The Fast Track To Sainthood

John Paul II loves a good party and this week in Rome the party is for him. For the 25th anniversary of his election to the papacy, John Paul has called all 195 cardinals of the church to join in the celebration--including 30 new ones who will receive their red hats. Although some of his closest friends have recently said out loud that he hasn't long to live, John Paul seems determined to prove that his spirit is buoyant even as his body visibly declines.

But the highlight of the week's festivities has little to do with the pope himself. On Sunday, he will beatify Mother Teresa of Kolkata--the final step before canonization, or official sainthood--and there are few cardinals who would miss basking in the reflected glory of the tiny nun whose popularity, even seven years after her death, far exceeds that of the pope himself. Just last summer a group of cardinals at the Vatican urged the pope to canonize Mother Teresa at the same time that he beatifies her, and simply skip the rest of the formal process. The pope turned them down, and probably just as well. He has already canonized more saints than all his predecessors combined, giving his critics the impression that the process has become merely a rubber stamp.

Even so, no one has ever been beatified in so short a time as Mother Teresa. Until recently the record was held by Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, who was beatified in 1992, 17 years after his death, and canonized 10 years later. But Escriva's path to sainthood was marred by charges that the Vatican refused to hear testimony from his critics. With Mother Teresa--not without critics herself--church officials were determined "to treat this cause as rigorously as we would with any less celebrated candidate for sainthood," says Monsignor Robert Sarno, who guided the process from Rome. It wasn't easy.

First there was the pressure. During her lifetime, Mother Teresa was widely revered as "the saint of the gutters" for her work with the dying and destitute from India and Rwanda to the Gaza Strip and the South Bronx. Even before her death, some officials in the Vatican thought she ought to be canonized without the usual investigation. John Paul increased the urgency by waiving the usual five-year wait to see if a candidate's reputation for holiness ripens. "I felt like I had God, the church, history--even Mother Teresa--looking over my shoulder," says Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, who coordinated the team that eventually put together 67 volumes arguing that Mother Teresa had all the requirements for sainthood. "I felt I had to look at all the facts, including accusations made against her."

Working out of Kolkata, Kolodiejchuk and his team collected and codified everything written by and about Mother Teresa. "We used computers, scanners, search engines," he explains. In the years before computers, a technology adopted rather late by the Vatican, the job could never have been completed in seven years. Meanwhile, church lawyers held 14 tribunals all over the world to hear testimony from people who knew Mother Teresa well. Nearly all were friendly witnesses whose answers to a list of 263 questions were used as evidence that Mother Teresa had manifested the virtues required of a Roman Catholic saint: faith, hope and charity, as well as humility, prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance to an extraordinary degree. "I knew there were questions about her prudence and justice in particular," says Kolodiejchuk, who belongs to the order of priests founded by Mother Teresa. "I had to find the answers."

For example, Mother Teresa refused to allow the sisters in her order to use washers or dryers to clean their clothes. Nor would she allow them to buy milk and other commodities in bulk to save shopping time. Her argument was that her sisters should live like the poor they served. "I took a vow of poverty, not efficiency," she said. A few priests testified that Mother Teresa was stubborn, controlling and difficult to work with. "She was trained in the old school before Vatican Council II, when great emphasis was placed on strict obedience in religious orders," Kolodiejchuk acknowledges. As for her lack of prudence, he argues, "What is prudent to other people is not always prudent to a saint."

Some of the strongest criticism came from three non-Catholics invited to testify against her. Among them was gadfly journalist Christopher Hitchens, who has produced both a British television documentary and a book painting Mother Teresa as a pious hypocrite. Far from being just, these critics argued, Mother Teresa curried favor with corrupt tyrants like Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, the deposed leader of Haiti, and failed to fight the institutions and structures of injustice that made the needy poor in the first place.

In her defense, the team concluded that Mother Teresa--like Jesus dining with Roman tax collectors--was willing to work with the morally corrupt if that meant they would do something for the poor that would be of spiritual benefit to themselves, too. As for her failure to take a more aggressive stance against institutionalized injustice, the team sided with Mother Teresa. They argued that her mission was to help individuals, not fight for social change.

As with all candidates for sainthood, the church required a "divine sign" in the form of a posthumous miracle. Among many miracles of intercession claimed, Sarno picked one in which a Hindu mother, Monika Besra, came to the sisters suffering from a life-threatening stomach tumor. The sisters prayed to Mother Teresa for a cure and pressed a religious medal that she had touched to Besra's abdomen. Five hours later, the tumor had completely disappeared.

After Mother Teresa is beatified, a fresh miracle of intercession will be required for her canonization. For most Catholics she is already worthy of being called a saint. But as those who labored to prove her sanctity will attest, Mother Teresa wasn't perfect. No one--even a saint--ever is.

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