Reflections on the Canonization of Saint Teresa of Calcutta

Reflections on the Canonization of Saint Teresa of Calcutta

The meaning and significance of what took place in St. Peter’s Square over the weekend when Mother Teresa of Calcutta was canonized is beyond our comprehension.  It was the culminating event of the Jubilee of Mercy that His Holiness Pope Francis instituted to lead us closer to Jesus and His merciful heart.   I loved that Mother brought Calcutta weather to the occasion as it was punishingly hot.

Mother Teresa is now a saint. The Church, our mother, proclaimed her as such, to the acclaim of a world that knew and loved and observed her during the course of her lifetime. It is so rare that a person would be canonized by the Church so quickly (think John Paul the Great), as the Church properly takes its time in scrutinizing the “deep things of God.” But not so with Mother Teresa’s cause. An institution that thinks in centuries acted within less than two decades of Mother’s death.  This urgency reflected the evident will of God that her elevation to the communion of saints should happen now in the lifetimes of the countless on earth who remember her from the time she walked among us.  Saint Jose Maria Escriva was canonized within 27 years of his passing and Saint Therese of Lisieux was canonized within 28, but neither had the worldwide renown that attended Mother.  In fact, the Little Flower was as obscure as a cloistered nun could be, and only gained prominence when her diary was published after her death.

Mother, too, labored in obscurity for a great deal of her life, but from the time she captured the world’s imagination at the Nobel ceremony in Oslo in 1979 until her death in 1997, and from then until today, Mother Teresa’s life has been a matter of public scrutiny throughout the world.  In the process she became an icon of compassion and mercy that even the irreligious respected.  When she died she left behind 580 homes in over 100 countries, with an astounding 4,000 nuns, as well as hundreds of priests and brothers, comprising her family, the Missionaries of Charity.  All of this took place in a span of time less than 50 years.  

And after she died, new insights into her life blossomed into new beauty. The publication in 2007 of her private letters magnified the love and admiration people had for her because they discovered, contrary to what they thought, that she actually was denied any spiritual consolation from God for nearly five decades.  Five decades!  That fact alone distinguishes her from all of the saints who have known the agonies of the “dark night of the soul.”  Of course, such agonies defy measurement or comparison, and the relevance of duration merits further study by theologians who are now awakening to her towering spirituality and contributions.  

Mother paid a dear price, just as any follower of Jesus.  She denied herself, picked up her cross, and followed her beloved Jesus, whether this path led to the slums, leper colonies, or AIDS homes.  She was no stranger to pain, suffering, heartbreak, loneliness, rejection, and privation.  

But the Mother I knew – the cheerful, positive, hopeful, active, loving person that she was – is only beginning to be understood.  Without question her influence in the Church and world will only grow.  After the Ave Maria University students departed Rome, the delegation of trustees and AMU friends diverted to Assisi for a couple of days of pilgrimage.  We walked the paths that two other lovers of poverty, Saints Francis and Clare, walked.  Clare died at my age, after living as a recluse and revered by only a faithful band.  Francis and his followers were holed up in an old church donated to them by the Benedictines, and at his death his apostolate was ill-defined.  Neither saint seemed to be oriented toward empire building.  Both embraced a way of poverty so intense and severe that it would have been unthinkable that a vast network of convents, friaries, universities, monasteries, schools, congregation spin-offs, and most important, devotees of the charisms entrusted to them, would flourish.

Tom Monaghan, our founder, and those who joined him from day one until now, can surely relate.  I came away from my trip to Rome and Assisi with the conviction that the same dynamic that overshadowed the 13th century lives of Francis and Clare applies to all of the efforts that Ave Maria University professors, students, administrators, staff, donors and others are making to build up our little mission within the Catholic Church.  We cannot begin to understand what God has in mind for Ave Maria in the centuries to come.  We certainly know the tremendous insecurity and many sacrifices that have been asked of Tom and those who joined him in this great enterprise of trust and faith.  

We would do well to keep in mind the trials and challenges which Saints Francis, Clare and Mother endured during their time on earth.  Their biographies speak of the cross and the costs of discipleship and fidelity to the will of God.  Francis bore the stigmata and at his death was nearly blind, a wraith of a man. Claire lived the last 28 years of her life under the heavy cloak of illness, deprived of the presence of her beloved father Francis for all but one of those years (think of her sorrow when the monks brought Francis’ dead body to her convent and raised it to the grill so she could kiss it?).  Mother Teresa, too, had a lifetime of bouts with malaria, several heart attacks, countless broken bones, and worst of all, a half century of spiritual desolation.  All these saints suffered for love.  All held tight to the hand of Jesus and followed Him, come what may.  All loved Our Lady without reservation.

So must we.  We at Ave, too, are called to be saints.  We are called to holiness.  Saints don’t just fall from heaven or assume the mantle at birth. Saints are made one choice at a time.  Saints slowly discover the thirsting love of God for them and respond with gratitude and tenderness, one choice at a time in their daily lives, disposing their individual will to God’s.  For students, maybe it’s studying, spending time with a friend, consoling the downhearted, exercising in celebration of life, forgiving someone who hurt them, serving the poor, attending Mass, receiving the Sacraments, adoring the Eucharist, or sitting by the canal gazing at a sunset or full moon, in sheer wonder.  Each moment God gives us a chance to choose Him, to choose love.  These choices define us.  Our lives become the accumulation of our choices.  So what will we choose?  And how do we choose well?

Mother Teresa gave us by word and deed a path toward simple sanctity.  She said prayer comes first, particularly in the family, and that if we are too busy to pray, we are too busy.  She said the family that prays together, stays together.  She said we must cleave to Jesus, not simply speak of Him or dabble with Christian faith.  She said love until it hurts, give until it hurts, and that when we judge people we have no time to love them.  And she invoked Our Lady without hesitation throughout the day, praying “Mary, Mother of Jesus, be a mother to me now.”  She didn’t rely on her own strength or believe in her own worthiness. She threw all of her cares and concerns on the Lord, her shepherd.

Mother Teresa’s call was different from that of Francis and Claire, and each of us, too.  She went out and did the work portioned to her by God, and she did it with a big smile, and the world will never be the same.  After Sunday’s loveliness in St. Peter’s Square, how can it be?  

I am overwhelmed by the events of the last few days.  I don’t know what to make of the fact that Mother Teresa is now depicted with a halo adorning her head.  I can still picture her in my mind in Calcutta in 1985 when she blessed me for the first time, and in the Bronx in 1997 when she said goodbye to Mary, my three children and me for the last time, and the countless encounters in between.  She had an aura of holiness that a halo attempts to represent.  She didn’t manufacture or merit this kind of presence.  Like Our Lady, she was overshadowed with grace because she was so humble and little.    

There is much to ponder in the years ahead.  Cardinal O’Malley said that AMU is Mother Teresa’s University.  Before she died Mother said she would be a saint of darkness and would bring the light of Christ to those dwelling in in the shadows. She comes to each student and member of the AMU family now with a torch in her hand.  Oh how she wishes the fire of Love and Mercy would burn brightly on our campus and throughout the Church and world!  

Will we take this torch from Mother Teresa and go and be His light?