VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis on Sunday declared revered nun Mother Teresa a saint in a canonisation mass at St Peter’s square.
“For the honour of the Blessed Trinity… we declare and define Blessed Teresa of Calcutta (Kolkata) to be a Saint and we enroll her among the Saints, decreeing that she is to be venerated as such by the whole Church,” the pontiff said in Latin.
The elevation of one of the icons of 20th Century Christianity came a day before the 19th anniversary of her death in Kolkata, the Indian city where she spent nearly four decades working with the dying and the destitute.
Earlier, tens of thousands of pilgrims flocked into St Peter’s square to hear Pope Francis proclaim Mother Teresa a saint. Around 100,000 faithful have been issued tickets for the mass, although the Vatican could easily have issued double that number but for space and security restrictions.
Helicopters buzzing over the 16th-century basilica testified to the huge security operation underway. Some 3,000 officers were on duty to ensure the day passed off peacefully. Among the assembled crowd were some 1,500 poor or needy people who are looked after by the Italian branches of Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity. After the mass they were to be Francis’s guests at the Vatican for a giant pizza lunch served by 250 sisters and 50 male members of the order.
Teresa died 19 years ago on Monday in the Indian city where she spent her adult life, first teaching, then tending to the dying poor. It was in the latter role, at the head of her now worldwide order that Teresa became one of the most famous women on the planet.
Born to Kosovar Albanian parents in Skopje — then part of the Ottoman empire, now the capital of Macedonia — she won the 1979 Nobel peace prize and was revered around the world as a beacon for the Christian values of self-sacrifice and charity.
She was simultaneously regarded with scorn by secular critics who accused her of being more concerned with evangelism than with improving the lot of the poor. The debate over the nun’s legacy has continued after her death with researchers uncovering financial irregularities in the running of her Order and evidence mounting of patient neglect, insalubrious conditions and questionable conversions of the vulnerable in her missions.
Sceptics were absent from the Vatican Sunday however as Francis prepared to pay homage to a woman he sees as the embodiment of his vision of a “poor church for the poor”. “Tomorrow we will have the joy of seeing Mother Teresa proclaimed a saint,” the Argentinian pontiff said on Saturday. “And how she deserves to be!”
By historical standards, Teresa has been fast-tracked to sainthood, thanks largely to one of the few people to have achieved canonisation faster, John Paul II. The Polish cleric was a personal friend of Teresa and as the pope at the time of her death, he was responsible for her being beatified in 2003.
Achieving sainthood requires the Vatican to approve accounts of two miracles occurring as a result of prayers for Teresa’s intercession. The first one, ratified in 2002, was of an Indian woman, Monica Besra, who says she recovered from ovarian cancer a year after Teresa’s death — something local health officials have put down to medical advances rather than the power of prayer.
In the second, approved last year, Brazilian Marcilio Haddad Andrino says his wife’s prayers to Teresa led to brain tumours disappearing. Eight years later, Andrino and his wife Fernanda will be in the congregation on Sunday. Also due to be in the crowd at St Peter’s was Teresa Burley, an Italy-based American teacher of children with learning difficulties who says the soon-to-be Saint Teresa inspired her vocation.
“I’m also named Teresa,” she told AFP on the eve of the ceremony. “I remember growing up admiring the things she did for children and the poor. “We need to remember we are here to help each other. We need to be here for those who can’t help themselves. It’s the same for refugees arriving here: we have to be there to help them transition into their new lives.”
Many Indians have made the trip to Rome, among them Kiran Kakumanu, 40, who was blessed by Teresa when he was a baby and grew up to become a priest. Abraham, an Indian expatriate in London, said Teresa’s life had set a unique example to the world. “She practised Christianity. The majority of Christians only spend their time talking about it.”