More than 100,000 pilgrims from all over the world, including many from India and China, have arrived in Rome in anticipation of the canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta on Sept. 4. “The saint of the slums” will be canonized tomorrow in Saint Peter’s Square.
This will be the high point of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Mother Teresa is seen as an icon and symbol of God’s love and mercy for the discarded of this world and, indeed, for the whole of humanity, rich and poor alike.
The Indian bishops had asked Francis, “the pope of the poor,” to hold the ceremony in Calcutta where she had begun her work in the slums and started the Missionaries of Charity (both women and men) that now has almost 6,000 members in 139 countries. He was adamant, however, that she should be canonized in Rome “because she is a saint of the universal church.”
Mother Teresa will be canonized alone during Pope Francis’ jubilee celebration for workers of mercy and charity. This will affirm her as “an icon of mercy” and present her to the world as an example to be followed in a church that is for the poor.
“She was a pope Francis before Pope Francis,” said Cardinal Oswald Gracias at “Mother Teresa: Mercy for Asian and the World, a symposium at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome on Sept. 2. Cardinal Gracias, who is the archbishop of Mumbai, the cultural and economic capital of India, knew Mother Teresa well. “She was a person of great faith, she had total trust in God,” the cardinal told 500 participants from around the world at the symposium organized by Asianews.
Cardinal Gracias said Mother Teresa’s trust in God “was so great” that she could say, “not once have my poor people had to miss a meal.” He gave several concrete examples of “most extraordinary” things that happened as a result of her great faith, including the provision of much food for the hungry in her home in Calcutta when there was little and her help to childless couples to have children.
"She was a person who was not afraid to say what she felt," the cardinal added. He recalled that she spoke out with courage and so in her speech on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 she said she accepted it "on behalf of the poor of the world," and in her talk at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., she told participants, “If you want peace, please stop abortion.”
Mother Teresa was “a totally humble person, with no airs about her at all,” the cardinal stated. Pope Francis calls Christians “to have eyes to see, a heart to feel and hands to reach out to those who need help,” he said, “and that is exactly how Mother Teresa was.”
She followed Jesus carrying the cross; she was “misunderstood and criticized” and endured for many decades “the dark night of the soul,” the cardinal said. Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the Canadian-born postulator of her cause, also spoke about this at the symposium (as he had done in a recent interview for America).
Cardinal Gracias concluded, “In India, Mother Teresa belongs not just to the Catholics, she also belongs to the Hindus, the Muslims, the Jews and many others.” So much so, that the Indian government gave her a state funeral when she died on Sept. 5, 1997, and now has sent a high level delegation to the canonization ceremony. “India appreciated her, the world appreciated her,” Cardinal Gracias stated.
Ireland’s Cardinal Sean Brady, also at the symposium, told America that he knew Mother Teresa well during his time as rector of the Irish College in Rome when he used to celebrate mass for her sisters. He attended her funeral in Calcutta and said he will “never forget” seeing so many young Hindus and others, not just Catholics, running beside the gun carriage on which her body was carried, seeking to touch it.
German-born Sr. Mary Prema Pierick, the second successor to Mother Teresa as head of the Missionaries of Charity, recalled that when the saint-to-be “set up an Missionaries of Charity house in the Bronx…in 1971,” and some questioned why she did this, she answered, “If there are poor people in the moon we shall go there too!”
She recalled how Mother Teresa also set up a house in Berlin in 1981, and in several places of the former Soviet Union, as well as in Ethiopia and Yemen. But it was in Yemen, where Mother Teresa got the country's president to build a mosque for the Muslim lepers for whom the Missionaries of Charity were caring, that her order had its first martyrs.
Father Kolodiejchuk, the postulator of the cause, recalled that Mother Teresa used to say, “Calcutta is everywhere!” He, like Sr. Prema, emphasized that it was “from prayer” that she drew strength for her work. Even in the last years of her life, she would always be the first in chapel in the morning to pray. She once told a sister who was having difficulty, “I have no need of numbers, I need holy sisters.”
Mother Teresa was very much “aware of her need for God’s mercy,” and so went to confession every week, Fr. Kolodiejchuk said. She used to say, “Jesus who loves each of us tenderly, with mercy and compassion, works miracles of forgiveness” and “the most beautiful part of the mercy of God is that he forgives and forgets!”
At a Vatican press briefing, Fr. Kolodiejchuk recalled that she said, “We needs lots of love to forgive and we need lots of humility to forget, because it is not complete forgiveness unless we forget also.”
He described her as “love in living action,” and recalled how a poor man on his deathbed in her home Calcutta told her, “All my life I have been treated like a beast but now I’m dying like an angel.”
Father John A. Worthley, an American who spent many years of his life teaching in universities in China and knew Mother Teresa, recalled that she “long dreamed of serving the people of China” and after bringing her Missionaries of Charity to Russia, the United States and Muslim countries, “China became and remained her focus to the end of her life.”
She first entered the country in 1985 at the invitation of Deng Pufang, the first-born son of Deng Xiaoping (the country’s leader from 1978-85), who was then forming the China Disabled Persons Federation. She hoped to set up a Missionaries of Charity house there but, notwithstanding positive signals, on departure, he told her the time was not right. She was “heartbroken” but accepted it as “a first sacrifice for reconciliation between China and the universal church,” Fr. Worthley said.
In October 1993, before going to Beijing, Mother Teresa visited Shanghai. There the Jesuit bishop Jin Luxian invited her to Sheshan Basilica, where she attended mass and spoke to 250 seminarians (many of whom are now bishops in China) “who were captivated by her message of serving the poorest of the poor.”
Bishop Jin gave her a statue of the image of Our Lady of Sheshan that stands atop the basilica that shows Mary holding the Infant Jesus over her head showing him to the world. Father Worthley said “she was particularly touched by this image because it expressed visually her mantra: “To Jesus through Mary.” She carried that statue in the pocket of her sari until her death. Today, it travels among the Missionaries of Charity houses as a reminder of her dream. She had hoped to open a house in Shanghai, but Bishop Jin sadly told her it was not the opportune moment. She lived this too as another sacrifice for the reconciliation mentioned earlier.
Mother Teresa was due again to enter China on March 19, 1994, with the hopes of setting up a house for the handicapped in Hainan province, but hours before departure from Hong Kong, she was informed she could not enter. It was her “third sacrifice” and her last attempt to set up a house in the mainland.
Her two visits, however, bore some fruit. In Beijing, Deng Pufang still remembers her. Her image is displayed in offices of many charity works across China, and a “third order” of the Missionaries of Charity, with some 10,000 members, has spread to 12 dioceses and three provinces. Li Baofu, the foundress of this “third order,” together with 12 joyful members, have come to Rome for the canonization. They are looking forward to the day when the great reconciliation will take place, and when “Mother’s dream” will come true. Chinese Cardinal John Tong, who met her 15 times in Hong Kong, has arrived in Rome for the canonization and for the 50th anniversary celebration of his own ordination as a priest.
Cardinal Fernando Filoni, who had met Mother Teresa many years in Hong Kong, told the symposium about “a miracle” he attributes to her. While serving as nuncio in Baghdad during the Iraq war, he recalled that a powerful car bomb exploded close to the home where her missionaries cared for mentally and physically handicapped children. The bomb caused immense destruction but, miraculously, the rooms where the children were remained untouched, as were the children.
The cardinal, now prefect of the Congregation of the Evangelization of Peoples, concluded by saying that tomorrow’s ceremony is not only “the canonization of Mother Teresa, it is also the canonization of all the work of the Missionaries of Charity!”