Update: Mother Teresa was officially named a saint today by Pope Francis, The Associated Press reports.
This article was originally published on September 1, 2016. What makes a saint? Presumably, some divine intervention. But also a lot of decision-making on the earthly level. Mother Teresa is due to be canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church on September 4, giving her an official place in Catholic dogma. The Albanian nun and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, who died in 1997, will be named St. Teresa of Kolkata on Sunday. “She was someone who thought about those who were least recognized among us — she frankly saw them as Jesus in the guise of the injured, the poor, the forgotten. She never thought anyone was expendable," Catholic Relief Services Chief Operating Officer Sean Callahan, who worked with Mother Teresa, told USA Today.
But not everyone is thrilled about it. Despite her reputation, some doubt Mother Teresa’s suitability for sainthood. Mother Teresa was venerated during her lifetime for her service to the poor and needy in the slums of Kolkata, India. There, she opened a home for the dying, a hospital for the sick, and many orphanages. She was the founder of the Missionaries of Charity, which cared for the “poorest of the poor,” and grew exponentially under her leadership. By the time of her death in 1997, she had a following of more than 4,000. In her 1979 Nobel Prize speech, she said that she accepted the award “in the name of the hungry, of the naked, of the homeless, of the crippled, of the blind, of the leprous, of all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared, thrown away of the society, people who have become a burden to the society, and are ashamed by everybody.” But for all her work and praise, there are accusations of a dark side. Some volunteers who went to join Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity say that the poor who turned to her for aid were inadequately cared for, left in filthy conditions, or treated by volunteers who were never given medical training.
[Mother Teresa] said that suffering was a gift from God.
A 2013 study from the University of Montreal echoed the concerns. Investigating hundreds of documents regarding Mother Teresa after her death, the study raised questions about “her rather dubious way of caring for the sick, questionable political contacts, [and] her suspicious management of the enormous sums of money she received.” It also noted that doctors working with her reported poor conditions. The French-language study also found that she had been “very generous with her prayers, but for the most part miserly with her foundation’s millions,” in the face of disasters. Famed atheist intellectual Christopher Hitchens, who was invited to be part of the investigation regarding her suitability for sainthood, wrote an essay during the beginning steps of her canonization process in 2003 that called Mother Teresa “a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud” for her approach to the care of the poor. "She was not a friend of the poor," he wrote. "She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God." There are several steps to becoming a saint. In the first stage, witnesses are gathered to affirm that the prospective saint lived a holy and virtuous life and adhered to religious doctrine. In the second, the miracles come into play: To be officially confirmed as a saint, there must be at least two bona fide miracles that can be attributed to the person after death. The church often brings in the voices of skeptics such as Hitchens during the process to play devil’s advocate and look for other causes for miracles, or find reasons that individuals should not be canonized. The process usually isn’t allowed to begin until five years after the prospective saint’s death, to allow for a more rational decision-making process free from emotions. But in Mother Teresa’s case, Pope John Paul II allowed the process, called the cause of canonization, to start early — less than two years after her death. The process has been controversial, as well, with accusations that at least one of the miracles attributed to Mother Teresa is a fraud. Of course, Mother Teresa was never an uncontroversial figure in her lifetime, either. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she used her platform to decry abortion. “The greatest destroyer of peace today is the cry of the innocent unborn child,” she said. “Let us here make a strong resolution, we are going to save every little child, every unborn child, give them a chance to be born.” And though she accepted the poor from all faiths, she was accused of proselytizing Christianity and having her followers baptize the dying without their consent, according to several accounts. But Mother Teresa had the support of the three popes who oversaw her canonization process, from Pope John Paul II, who believed in her holiness so strongly that he expedited the sainthood process, to Pope Francis, who acknowledged the final miracle that made her eligible for sainthood. And the crowds of believers and former followers who gather to witness her canonization mass on Sunday will recognize a lifetime of service dedicated to the poor and forgotten. Rev. Sebastian Vazhakala, who worked with Mother Teresa, summed up her legacy to The New York Times in advance of the canonization. “I learned from her that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,” he said. "She would say, ‘If I can do something, then I must do it.’” But the questions that remain, even upon her canonization, remind us that even saints are human first. And being human is rarely as straightforward as being a saint.