Pope Francis declares Mother Teresa a saint

As an estimated 120,000 pilgrims filled a sun-drenched St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis officially declared what many have said for decades: Mother Teresa is a saint.

During her canonization Mass on Sept. 4, the diminutive nun who served the poorest of the poor in the slums of Kolkata, India, was declared by the Church to have lived a holy life and to be in heaven.

“Having sought the counsel of many of our brother bishops, we declare and define Blessed Teresa of Calcutta to be a saint,” Pope Francis said, eliciting a roar of cheers from the on-looking crowd.

A witness to God’s love

During the canonization Mass, Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, offered a short biography of the life of St. Teresa of Calcutta, who was born Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu in 1910 in what is now Macedonia.

“Throughout her life, following the example of Christ the Good Samaritan, she was always close to anyone she encountered who was in need, sharing in the suffering of those who live on the extreme outskirts of society and witnessing to God’s boundless love for his people,” he said.

Cardinal Amato recounted the story of her “call within the call,” as she left the Sisters of Loreto to devote her life to the charity of the poor in Kolkata. She founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1948, and for nearly 50 years until her death in 1997, she sought out the sick and dying on the streets in order to care for them. The order that started out as the calling of a single, selfless nun has grown to one with more than 5,000 active and contemplative sisters serving in 758 houses in 139 countries. As awareness of her work grew, so too did the number of orders, which includes organizations for priests, brothers and laypeople working to help the poorest of the poor.

In his Angelus message following the canonization Mass, Pope Francis thanked the Missionaries of Charity, which he called “the spiritual family of Mother Teresa.”

“Your holy foundress always watches over your journey and obtains for you the ability to be faithful to God, to the Church and to the poor.”

A model of mercy

Last December, Pope Francis began the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and it is more than fitting that St. Teresa’s canonization fell within the yearlong event. In his homily at her canonization Mass, the pope called Mother Teresa “a generous dispenser of divine mercy” who embraced the sanctity of all life, “ceaselessly proclaiming that ‘the unborn are the weakest, the smallest, the most vulnerable.’

“We really cannot thank God enough for all he has done for us through St. Teresa. Following her example of faith and love, may we even more generously and faithfully love God with all our hearts and see and love God in our neighbors, especially the most unloved, unwanted and uncared for of our brothers and sisters.”

 — Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, postulator for the sainthood cause for Mother Teresa, following the canonization Mass in St. Peter’s Square

“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, 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.”

The pope challenged the faithful to follow the example set by St. Teresa, saying that “we are … called to translate into concrete acts that which we invoke in prayer and profess in faith.  There is no alternative to charity: those who put themselves at the service of others, even when they don’t know it, are those who love God.

“The Christian life, however, is not merely extending a hand in times of need,” he added. “If it is just this, it can be, certainly, a lovely expression of human solidarity which offers immediate benefits, but it is sterile because it lacks roots. The task which the Lord gives us, on the contrary, is the vocation to charity in which each of Christ’s disciples puts his or her entire life at his service, so to grow each day in love.”

A full weekend

St. Teresa’s canonization Mass closed a weekend-long celebration for those actively practicing mercy, as Pope Francis on Saturday led a catechesis for volunteer workers as part of the jubilee year.

“Mother Teresa came to show us the way. Like Pope Francis, she tells us that we must follow Jesus into the ‘peripheries’ — to the margins of society where we find the poor and the prisoner, the immigrant and the refugee, the sick and the lonely.”

Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles during a homily at a Mass celebrating Mother Teresa’s canonization Sept. 4

Before speaking to the crowd, the pope listened to testimony from Roberto Giannone, an Italian who, with his voice trembling from emotion, discussed serving time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Pope Francis and the gathered crowd also heard from Sister Mary Sally, a Missionaries of Charity sister who was the lone survivor of an attack at their home for the elderly in Yemen in March. Uniformed gunmen entered the home, killing four Missionaries of Charity sisters and 12 others.

Nearly 20 years after Mother Teresa's death, Sister Mary Sally said Mother Teresa continues to inspire the order’s work for the poor, which they tend to regardless of their personal safety.

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Missionaries of Charity nuns in Kolkata, India, watch St. Teresa’s canonization broadcast live from Rome. CNS photo by Jeffrey Bruno

“With our hearts filled with greater love and enthusiasm, we begged God to continue using our nothingness to make the Church present in the world of today, through the mission entrusted to us by our Mother Teresa, even amid dangerous surroundings.”

Following the testimonies, Pope Francis told the thousands gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the event — the Jubilee for Mercy Workers and Volunteers — that the Church has a duty to tend to the needs of the poor, the sick and the dying.

“She cannot look away and turn her back on the many forms of poverty that cry out for mercy,” he said. “It is not worthy of the Church nor of any Christian to ‘pass by on the other side,’ and to pretend to have a clean conscience simply because we have said our prayers! … I will never tire of saying that the mercy of God is not some beautiful idea, but rather a concrete action; and even human mercy is not authentic until it has attained tangible expression in the actions of our daily life.”

To the faithful

Throughout the weekend dedicated to Mother Teresa, and most certainly at her canonization Mass, Pope Francis challenged the faithful to strive to serve others as St. Teresa did. He closed his homily by recognizing her as “an eloquent witness to God’s closeness to the poorest of the poor.”

“We are grateful to God and to Pope Francis, who proclaimed the Year of Mercy and chose Mother Teresa as an ‘icon of mercy.’ Mother Teresa’s canonization is an opportunity to spread the message of the Gospel and God’s mercy: We hope that the grace of mercy reaches every human being, especially the poorest and most desperate.”

Sr. Mary Prema Pierick, superior general of the Missionaries of Charity, Sept. 3

The “saint of the gutters,” as Mother Teresa was known during her lifetime, is the Church’s newest saint, an icon of mercy whom Pope Francis suggested volunteers across the world hold up as a “model of holiness.”

He told those assembled in the crowd, many of whom have been anticipating the recognition of Mother Teresa’s sainthood since her death nearly 20 years ago, 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.

“Mother Teresa loved to say, ‘Perhaps I don’t speak their language, but I can smile,” Pope Francis said. “Let us carry her smile in our hearts and give it to those whom we meet along our journey, especially those who suffer.”

Scott Warden is OSV’s associate editor for content. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_OSV.