Pope Francis on Sunday declared Mother Teresa a saint at a function in Vatican City. She has been made a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, just 19 years after her death.
Tens of thousands of pilgrims – rich and poor, powerful and homeless – filled St. Peter’s Square today for the canonisation of Mother Teresa, the tiny nun who cared for the world’s most destitute and became an icon of a Catholic Church that goes to the peripheries to find lost souls.
Pope Francis declared Mother Teresa a saint at a morning Mass, making her the model of his Jubilee Year of Mercy and in some ways his entire papacy. For Francis, Mother Teresa put into action his ideal of the church as a merciful “field hospital” for the poorest of the poor, those suffering both material and spiritual poverty.
We may have some difficulty in calling her ‘Saint’ Teresa,” the pontiff said. “Her holiness is so near to us, so tender and so fruitful that we continue to spontaneously call her Mother.”
He added: “She made her voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crime – the crimes! – of poverty they created.”
The unscripted comments came at a canonisation mass attended by 100,000 pilgrims, including 13 heads of state or government and hundreds of sari-clad nuns from Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity.
Queen Sofia of Spain and some 1,500 homeless people also looked on as Francis described Teresa’s work in the slums of the Indian metropolis as “eloquent witness to God’s closeness to the poorest of the poor.”
To applause, he added: “Mother Teresa loved to say, ‘perhaps I don’t speak their language but I can smile’.
“Let us carry her smile in our hearts and give it to those whom we meet along our journey, especially those who suffer.”
The joyful celebratory atmosphere in the Vatican was mirrored in Kolkata, where candles and flowers were laid on Teresa’s tomb at the headquarters of her order.
“It is a day of rejoicing, a day of gratitude and a day of many, many blessings,” senior sister Mary Lysa said.
Francis also used his sermon to recall Teresa’s fervent opposition to abortion, which she termed “murder by the mother” in a controversial Nobel Peace prize speech in 1979.
She “ceaselessly proclaimed that the unborn are the weakest”, he said.
The ceremony came on the eve of the 19th anniversary of Teresa’s death in Kolkata, where she spent nearly four decades working in wretched slums.
With the 16th century basilica of St Peter’s glinting in the late summer sun, Francis led a ritual mass that has barely changed for centuries.
Speaking in Latin, he declared “blessed Teresa of Calcutta (Kolkata) to be a Saint … decreeing that she is to be venerated as such by the whole Church.”
After the mass, the 79-year-old pontiff boarded an open-topped jeep and toured around St Peter’s square and surrounding streets to a rapturous reception from tens of thousands of well-wishers.
Throughout the night, pilgrims prayed at vigils in area churches and flocked before dawn to the Vatican to try to get a good spot for the Mass being celebrated under a searing hot sun and blue skies.
“Her heart, she gave it to the world,” said Charlotte Samba, a 52-year-old mother of three who travelled with a church group from Gabon for the Mass. “Mercy, forgiveness, good works: It is the heart of a mother for the poor.”
While big, the crowds were not expected to reach the 300,000 who turned out for Mother Teresa’s 2003 beatification, thanks in part to security fears in the wake of Islamic extremist attacks in Europe. Those fears prompted a huge, 3,000-strong law enforcement presence to secure the area around the Vatican and close the airspace above.
Nevertheless, those on hand were jubilant to have made the journey – nuns, priests, volunteers, pilgrims and tourists clutching the coveted 100,000 tickets issued for the Mass.
One group of 40 Indian nationals traveled from Macerata, Italy to honour a woman given India’s highest civilian and humanitarian awards for her work in the slums of Kolkata.
Another group of 100 drove from Kosovo toting a banner that read: “Mother Teresa: Pray for Us.”
In addition, 13 heads of state and government led official delegations while 1,500 homeless people invited by Pope Francis had VIP seats and were going to be treated by the pope to a Neapolitan pizza lunch in the Vatican auditorium afterward.
While Francis is clearly keen to hold Mother Teresa up as a model for her joyful dedication to society’s outcasts, he is also recognizing holiness in a nun who lived most of her adult life in spiritual agony sensing that God had abandoned her.
According to correspondence that came to light after she died in 1997, Mother Teresa experienced what the church calls a “dark night of the soul”- a period of spiritual doubt, despair and loneliness that many of the great mystics experienced. In Mother Teresa’s case, it lasted for nearly 50 years – an almost unheard of trial.