learn to say ‘yes’ to God’s will, which is first and foremost embodied in Jesus Christ our Lord.

We give praise and thanks to God that the Church in India has given a valiant martyr to the Universal Church in the person of St. Devasagayam, a layman canonised by Pope Francis on May 15, 2022. A son of Kottar in the present-day Tamilnadu and a devout Christian in the army of the King of Travancore he was arrested and subjected to the worst of tortures and ignominies for being a Christian for nearly three years and finally put to death on the orders of the king on the midnight of January 14, 1752 at the age of forty.

What do we learn from this great martyr of the Indian Church?

The very name Devasagayam, which he received at baptism, means ‘God is our help’. It stands for the Hebrew ‘Eleazar’ and the Greek ‘Lazaros’ – in other words, ‘we are beggars before God’, therefore nobody has the right to be ‘proud’ or ‘boastful’ in one’s life. As St. Paul exhorts us, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1Cor. 1: 31). After his conversion to Christ, he never again boasted about his moral or social or religious superiority but his utter dependence on God. This humility we learn from our Blessed Mother too in her Magnificat where she declares her nothingness before God and the marvellous ways in which he scatters the proud, brings down the mighty from their thrones and exalts those of humble estate.

St. Devasagayam manifests this humility in his life. Bishop Clemens Joseph of Cochin in his Ad Limina Visit to Pope Benedict XIV dated November 14, 1756 compares him to the ‘Eleazar’ of the Old Testament (cf. 2Macabees 6: 18-31) when he states: “I would certainly call him Eleazar rather than Lazarus, because like that most venerable old man, Devasagayam embraced a most glorious death rather than a detestable life and willingly faced punishment and died readily and courageously for the sake of the most weighty and most holy laws, leaving behind the memory of his death as an example of virtue and fortitude not only to the young, but to the whole people”.

His faith in Christ was so strong that no amount of force or threats or even death would deter him from openly professing his discipleship of Christ and obedience to him. He would rather embrace any kind of punishment than renounce his faith in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour; and in this he was a source of courage and strength to other Christians who were being harassed for their faith.

On February 23, 1749 he was arrested and put in a very narrow prison. When he was dragged and tortured the next day on the orders of the king, he was filled with a great heavenly joy like that of Stephen at his martyrdom (cf. Acts 7: 55-56) and the people who saw him wondered from where came this radiant joy on his face.

We read about the joy of the early Church in the midst of the bitter persecution raging against them: “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name” (Acts 5:41).

This kind of divine joy (and not mere happiness) which is invariably connected with peace is the precious gift Christ Our Lord has left for us, and it shines out not only when things are going well for us, but more specially when pain and suffering come into our lives. We remember the words of Our Lord at the Last Supper: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Jn. 15: 11). These words have to do with our ‘abiding in him and his abiding in us’ like the ‘branches in the vine’ (cf. Jn. 15: 1-17). They also refer to the promise of the Holy Spirit to dwell with us forever: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (Jn. 14: 15-17).

When the Spirit of the Lord is dwelling in us - as St. Paul would emphasize – we bear the ‘fruit of the Spirit’, and this fruit is, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5: 22-23). All the saints and specially martyrs have demonstrated this fruit in their lives and particularly in their death.

In the midst of his most excruciating torments, he was a man of humour – this also is a mark of the saints, e.g., St. Thomas More joking with his executioner about the innocence of his long beard moments before the axe fell on his neck. When Devasagayam, was being paraded in the streets for sixteen consecutive days, seated on a buffalo with hands tied behind the back and made a butt of scorn and mockeries, he jokingly asked the constables whether they had ever seen a man more highly honoured by the king than he.

Through all this ignominy he was not broken but became a more ardent soldier of Christ testifying to his faith through his patience, joy and praises of God.

After the arrest and the parades his agony continued, but he never made any attempt to escape from his sufferings. This is how Bishop Clemens Joseph describes it:

“Left under the open sky, exposed to the burning sun, heavy rains, very cold north wind, and sometimes almost submerged in the mud, he endured very grievous sufferings until moved by pity the guards themselves constructed there a small hut made of palm leaves, so that he could be protected a little from the inclemency of the weather. For seven months he lay under a tree, hugging the tree itself with his legs bound in chains and tied to the tree with fetters, so that he could not move about or stand up or recline on the side, but was forced to sit up or to lie down on the back. After seven months he was loosed from the tree, but not from the fetters, with which he was kept bound till his death. In the midst of so many sufferings his only sorrow was the delay of death, the only fear that he might lose the crown of martyrdom. Far from requesting or desiring to be set free from the chains, he did not allow the guards to remove his fetters as they wanted to do when he was suffering from fever. And when one of those guards took the initiative to give him the chance to escape, he simply refused.”

His incarceration and his chains were for him an opportunity to deepen his communion with God in prayer and to contemplate the heavenly truths. He even read books on the lives of saints, and read them in a loud voice so that the bystanders could hear what he was reading. He fasted on Fridays and Saturdays, paying tribute to the Divine Saviour and his Blessed Mother.

Though it was difficult for priests to reach out to him in prison with the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion, he longed for them with the deepest humility and love for Christ and used to be overjoyed whenever the opportunity was granted to him by God.

People flocked to him in prison to see him, listen to him and even be touched by him; and God worked many miracles through him. The guards did not hinder those who came to see him and were themselves among those who were his venerators.

However, it was a new master of the guards who was totally opposed to this ‘veneration’ of the prisoner and, after having forbidden people from coming to meet him, he obtained an order from the king to execute Devasagayam secretly.

On the midnight of January 14, 1752, he was awakened by some soldiers as though summoned by the master of the guards, and, still in fetters, carried to the foot of the nearby mountain. He knew what was awaiting him, so he asked for some time to pray and, on bended knees, he prayed for fifteen minutes, after which he told the soldiers that he had done his duty and that they could go ahead with their intention. Five leaden bullets hit him. For the last time he uttered the familiar words, ‘Jesus save me’ and surrendered his soul into the hands of his Creator.

His body was thrown to beasts of the forest. It was only after a week or so that the Christians gathered the bones and buried them in the famous church of St. Francis Xavier in Kottar. Over the tomb a stone was laid to tell posterity about the treasure hidden beneath.

May this ‘treasure’ never cease to inspire us in our commitment to Christ and his Gospel.

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