Aug. 15, 2016

Mother Teresa of Calcutta - A Saint for Our Time

Mother Teresa came to Catholic University 45 years ago to receive her first honorary degree. If I'd been president of our school at the time I would have tried hard to get a picture of her in a Catholic University sweatshirt.

I do have a lovely picture of my predecessor Clarence Walton with Mother in her sari, with the hood the University confers on Doctors of Humane Letters. The citation for the degree said that the University was privileged to recognize a woman "for whom love is not a slogan but a way of life."

In 2010 the United States Postal Service held a ceremony at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, at the corner of our campus, to dedicate a 44-cent stamp to Mother Teresa. I did attend that ceremony. So did Mother's novice mistress from the Sisters of Loreto (the order she joined before she founded the Missionaries of Charity). She was 105, though she didn't look a day over 80.

On September 4 of this year Pope Francis will proclaim Mother Teresa a saint. And so she is, one of the great and holy women of the 20th century. This might seem a little sudden, as these things go. She died only 19 years ago. Most saints whose feasts we observe in September (Matthew, Cornelius, Cyprian, Jerome, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Great) died a long time ago. And at least since the Reformation, the canonization process itself has taken a long time.

But Pope John Paul II changed the process in 1983 in ways that made it faster. It's now more like an academic inquiry than a trial. The office of the "devil's advocate" (a canon lawyer whose job it was to find fault with the cause) was eliminated. The number of required miracles attributed to the candidate's intercession was reduced from four to two. In recent years we have seen many more saints, beatified and canonized at a faster clip, than ever before. John Paul II himself was canonized in 2014, just nine years after his death.

I'm a big fan of the new approach. When our children were growing up we used to read the lives of the saints over breakfast. The idea was to set for them examples of holiness, to keep in mind during the day. Kids find stories about real people more accessible than, say, St. Paul's letters. From St. Martin they could learn a lesson of generosity; from St. Clare, humility; from St. Lawrence, fortitude.

But when all your examples come from the third or the thirteenth century there is a danger that they'll become like Aesop's fables. The lessons they teach are poignant and useful. But the characters may seem unreal, like they were drawn with the lesson in mind.

But Mother Teresa was real, and recent. She came to our campus and we gave her an honorary degree. I met her novice mistress at the Basilica. My father used to send her money, and got a thank-you note from her. We know from the testimony of many people still living what good she did for the poor in Calcutta, and around the world. When I read her own account of Jesus speaking to her in 1946 on a train to Darjeeling, and saying "come be My light" to the poor, I feel a conviction about God's acting in the world that is a certain as faith can be.

Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) proclaims that we are all called to be saints. The wonderful thing about our newest saint is that she shows that this means us, and that it is possible.