A mighty cheer went up from the 100,000 pilgrims and Romans in St Peter’s Square this Sunday morning when Pope Francis declared Mother Teresa of Calcutta a saint of the universal church, and a model of Christian life for believers in the 21st century.
Afterwards, in an inspiring homily praising the life and work of this great woman, Francis drew warm applause when he remarked, “I think, perhaps, we may have some difficulty in calling her ‘Saint Teresa’; her holiness is so near to us, so tender and so fruitful that we continue to spontaneously call her ‘Mother Teresa’!”
This morning too, Francis gave powerful expression to hers and his commitment to the poor and the outcasts by inviting 1,500 poor and discarded people—cared for by her order across Italy—to attend the canonization. He not only gave them privileged places at the ceremony but also, afterwards, invited them to a lunch of Neapolitan pizzas in the atrium of the Paul VI audience hall.
The canonization took place at the beginning of mass, on a very hot day. It began when Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, read a brief biography of the life of Mother Teresa, originally known as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, who was born in 1910 to Albanian parents in Skopje (now part of Macedonia), and then asked the pope to declare her a saint. After that, the Sistine choir led the people in singing the Litany of the Saints and then, at 10:41 a.m., Francis, reading the words of canonization in Latin, declared her a saint. This drew a mighty cheer from the vast crowd in the square, people applauded, embraced and rejoiced, and some enthusiastically waved the flags of India and Albania. Later in his homily, Pope Francis praised this great woman with whom he has so much in common.
“Mother Teresa, in all aspects of her life, was a generous dispenser of divine mercy, making herself available for everyone through her welcome and defense of human life, those unborn and those abandoned and discarded,” he stated.
He recalled that “she was committed to defending life, ceaselessly proclaiming that ‘the unborn are the weakest, the smallest, the most vulnerable.’ She bowed down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity; she made her voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crime of poverty they created.”
For Mother Teresa, Francis said, “mercy was the ‘salt’ which gave flavor to her work, it was the ‘light’ which shone in the darkness of the many who no longer had tears to shed for their poverty and suffering.” He added, “her mission to the urban and existential peripheries remains for us today an eloquent witness to God’s closeness to the poorest of the poor.”
Last December, Francis took the strategic decision to hold the canonization of Mother Teresa on this very day when volunteers and workers of mercy from all over the world came to Rome for their participation in the Jubilee Year of Mercy. He sees her as an icon of mercy for the modern world, and a model for everyone engaged in volunteer work and acts of mercy, as he explained in his homily.
“Today,” he told them, “I pass on this emblematic figure of womanhood and of consecrated life to the whole world of volunteers: may she be your model of holiness!”
Moreover, he said, “may this tireless worker of mercy help us to increasingly understand that our only criterion for action is gratuitous love, free from every ideology and all obligations, offered freely to everyone without distinction of language, culture, race or religion.”
Francis recalled that in reference to these different peoples Mother Teresa loved to say, “Perhaps I don’t speak their language, but I can smile.” So, Francis told them, “Let us carry her smile in our hearts and give it to those whom we meet along our journey, especially those who suffer.” By doing so, he said, “we will open up opportunities of joy and hope for our many brothers and sisters who are discouraged and who stand in need of understanding and tenderness.”
Earlier, in his homily, Pope Francis highlighted the importance of mercy, of which Mother Teresa is a shining example. He explained that “God is pleased by every act of mercy, because in the brother or sister that we assist, we recognize the face of God which no one can see.” He stated that “each time we bend down to the needs of our brothers and sisters, we give Jesus something to eat and drink; we clothe, we help, and we visit the Son of God.” He stated categorically that in life “there is no alternative to charity” and emphasized that “those who put themselves at the service of others, even when they don’t know it, are those who love God.”
When he finished speaking, the crowd broke into thunderous applause. Then, after prayers in different languages, Francis went on to concelebrate mass with the more than 70 cardinals, 400 archbishops and bishops and 1,700 priests present at the ceremony.
There were also numerous women and men religious in the square, including many Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by the new saint and, following the liturgical tradition, a few of them placed a blood relic of Mother Teresa near the altar immediately after the canonization.
Also attending the ceremony was the Brazilian man who was cured through the second miracle, Marcilio Haddad Andrino, together with his wife.
No less than 15 countries sent official delegations to the ceremony to honor “the saint of the slums.” Among them were the foreign minister of India, the presidents of Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo and Italy and the queen of Spain.
President Barack Obama also sent a delegation from the United States led by Lisa Monaco, the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. The U.S. delegation included U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Kenneth Hackett, Suzy George, deputy assistant to the president, Sr. Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities and Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.
The presence of these delegations was hardly surprising given that even during her lifetime, Christians and followers of other religions—Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, and many people who do not profess a religion—considered this extraordinary woman a saint. When she died on Sept. 5 1997, India recognized her greatness by giving her a state funeral.
Today, 19 years after her death, the Catholic church has officially recognized her as a saint. She is the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to be so honored.