POPE FRANCIS last week approved two of his predecessors for sainthood — John Paul II and John XXIII — fast-tracking the latter in spite of his having only one miracle to his credit rather than the usual two. Mother Teresa, who died in 1997, has not been given the same exemption (she also has just one miracle) and remains merely beatified.
Having volunteered for a time with Mother Teresa, I find myself rooting for her cause as if for the home team. And on principle I’m disappointed by the message sent when two men with complex legacies outpace a woman who devoted herself completely to serving others.
To many Roman Catholics, Mother Teresa, who was born Agnes Bojaxhiu in 1910 of Albanian heritage, was the religion’s best ambassador. “She was one of the only things we learned about in Catholic school that I thought made total sense,” a friend of mine recently told me.
Two years before Mother Teresa died, I saw her work firsthand. I was 18, traveling around the world alone for the better part of a year. After spending time in Bangladesh, I entered India via what was then Calcutta (now Kolkata), staying at a dollar-a-night dormitory called the Hotel Maria. I slept on the roof, and there met some Australians who were volunteering for Mother Teresa. One day I joined them.
At dawn, we walked past the city’s countless beggars and dead puppies and kittens and arrived at Mother House, the headquarters of her order, the Missionaries of Charity. I was sent to the mission for the elderly. There I spent the day washing older people and their clothes and dishes. I helped feed them rice and tucked them into bed.
In the week that followed, I watched as members of the order drove a makeshift fleet of rickshaws around Calcutta’s streets, returning with ever more people in acute states of distress and neglect, some of them hours from death. The facilities were almost aggressively rickety — there was a hole in the bucket the nuns used to pull water from the well — but they were as good or better than what was otherwise widely available (as I learned myself when some weeks later I wound up at a free clinic in another part of India suffering from amebic dysentery).
On my last night in Calcutta, Mother Teresa blessed me, gave me a Virgin Mary medallion and told me to come back someday. Even though I’m not Catholic, I was moved by her total commitment to the work at hand, which amounted to diverting a flash flood of sorrow, suffering and need directly into her front door.
Her case for sainthood has always seemed to me like a slam-dunk. (I know being made a saint is a mystical process, not a qualifying exam, but as its recent announcement suggests, if the Vatican wants someone sainted, it can make it happen.) I wonder if the Vatican has been affected by the critiques of her work. The most famous, of course, is Christopher Hitchens’s 1995 book, “The Missionary Position.” He criticized her for, among other things, not offering higher-quality medical care to those in her clinics, and for taking money from the likes of Charles H. Keating Jr., the tarnished financier, and the Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier.
She has also been subjected to online screeds calling her a hypocrite for going to a modern hospital when she herself was sick, and for flying first class. Hemley Gonzalez of Miami, a disillusioned former Missionaries of Charity volunteer, maintains a Facebook page called “STOP the Missionaries of Charity.” He and others insist that for a woman so admired for helping the poor, she showed too little interest in the systemic causes of poverty, viewing it as something to embrace, not eliminate: “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot,” she once said, “to share it with the passion of Christ.”
Among her many defenders is an amiable Canadian-born priest, the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk. He runs the Mother Teresa Center, collaborated with her on many projects and is her official “postulator.” That means he’s in charge of investigating claims that her intervention with God on behalf of someone praying to her resulted in an instantaneous, complete and enduring miracle — like a medical cure. The Vatican then must validate it for canonization to move forward. He’s still looking.
Meanwhile, I’m left to wonder if it’s something about Mother Teresa herself that has caused her bid for sainthood to stall. In a book of letters published posthumously, “Come Be My Light,” she wrote: “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.” Some atheists gleefully latched onto those remarks as a confession of doubt. But that book endeared her even more to others, including me. The fact that she felt doubt but continued to do so much (even if it wasn’t everything imaginable by Western standards) was inspiring to those of us who struggle to muster basic human kindness when we haven’t had enough coffee.
Maybe it’s that admitted fallibility that’s delaying her cause. Maybe she’s too human to be a saint.
Ada Calhoun is writing a book about the history of St. Marks Place in Manhattan.