Essay

A SAINT FROM THE STREETS

In Mother Teresa, the Pope believes he has found his model Christian

MICHAEL W. HIGGINS October 20 2003
Essay

A SAINT FROM THE STREETS

In Mother Teresa, the Pope believes he has found his model Christian

MICHAEL W. HIGGINS October 20 2003

A SAINT FROM THE STREETS

Essay

MICHAEL W. HIGGINS

In Mother Teresa, the Pope believes he has found his model Christian

THIS WEEK, Pope John Paul II will celebrate his 25th anniversary as pontiff. If he is well enough, the 83-year-old Pope, who is suffering from Parkinson’s disease and, reportedly, stomach cancer, will host a special assembly of prelates at the Vatican, including cardinals and the presidents of national episcopal conferences. The themes of ecumenism, peace, the priesthood and the role of the Successor of Peter (one of the Pope’s many titles) will be discussed. There will also be a jubilee mass and a concert. But, perhaps most importantly, the pontiff will announce the beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the “Saint of the Gutters,” with whom he shared a deep spiritual communion.

Mother Teresa (Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu), who died in 1997, was born in Macedonia in 1910 to Albanian parents. At 18, she left home to join a community of Irish nuns and within months was sent to Calcutta. There, she took the name Sister Teresa, after Sainte Thérèse of Lisieux, a Carmelite nun. In 1948, Mother Teresa created the Missionaries of Charity to work with the city’s destitute, and became known internationally as a symbol of benevolence. Catholics and nonCatholics worldwide have seen in the diminutive Albanian the face of Christ in our time.

Mother Teresa has been attacked by those who see in her ministry an insidious proselytizing agenda that encourages resignation to unjust political and social systems. In his 1997 book The Missionary Position, Washington journalist Christopher Hitchens argued that her success depended “on the exploitation of the simple and the humble by

the cunning and single-minded.” But Hitchens’ view is a lonely one. For John Paul, and millions of others, Mother Teresa represents the radical simplicity of the gospel. She was, in the pontiff’s words, “an extraordinary gift for the Church and the world. In Mother Teresa’s smile, words and deeds, Jesus again walked the streets of the world as the good Samaritan.” The beatification of Mother Teresa is the step before canonization, or full sainthood; the Pope believes she merits that, and he believes he will be the one to add her to the canon.

The Pope waived the standard five-year waiting period between the time of her death and the introduction of the “cause,” or case, for canonization. And that has contributed

to the perception that she is being fasttracked. Undoubtedly, the exalted standing Mother Teresa enjoyed helped greatly in pressing her cause. Critics have noticed, however, that what is true for Mother Teresa seems not to be quite the same for other modern holy figures, such as the controversial and martyred Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated by a right-wing militia in 1980.

Part of the answer for Mother Teresa’s acceleration through the process can be found in the many telling points of convergence between her and the Pope. John Paul has

THE standard five-year waiting period between the time of her death and the introduction of the ‘cause,’ or case for canonization, was waived

often made clear his abhorrence of clerical involvement in political matters. Mother Teresa was manifestly apolitical. Social policy issues and political reform were not her brief. Alleviating the suffering of God’s children was. John Paul did not have to worry about any overt or subtle politicization of her ministry. There was none.

Mother Teresa radiated hope in the darkest of circumstances. Her ministry brought her face to face with the crushing weight of pain and misery, and yet she regularly saw joy beneath suffering and hope where others saw only despair. Likewise, the Pope, who grew to maturity in Poland under the shadow of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps and witnessed severe persecution first-hand, could easily despair of humanity. But he has not. He sees in Mother Teresa a companion in hope.

Perhaps more important is the mystical link they shared through the Blessed Virgin Mary. John Paul is quite clear about the Marian thread running through his own life. His motto totus tuus (totally yours) is taken from a book about Mary that he read while working as a youth at a chemical plant in Poland. His encyclical Redemptoris mater discusses the role of Mary in the Church, and the Pope has said elsewhere that his office takes its fundamental form from Mary in her surrender to God and in the special significance attached to Marian apparitions, shrines and titles.

When he was shot on May 13,1981, in St. Peter’s Square by Mehmet Ali Agca, it was on the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, a

celebration marking the anniversary of the date when Mary appeared in 1917 and spoke to three children near that Portuguese town. The Pope later concluded that “a

motherly hand guided the bullet’s path, enabling the dying pope to halt at the threshold of death.” In other words, he believes that Mary’s intercession preserved

his life on that day of infamy.

Mother Teresa attributed her religious vocation directly to the intercession of Mary, to whom she prayed for guidance. And when she founded the Missionaries of Charity, the simple white sari that became their habit (form of religious dress) had a blue border, symbolizing Mother Teresa’s determination to imitate Mary, who is often depicted in white, for her virginity, and blue.

In the end, John Paul sees in Mother Teresa a model of the ideal Christian. She was devoted to the Church, unquestioning in her submission to authority, and fully concentrated on the unsparing demands of love. Throughout her life she remained wilfully indifferent to ecclesiastical and secular politics. A careful reading of her diaries and personal letters reveals that she knew many “dark nights of the soul” and was anything but Pollyannaish, yet she remained suffused with joy and hope in all she did.

The Pope’s focus on Mother Teresa’s life is not without controversy. Many Catholic feminists believe he has exploited her subservience to the Church, and her traditional views on the nature of women and the particular roles women should exercise in society. (She was adamantly opposed to the ordination of women.) But such criticism will at least temporarily be set aside as he beatifies his model pilgrim, his personal companion on the way, his good Samaritan for our time. IJ1

Michael W. Higgins is president of St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont.