Surname ‘Pillai’ must be axed for would be Saint Devasagayam

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By DCD Reporter

The Catholic Church in India is elated to welcome the news of the canonization of the would-be Saint Blessed Devasagayam. But the so-called surname “Pillai” becomes controversial as it denotes a particular caste in Tamil Nadu, south India.

In the Universal Church when a saint is canonized, it is the place of their birth or the ministry place becomes the identification as Mother Teresa of Kolkata, St. Rose of Lima (Peru), St. Francis Assisi (Italy) and many others.

But when the name of the first lay saint from India Devasagayam alias Lazarus was processed to sainthood, it was as Devasagayayam Pillai and the people call him knowingly or unknowingly with the caste identity. Though the folklore of Pillai in Tamil means a way in which we address people with respect, there also another connotation that means a particular caste in Tamil Nadu explains Fr. XD Selvaraj, a renowned Indian Theologian.

Nirmala Carvalho, a reporter for CRUX news, wrote an article on February 25, 2020, the issue over his name has been simmering for years, and in 2017, two former Indian Civil Servants wrote to Cardinal Angelo Amato, then the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, urging him to drop the Pillai name.

Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) and the Catholic Diocese of Kottar intervened to clarify the controversy in the name, Vatican dropped the name Pillai.

“India’s Constitution and laws are against the caste system and there is a public revulsion against anyone being referred to by his or her caste name. Only hardcore casteists, which some church leaders are, promote caste to suit their divisive agenda. In the event, adding caste to the name of the saint of the Catholic Church, will be demeaning to the saint as well as the Church,” wrote M.G. Devasahayam and S. Devaraj, according to The Hindu newspaper.

The Vatican did not explain why Devasahayam was changed on the latest decree, nor has the Indian bishop’s conference officially commented on the issue.

In the notification received from the office of the liturgical celebrations of the supreme pontiff on April 14, 2021, that at a Consistory on May 3, Pope Francis confirmed that the vote of the Cardinals to proceed with the canonization of Devasagayam and six others “blessed”.

In the official letter too, his name was mentioned as Blessed Lazarus, called Devasagayam, layman, and martyr, but the Vatican News reported by Christopher Wells on May 3, 2021, titled “Pope: Blessed Devasagayam Pillai, six others to be named saints”.

It again triggers the Casteistic mindset in Indian society. The Indian Church is honoured by the elevation of Blessed Devasahayam to sainthood. However, the name is tagged with caste identity “Pillai”, says Fr. Cosmon Arockiaraj, the former executive secretary for the CBCI Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe/Backward Caste Commission.

“Pillai” refers to a type in the caste system which is integral to the Hindu social order. Assertion of caste identity goes against the Baptismal Christian identity.

Moreover, it is against the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith – belief in God as Our Father and we are His children. In Christ, we are sisters and brothers. We humbly request you to consider deleting the caste tag “Pillai.” This step will affirm the Baptismal Christian identity. Hence, it is highly recommended to call him Saint Devasahayam.

Though the name Pillai is not a caste name in the Kerala state context, it means for people of Kerala, a child has no original or Baptism name. Later when Devasahayam worked in a place called Vadakkankulam in Tamil Nadu the people assigned this title to him which denotes a particular caste. Since the Tamil Nadu Government moved by the Dravidian ideology abolished all the caste names, the Church also should not use this name.

The diocese of Kottar has recommended to the Vatican to remove the caste title Pillai, adds Father Devasagayaraj Zackarias, Rector of a renowned shrine called Our Lady of Periyanayagi, Konankuppam and the former national secretary of CBCI – Office for Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes.

“We want the Vatican to take this issue seriously and to canonize him as Saint Devasagayam,” says Father Devasagayaraj.

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