In tourist brochures, the southern Indian state of Kerala is touted as “God’s Country” for its verdant rice paddies, spice gardens, winding waterways and thick forests. But it is also “God’s country” in another way: Kerala has produced the greatest number of Catholic priests, nuns and even saints.
Kerala is one of the smallest states in India with an estimated population of 36 million in 2022. But it has a reputation for being a large pool of educated manpower, both temporal and spiritual . Malayalee priests and nuns abound in church-run educational institutions and hospitals across India. It is estimated that there are around 40,000 Catholic priests and 25,000 nuns across India, most of them from Kerala.
There are several reasons for this: Firstly, the Christian population of Kerala is large compared to other Indian states – almost 20%. 60% of them are Catholics of one order or the other. Second, Christianity is historically deeply rooted in Kerala, having been introduced by Saint Thomas in 1 AD. It was enormously reinforced by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Joining religious orders is considered noble and prestigious. Thirdly, Christians, especially Syrian Christians, flourished economically under British rule and fourthly, Catholics are a major force in Kerala’s education sector, running over 30,000 schools (36% of the total) and institutions of higher learning, including 29 B.Ed colleges, 14 colleges of engineering, 4 colleges of medicine, four colleges of nursing, and 106 colleges of arts and sciences.
No wonder that from this vast pool of believers, priests and nuns, Kerala has produced so many saints. Of the seven Catholic saints linked to India, four are from Kerala: Sr. Alphonsa (1910-1946), declared a saint in 2008; Prof. Chavara Kuriakose Elias (1805-1871) and Sr. Euphrasia Eluvathingal (1877-1952) sanctified in November 2014, and Devasahayam Pillai (1512-1752) who received sainthood on May 15, 2022. Among the saints in Kerala, Devasahayam Pillai holds the distinction of being the first lay Indian to be elevated to sainthood. All the others had been priests or nuns.
Currently, 21 Keralites are in the process of canonization. According to reports, sisters Rani Maria from Ernakulam, Mariam Thresia from Thrissur and Thevarparambil Kunjachan from Kottayam are in the third and final stage of canonization as “Blessed”. Those on the list of ‘Venerables’ are: Fr. Varghese Payyappilly (Kottayam), Bishop Thomas Kurialacherry (Alappuzha), Fr. Mathew Kadalikkattil (Kottayam) and Fr. Joseph Vithayathil (Thrissur).
It can take decades or centuries for a candidate to be canonized. Research and investigations are carried out at every stage by competent authorities sanctioned by the Vatican. The candidate must have a verifiable record of commitment to faith, exemplary work, impeccable conduct and demonstrated sacrifice through thick and thin.
The last case
Devasahayam is the last case of canonization. Born Neelakanta Pillai in 1712, Devasahayam began spreading the gospel with rare vigor immediately after his conversion in 1745. He refused to participate in Hindu rituals at the palace of the Hindu king, even though he was a high official there. He defied caste taboos and mingled with common people though he is 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, imprisoned and tortured. But he kept spreading the gospel. On January 14, 1752, he was dragged to Aralvaimozhy Forest in Kottar, Tamil Nadu and shot. Since then, he was considered a martyr by the locals. In 2004, the Diocese of Kottar, along with the Council of Bishops of Tamil Nadu and the Catholic Bishops‘ Conference of India, recommended Devasahayam’s beatification to the Vatican.
write in Vatican News, Robin Gomes describes Devasahayam’s progress towards holiness thus: “The Diocese of Kottar received the authorization of the Vatican on December 22, 2003 to open the cause of the martyrdom of Devasahayam at the local level. At the start of the diocesan inquiry, which ran from 2006 to 2008, Devasahayam was given the title “Servant of God”. Subsequently, the process moved to the Vatican under the “Congregation for the Causes of Saints”. On November 15, 2011, documents were submitted for evaluation by the historical consultants, who concluded that the collected evidence was sufficient and reliable to demonstrate Devasahayam’s martyrdom. On February 7, 2012, a special meeting of theological consultants took note of the historical reliability of the documents collected, which demonstrated both the “odium fidei” [hatred of the faith] from the persecutors and its acceptance by Devasahayam. An ordinary session of cardinals and bishops on May 8, 2012 gave its approval. On June 28, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI authorized the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to issue the decree recognizing Devasahayam’s martyrdom. Pope Benedict conferred the title of Blessed on Devasahayam.
All Saints should have performed a miracle and this must be proven by evidence sanctioned by medical professionals. In Devasahayam’s case, it involved “the resuscitation of a 20-week-old fetus from an Indian pregnant woman.” The medical commission which examined the case, on February 28, 2019, unanimously declared that the cure could not be explained by current medical knowledge.
Increase in canonizations
There has been a sudden increase in the canonization of Kerala men and women. In a 2019 article in Kochi post: Babu K. Peter quotes the Pew Research Center to say that Pope Francis had made 838 canonizations, canonizing more saints than any other pope in the past three centuries, beating out Pope John Paul II, who canonized 482.
Explaining the surge, CI Isaac says in his article in Vijayavani that granting Sainthood could be an incentive to produce more priests and nuns as the numbers are dwindling in Kerala and globally as well. When Pope John Paul II took office, the religious population had shrunk by a quarter and the strength of the clergy had fallen to half of its actual strength, creating fears about the closure of churches and seminaries.