ROME — Although the Holy Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis is jam-packed with activities, expected to draw at least 10 million pilgrims to Rome during the next 11 months, we now know what the single biggest day of all is likely to be: Sept. 4, 2016, because that’s the day Francis is expected to formally declare Mother Teresa a saint.
The pontiff, who turned 79 on Thursday, gave himself a birthday present by approving a miracle attributed to Mother Teresa, thereby clearing the way for her canonization.
During the past week, that miracle was approved both by a panel of medical experts for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, who found it to be scientifically inexplicable, and a body of theologians, who determined that it occurred after a clear and unequivocal appeal to the “Saint of the Gutters.”
Mother Teresa — formally known now as “Blessed Teresa of Kolkata” after her beatification in 2003 — was arguably the most iconic Catholic personality of the 20th century, as instantly recognizable as any of the popes under whom she served. The ceremony for her beatification, the final step before sainthood, drew a crowd to St. Peter’s Square estimated at 300,000, and at least that many people probably will show up to watch her cross the finish line.
According to a report by Stefania Falsca in Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, the new miracle involves the healing of a Brazilian man from multiple brain tumors.
Although the Vatican has not officially confirmed the date, Falsca reports that the canonization ceremony is likely to take place on Sunday, Sept. 4, the day before the anniversary of her death in 1997, which is also her official feast day on the Catholic calendar.
As the countdown to canonization begins, here are three observations about how things may play out between now and the big day.
1. Renewed criticism
We’re likely to see a revival of the criticism that surrounded Mother Teresa in her lifetime, famously expressed by Christopher Hitchens in his 1995 indictment, “Missionary Position,” and that still makes the rounds today. Two years ago, researchers at the University of Montreal and the University of Ottawa combed through the literature on Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity religious order, concluding, basically, that she was a fraud.
Among other bones of contention, the authors cited “her rather dubious way of caring for the sick, her questionable political contacts, her suspicious management of the enormous sums of money she received, and her overly dogmatic views regarding, in particular, abortion, contraception, and divorce.”
Whether any of those criticisms have merit is, to some extent, a matter of opinion, but in any event, they offer a “teaching moment” for the proper Catholic understanding of sainthood.
In reality, declaring someone a saint does, indeed, reflect a judgment that he or she lived a holy life, but it’s not tantamount to a claim of moral perfection. It doesn’t mean they never made mistakes or were utterly free of blind spots.
Instead, it means that despite whatever failures or limits marked the person’s life, he or she tried as much as possible under the circumstances to live the Christian Gospel faithfully. That’s a point with clear relevance to other sainthood cases as well, perhaps most notably that of Pope Pius XII, the wartime pontiff whose alleged “silence” on the Holocaust still stirs controversy.
The takeaway is that one can question certain aspects of a person’s life and choices without disqualifying them for a halo.
2. Women in the Church
The canonization of Mother Teresa may also revive conversation on Pope Francis’ approach to women in the Church, a subject that remains a bit of a mystery even for attentive observers.
Francis routinely insists that you don’t have to be a priest in order to be important in Catholicism, and Mother Teresa certainly puts an exclamation point on that observation. She was quite possibly the single most celebrated and influential Catholic of the last century, all without ever being ordained.
Yet Francis has also said that he wants a “greater role” for women in Catholicism, including participation in the “important decisions … where the authority of the Church is exercised,” without really providing many concrete examples of what that means in practice, even when he’s had opportunities to do so.
Canonization of the most famous Catholic woman of the modern era may provide fresh impetus for the pontiff to think it through.
3. The face of mercy
Declaring Mother Teresa a saint during the Holy Year likely ensures that she’ll become the public face of what Francis means by mercy and why he called this year-long observance in the first place.
In an interview for the opening of the Holy Year, Francis explained his vision.
“We’re used to bad news, to cruelty and ever-greater atrocities that offend the name and the life of God,” he said. “The world must discover that God is a father, that there’s mercy, that cruelty isn’t the way.”
The pontiff said what the world needs is a “revolution of tenderness.” That can sound abstract, but clearly the pontiff believes it has real-world import, and Mother Teresa’s tireless lifelong service to the poor and the sick is perhaps the best flesh-and-blood model of why.
As of Sept. 4 — assuming that is, indeed, the date for the big event — if anyone asks what a “revolution of tenderness” looks like in action, Francis can offer a succinct reply: “St. Teresa of Kolkata.”