When Mother Teresa becomes “St. Teresa of Calcutta” on Sept. 4, it’s expected to be the largest public event of Pope Francis’ jubilee Year of Mercy. Her beatification in 2003 drew an estimated 300,000 people to St. Peter’s Square and the surrounding area, and organizers anticipate that turnout to be surpassed this time around.
Over the next few days, we’ll likely hear more than once, on-air and in print, that Francis is “making” Mother Teresa a saint. Theologians will tell you, however, that nothing could be further from the truth – as the old saying goes, God, not popes, makes saints.
Catholic belief holds that if someone is truly a saint, that individual is already in heaven. A canonization is understood as an after-the-fact recognition of what’s already happened.
In other words, canonization is not for the saint, it’s for the rest of us – lifting up a new role model of holiness, and a new friend in heaven to whom the whole Church can pray.
It’s also worth recalling that sainthood, at least in theory, is one of the most democratic processes in Catholic life. It’s supposed to start with what’s traditionally known as a “cult,” meaning popular devotion to a given figure who had a reputation for sanctity. Officialdom is to come in only after that’s been established, investigating the candidate and, eventually, if all the boxes are checked, applying its seal of approval.
In all honesty, there have been a few cases over the years where that popular will is a bit difficult to spot, but definitely not here. Like John Paul II, for whom the crowd chanted Santo Subito! at his funeral Mass, Mother Teresa was a saint in the hearts of most Catholic people long before her name will be entered into the official canon.
All that represents the primary significance of what’s happening in Rome Sept. 4. There are three other aspects, however, which combine to make it among the more fascinating and potentially influential events in recent Catholic life.
How-To Manual for Mercy
Mercy is at its core a spiritual virtue, but Pope Francis has been at pains through this Holy Year to insist that for it to be sincere, it must be given tangible expression in concrete actions of service. In Christian tradition, one time-honored set of examples comes in the corporal works of mercy, which include feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, and so on.
Few Catholic figures ever, and probably none in her own time, better illustrated that drive to make mercy concrete than Mother Teresa, from her AIDS hospices and soup kitchens to her homes for lost children and refugees. There was virtually no source of human suffering for which she didn’t offer a practical, hands-on response.
In that sense, St. Teresa of Calcutta will stand forever as a “how-to manual for mercy” in flesh and blood, a sort of human user’s guide to what mercy looks like in practice. From here on out, Francis doesn’t have to offer any detailed explanation of what he wants people to do – all he has to do is point at St. Teresa of Calcutta and say, “Try to be like her.”
In other words, one could make a very good case that the Year of Mercy reaches its spiritual crescendo next Sunday.
As a vehicle for practical application of mercy, Francis has called on dioceses around the world to launch a new initiative during the Holy Year, such as a clinic, school or hospice, to ensure its spirit continues after the formal close of the year on Nov. 20.
If diocesan leaders are tempted to grumble about a lack of time or resources, Mother Teresa also offers another valuable example. You don’t really need deep pockets or massive infrastructure to get something done, only the relentless will to make it happen.
Apologetics in Action
Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, one of the savviest figures on the American Catholic landscape when it comes to making a case for faith in secular culture, recently told me he believes one of the most effective “evangelists” of the last several decades was Christopher Hitchens, whose feisty case for atheism inspired a generation of young and determined disciples.
When Hitchens first started squaring off in public debates with religious leaders, Barron said, he usually mopped the floor with them: “It was like feeding them to the lions … they were completely destroyed.”
Yet Hitchens clearly lost at least one major argument, which was his famous 1995 attempt to rob Mother Teresa of her halo-in the-making with his polemical book The Missionary Position.
Hitchens accused Mother Teresa of a variety of morally dubious practices, from taking money from dictators to running substandard medical facilities. His overall objection was Mother Teresa wasn’t really interested in serving the poor, but in propagating her obscurantist Catholic beliefs.
It was a devastating attack, perhaps the best punch a secular critic has ever landed on a prominent Catholic figure other than a pope, and it will certainly be discussed again in the run-up to the canonization.
Yet in the court of popular opinion, Hitchens flopped. In December 1999, at the end of the 20th century, Gallup asked Americans which person they most admired from the last 100 years. Mother Teresa came out on top, and it wasn’t even close – 49 percent named her, with the next closest being Martin Luther King Jr. at 34 percent.
Ironically, Mother Teresa prevailed without ever offering a word by way of refutation – the most she would ever say of Hitchens was, “I’ll pray for him.” In truth, of course, she didn’t need to say anything, because people saw her whole life as a refutation of Hitchens’s critique.
Barron said Mother Teresa reminded him of a 19th century Christian pastor who, when someone told him they didn’t believe in God, would reply, “Give alms.”
“It’s a cool answer,” Barron said. “The instinct is if God is love, we come to know him precisely by participation in love, not so much by intellect, and so give alms. Conform yourself to love, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.”
If the Church ever needed proof that the strategy of overcoming one’s critics by out-loving them works, look no further than the case of Teresa of Calcutta v. Hitchens et al.
Women in the Church
If one were to put together a short list of the most iconic Catholic figures of the second half of the 20th century – in terms of the most talked-about personalities, the most celebrated, most photographed, biggest crowd magnets, most magazine covers and awards, highest approval ratings, and so on – there are probably three who tower above all the rest.
- Pope John XXIII
- Pope John Paul II
- Mother Teresa
Notably, John XXIII and John Paul II were helped significantly by the fact that they became popes. Had Angelo Roncalli remained the Patriarch of Venice, or Karol Wojtyla the Archbishop of Krakow, it’s unlikely they would have bound upon the world stage in quite the same way.
Mother Teresa, however, did it on her own. The only office she ever held was superior of the Missionaries of Charity order she founded, because she was too busy serving the poor.
And, of course, she did it as a woman.
Pope Francis recently created a commission to ponder ordaining women as deacons, effectively lifting a longtime taboo on official discussion of that idea. Although he’s ruled out women priests, that hasn’t made debate on the subject in Catholic circles go away.
Officialdom can say as much as it wants about “complementarity” and the priesthood as service, but there are some people, including some inside the Church, who will never believe women in Catholicism are anything other than second-class citizens as long as they’re excluded from the ranks of the ordained.
What Mother Teresa obviously illustrates, however, is that one hardly needs a Roman collar or a pectoral cross to wield influence in the Catholic Church.
This is a woman, after all, who had no qualms telling bishops and priests what to do, and over the years most of them actually did it – not because of the chain of command, but because they were inspired, often even awed, by the spiritual power she exuded.
Whatever the arguments for women deacons the new commission will consider, therefore, they can at least take one red herring off the table, which is that without becoming clergy, women (or, for that matter, laity in general) are blocked from leadership.
If anyone was a role model of a successful Catholic leader, it was Mother Teresa. As the Church’s newest saint, she’ll doubtless continue to lead in a whole new way.
Crux will have comprehensive coverage of Mother Teresa’s canonization, which readers can find on our special page devoted to the event. “Crux of the Matter,” our radio show on the Catholic Channel Sirius XM 129, will also be broadcasting from Rome over the next two weeks and will feature guests discussing Mother Teresa’s life and legacy. Check the Catholic Channel site for listings.