‘Now a saint … always a mother’ – Songs, celebrations in Kolkata for Mother Teresa’s sainthood

Pope Francis waves to the faithful as he leaves after a Holy Mass and canonisation of Mother Teresa of Kolkata, on Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican on Sept 4. (AFP)
Pope Francis waves to the faithful as he leaves after a Holy Mass and canonisation of Mother Teresa of Kolkata, on Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican on Sept 4. (AFP)

VATICAN CITY, Sept 4, (AFP): Pope Francis on Sunday proclaimed Mother Teresa of Kolkata a saint, hailing her as the personification of maternal love and a powerful advocate for the poor. “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. Singing nuns and followers clutching flowers flocked to Mother Teresa’s tomb in the Indian city of Kolkata to celebrate her proclamation as a saint at the Vatican on Sunday. People began gathering in the early morning at Mother House in Kolkata for a special mass for the “Saint of the Gutters” before the ceremony at St Peter’s Basilica. They placed candles and flowers on her tomb in sombre contemplation.

But the atmosphere at the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity, the order that Teresa founded, was also one of celebration. Nuns were singing songs honouring her and giant television screens were erected so the gathering visitors could watch the ceremony. “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. Solangel Rojas had come from Cali in Colombia. Clutching a picture of Teresa to her heart, she said: “It is wonderful that she has been canonised. She was an example to us all.” Among those in the front rows at the mass were 1,500 people from shelters run by the Italian branches of Teresa’s order. Later they were Francis’s guests for a giant pizza lunch served by nuns and priests. Teresa spent all her adult life in India, first teaching, then tending to the dying poor. It was in the latter role, at the head of her now worldwide order, that Teresa became one of the most famous women on the planet.

Born to Kosovan Albanian parents in Skopje — then part of the Ottoman empire, now the capital of Macedonia — she won the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize and was revered around the world as a beacon for the Christian values of selfsacrifice and charity. But she was also regarded with scorn by secular critics who accused her of being more concerned with evangelism than with improving the lot of the poor.

The debate over Teresa’s legacy has continued after her death, with researchers uncovering financial irregularities in the running of her order and evidence mounting of patient neglect, insalubrious conditions and questionable conversions of the vulnerable in her missions.

The diminutive nun whose journey from a corner of the Ottoman Empire to the slums of India made her one of the most famous women in the world was regarded by many as a saint during her lifetime. “Saint of the Gutters” and “Angel of Mercy,” were among the sobriquets she picked up over the course of nearly four decades working with the wretched poor of Kolkata and building her Missionaries of Charity order into a global force.

But there was another school of thought. Australian feminist Germaine Greer called her a “religious imperialist” who preyed on the most vulnerable in the name of harvesting souls for Jesus. And her most ferocious critic, the British polemicist Christopher Hitchens, “a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud.” But Teresa was always far more revered than reviled. Millions acclaimed her as an icon of Christian charity and a global symbol of anti-materialism and worthwhile self-sacrifice. Her adopted homeland, India, took her to its heart.

“It is natural for every Indian to take pride in Mother Teresa’s canonisation,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said earlier this week. On her death in 1997, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II predicted Teresa would “continue to live on in the hearts of all those who have been touched by her selfless love.” The private Teresa was a more complex personality than she appeared to the world. Behind her gaunt, wrinkled face lay a 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 1957 letter.

“Heaven means nothing to me, it looks like an empty place.” Two years later, she wrote to a priest friend saying: “If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of darkness; I will continually be absent from heaven — to light the light of those in darkness on Earth.” Baptised Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, Teresa was born into a Kosovar Albanian family in 1910 in Skopje, then part of the Ottoman empire and now the capital of Macedonia.

Her father, a businessman who was involved in the region’s byzantine politics, died when she was eight. By the time she was 12, according to biographers, Agnes was already a regular visitor to Catholic shrines and knew that she wanted to dedicate her life to missionary work. At 18 she enrolled in an Irish order, the Sisters of Loreto, spending a brief period in Ireland learning English before her departure for India in 1929.

There she spent two decades teaching geography to the children of wellto- do families before founding her own order in 1950. “The Missionaries of Charity has decided to turn this into a celebration to further Mother’s cause serving the poorest of the poor and the dying and sick.” “We will gather to witness the entire process at Vatican City as it unfolds,” she said. Teresa rose to fame in the eastern Indian city, where she devoted her life to helping the destitute and the sick in its teeming slums.

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