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The Sainthood of Mother Teresa


  The Wisdom of Waiting

 Why a Saint?

If Mother Teresa of Calcutta had lived in an earlier century, she might already be a saint by acclamation. That's the way things worked up until medieval times. Achieving official sainthood is now more complicated—and not without its own brand of politics and other human imperfections. But just as this “Saint of the Gutters” seemed above politics in her life, her utter and simple devotion to the poor will transcend whatever bureaucratic obstacles are between her and official sainthood.

In five years her cause for canonization can be introduced. Then the Church will begin the process of officially recognizing what it already knows in its heart. Mother Teresa already is being revered as St. Teresa by Christians from all corners and denominations. She is honored even by non-Christians. And, incidentally, she seems already to have been officially canonized by the media.

Why the Church's delay? Soon after her September 5 death Newsweek magazine’s Kenneth L. Woodward sounded the note that Pope John Paul II just might sidestep the canonization process that he has so mightily reformed during his papacy. After all, this pope likes flashy gestures, the journalist and canonization expert opined. Other media began beating the drum, too. Why not canonize Mother Teresa right away? “Surely John Paul might do so” was the basic spin of these stories. A week later, in a Newsweek cover story titled “Sainthood Now?”, Woodward stepped back a bit and wrote that precedent suggests John Paul would wait.

On October 2, the pope himself put all rumors to rest. Speaking to reporters aboard the papal plane en route to Brazil, he simply stated, “I think it is necessary to follow the normal way.”

The Wisdom of Waiting

It has been observed that the Catholic Church thinks in centuries, not in years. It is good for the Church to test the enthusiasm of the day, to wait awhile, to discern whether one seen as a saint today will stand the test of time.

Wise people know that not all glittering things are gold. Teresa’s life will have to undergo the scrutiny of a process designed really to test sanctity. Will she retain a following (cultus) among the faithful after she fades from the media? After someone petitions the bishop of Calcutta, he will conduct a formal investigation. Testimony will be gathered from all of the places she lived during eight-plus decades and a biography will be written. All of that will then be sent to Rome.

A panel at the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Sainthood will make a preliminary judgment to determine if she is to be declared “Venerable.” Will people come forward reporting miraculous events related to Mother Teresa? Will at least two of those events defy earthly explanation? If so, the pope can beatify her. Then will there be yet another verified miracle related to Mother Teresa? Only after that will she be officially declared St. Teresa.

How long will it take? History shows that it’s foolish to speculate. Some causes move quickly (inside of 10 years); others slowly, for a plenitude of reasons.

Why a Saint?

It was Teresa’s single-mindedness, her simplicity and consistency that captured the world’s imagination. For almost everyone, she came to stand for goodness itself. One can only recall the beatitude of Jesus, “Blessed are the pure of heart.” In fact, Mother Teresa’s first institution to care for Calcutta’s poor people bears an Indian name that means “Pure Heart.”

Pureness of heart is a simple, single-minded commitment to the ways of God. We consumer-addicted citizens of the 20th century long for simplicity; Mother Teresa of Calcutta lived it.

In a 1981 interview for this publication, Mother Teresa spoke about another champion of the poor: St. Francis of Assisi. In a famous story of a turning point in Francis’ life, he is riding on horseback through the plains below Assisi. As St. Bonaventure tells the story in his Life of St. Francis, Francis encounters a leper by the side of the road and is horrified. Then he realizes that if he is going to devote his life to the poor he must embrace the leper—he must welcome him into his life as a brother. Francis then slips off his horse and runs to the leper. The leper extends his hands as to receive alms. Francis not only places money in the leper’s hand, but kisses his hand as well. Remounting his horse, Francis looks back over the plain and the leper is miraculously nowhere to be seen.

Mother Teresa commented, “The encounter with the leper made St. Francis.” So, too, it was Mother Teresa’s selfless encounter with the dying that made Mother Teresa. When we think of Mother Teresa, we most often think of her stooped over a dying person, giving dignity and care to one whom society has abandoned.

She took the fruit of those encounters, her meeting the Lord Jesus himself in what she called the “distressing disguise of the poor,” and preached Good News everywhere. She came to more affluent parts of the world and reminded us of the poor in our neighborhoods, of the spiritual poverty in our families and in our society, of the crime against God and humanity that takes the life of defenseless unborn people.

It is the calling of Christians to serve the poor, to make room at the table for everyone. Francis came to see that. He reveled in the foolishness of God who has special love for those whom most of us would rather avoid. Teresa learned that, too, during mid-life. She will be named a saint because she cleared away life’s clutter and allowed God to work through her in a powerful way. We should imitate her.—J.B.F.


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