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Revered, reviled, misunderstood: Mother Teresa becomes a saint today

Teresa worked with the poorest of the poor in the sprawling metropolis formerly known as Calcutta for nearly four decades.
Sep 4th 2016, 8:00 AM 39,306 217

MOTHER TERESA, THE 20th century icon of Catholicism, becomes elevated to sainthood.

The elevation of the Nobel Peace Prize winner to Catholicism’s celestial pantheon comes on the eve of the 19th anniversary of her death in the Kolkata slums with which she is synonymous.

Teresa worked with the poorest of the poor in the sprawling metropolis formerly known as Calcutta for nearly four decades, having initially come to eastern India as a missionary teacher with Ireland’s Loreto order.

Born to Kosovar Albanian parents in what is now Macedonia in 1910, Teresa died in 1997. By then she was a household name around the world and also a citizen of India, the adopted homeland that embraced the diminutive and doggedly determined sister to the extent that she was granted a state funeral.

Her canonisation has been completed in unusually quick time on the back of the extraordinary popularity she enjoyed during her lifetime and with the help of influential supporters.

The late pope John Paul II, a personal friend, was the pontiff at the time of Teresa’s death. He fast-tracked her beatification (the step before sainthood).

The current pope, Francis, is also an admirer of a woman he sees as embodying his vision of a “poor church for the poor.”

A contradiction

However, as loved and revered as she is by Catholics the soon-to-be Saint Teresa is a target of criticism by many atheist writers.

British writer Christopher Hitchens Hitchens wrote a book about her entitled Hell’s Angel, calling her a hypocrite who fetishised the suffering of the poor while making sure she herself had access to the best available health care.

Hitchens added that she was a ”fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud”. Others have called her a “religious imperialist” who had little time for India’s native Hindus.

In death, questions have arisen about the funding of her order, The Missionaries of Charity, which operates in 133 countries.

Complex

Since her 1997 death, one thing has become clear about the woman born in 1910 in what is now Macedonia.

The austere persona she displayed to the world with her gaunt, masculine face, masked a lighter, albeit troubled, soul.

For long periods, she was plagued by doubts about the faith that drove her mission to provide comfort to the dying.

“There is so much contradiction in my soul,” she wrote to the Bishop of Calcutta in a posthumously published letter dating from 1957.

“Heaven means nothing to me, it looks like an empty place.”

Miracles

Today’s ceremony in the Vatican will be attended by one of two people who claimed they were healed by Teresa, making the two miracles needed for canonisation.

In Teresa’s case the first miracle, approved in 2002, involved the 1998 recovery of a Bengali woman, Monica Besra, from an ovarian tumour.

The second, recognised in December, relates to a Brazilian man, Marcílio Haddad Andrino, who claims to have suddenly woken up without pain in 2008 after his wife prayed to Teresa for relief from the agony caused by brain tumours.

Andrino will attend Sunday’s ceremony while Besra, 50, told AFP she would mark the occasion at her home in the village of Nakor.

With AFP reporting

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Paul Hosford

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