On October 19, 2003, Pope John Paul II beatified Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who died in 1997. The process leading up to the beatification has been the shortest in modern history. In early 1999—less than two years after Mother Teresa's death—Pope John Paul waived the normal five-year waiting period and allowed the immediate opening of her canonization cause.
In 2002, the Holy Father recognized the healing of an Indian woman as the miracle needed to beatify Mother Teresa of Calcutta. That healing occurred on the first anniversary of Mother Teresa's death. It involved a non-Christian woman in India who had a huge abdominal tumor and woke up to find the tumor gone. Members of the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order Mother Teresa founded, prayed for their founder's intervention to help the sick woman.
"Her life of loving service to the poor has inspired many to follow the same path. Her witness and message are cherished by those of every religion as a sign that 'God still loves the world today,'" members of the Missionaries of Charity said in a statement after Mother Teresa's beatification was announced.
Since her death, they said, "people have sought her help and have experienced God's love for them through her prayers. Every day, pilgrims from India and around the world come to pray at her tomb, and many more follow her example of humble service of love to the most needy, beginning in their own families."
In 2001, on the feast of the Assumption of Mary, officials closed the diocesan inquiry into Mother Teresa's sanctity. The yearlong gathering of testimony from those who knew Mother Teresa was the first major step in a typically long process. A year earlier, at an August 26, 2000, celebration in Calcutta marking Mother Teresa's birth anniversary, Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim admirers joined in common prayers for her speedy canonization.
If Mother Teresa of Calcutta had lived in earlier centuries, the Church might have gathered at her funeral to declare her a saint. That’s the way things worked in ancient Christianity. Now achieving official sainthood is 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 bureaucratic obstacles between her and official sainthood.
Why the formal process of canonization? Why the delay? 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. As Archbishop Thomas D'Souza once said, the Church "must be sure that someone who is declared to be a saint is truly such." The formal investigation will document details of Mother Teresa's life that may have gone unnoticed, and thus provide a wealth of information for generations to come.
D'Souza, a longtime friend of Mother Teresa's, never doubted that "God would provide the miracles" to prove her cause. It was Teresa’s single-mindedness, her simplicity, and consistency that captured the world’s imagination. One can only recall the beatitude of Jesus, ”How happy are the pure of heart.“ That pureness of heart is a simple, single-minded commitment to the ways of God. We computer-dependent citizens of the 20th century long for simplicity; Mother Teresa of Calcutta lived it.
In a 1981 interview, 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 encounters a leper by the side of the road and passes him by. 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 runs to the leper’s aid. Mother Teresa commented, "The encounter with the leper made St. Francis." So, too, it is Mother Teresa’s selfless encounter with the dying that made Mother Teresa.
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.
Julie Zimmerman contributed to this blog.