Go to Main Story
Go to Home Page
From 'Saint of the Gutters' to Canonized Saint Takes TimeBy Vera Haller
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 14, 1997; Page A24
VATICAN CITY — If ever anyone on Earth was considered a saint, to many it was Mother Teresa of Calcutta, widely admired for showing selfless and total dedication to helping the poor. With her death, many devotees of "the Saint of the Gutters," as she was called during her lifetime, would like the Roman Catholic Church to canonize her quickly.
But the church's procedures governing canonization — the declaration by the pope that a person who lived a life of heroic virtue is in heaven and worthy of honor and imitation — are complex and the Vatican, like all bureaucracies, moves slowly.
Although they are being called on to bend the rules and make an exception, Vatican officials have indicated Mother Teresa's road to sainthood most likely will follow the usual route, although possibly on a faster track than others.
Under Vatican rules, there is a five-year waiting period after a person's death before the first step can be taken toward sainthood, which is nomination for beatification. The Vatican says this allows balance and objectivity in the evaluation of each case and avoids the influence of "the emotions of the moment."
Nomination begins a process — usually including certification of two miracles attributed to the nominee, except in the case of martyrs, and a detailed scrutiny of the holiness of his or her life — that can take decades, and even centuries, before culminating in canonization.
That Mother Teresa will one day be declared a saint in the eyes of the Catholic Church appears very likely. Pope John Paul II, who visited her Missionaries of Charity order in Calcutta in 1986, openly admired her work and considered her a friend. In a condolence telegram to her order, he said Mother Teresa had "extraordinary spiritual vision" and "unshakable faith."
Although many of those recognized as saints, especially in the church's early years, did not go through the canonization process, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ruled out a declaration of Mother Teresa's sainthood by "acclamation." "The procedures are necessary for reasons of justice for all the other candidates for beatification," he told a news conference last week.
"But I do think that in the case of Mother Teresa, the normal procedure can go forward in a very expedient manner," he said. "It will not be a very long process for Mother Teresa, given her life was so magnificent."
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, also predicted a faster-than-usual track for Mother Teresa, whom he described as "a hero of our times." "Her beatification could come swiftly," he told reporters before leaving Rome to represent the pope at her funeral in Calcutta yesterday.
The church's strict adherence to the canonization process reflects the importance it places on saints, who are held up to Catholics as formal objects of honor and imitation. The faithful can pray to them for intercession with God and the entire church publicly venerates them. While the church regards all who have gone to heaven to be saints — and worthy of private veneration — only those declared saints by the church may be venerated publicly.
The canonized saint "is a role model for all Christians," said the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, a Vatican spokesman. He said the Vatican had been receiving many telephone calls, faxes and letters from private citizens and Catholic organizations asking that the five-year waiting period be waived in Mother Teresa's case so she can be beatified quickly.
"It is possible that the pope will speed up the process but it depends on the pope. These are ecclesiastical laws, not divine laws, so he can change them because he set these rules," the spokesman said.
According to church procedures, a promoting group — such as a parish or religious congregation or association — applies to the bishop in the diocese in which the candidate died to launch the cause — in this case the bishop of Calcutta. Once Vatican approval for that is obtained, the bishop sets up a tribunal to review testimony and documentation showing the candidate's virtues. The complete file is forwarded to the Vatican's special sainthood arm, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
That congregation reviews the documentation and places it before a panel of theologians for a vote. If the cause wins this preliminary approval, it then goes to another review by cardinals and bishops of the congregation. If it passes this second review, the prefect of the congregation asks the pope to declare the "heroic virtue" of the candidate.
Once this decree is granted, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints must certify a miracle attributed to the intervention of the candidate after his or her death. A Vatican document explaining canonization says: "The miracle must be proved through an appropriate canonic inquiry following the procedure used for establishing heroic virtue."
After the first miracle is certified, the pope can approve beatification. For canonization, the Vatican must certify a second miracle attributed to the candidate occurring after beatification, an interim step on the road to sainthood.
There are currently some 3,000 canonization cases pending at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, whose offices are filled with thousands of volumes of documents about the candidates.
Since becoming pope in 1978, John Paul has performed 278 canonizations and 768 beatifications — more than all other popes in this century combined — many of them in large groups martyred for their faith.
Nuns from the Rome order of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity were reluctant to talk about her prospects for sainthood. Approached before a Mass in her honor at Rome's St. John Lateran basilica on Friday, a group of three nuns smiled, shook their heads and looked down. One nun, who declined to be identified, said, "We hear what you hear."
Mother Teresa's adoring public is more forthcoming. "I think the church should move quickly to make her a saint, not just for Catholics but for all the people she helped, for everyone," said Laura DeCesore of Rome, who brought her 3-month-old daughter to the Mass at St. John Lateran. "We feel so much pain without her."
In St. Peter's Square in the Vatican, pilgrims voiced similar opinions. "I would say she should be honored for all the good she did," said Gordon Douglas, of Brockville, Ontario. His wife, Ruth, added, "She left wealth and took the vow of poverty. She touched what the rest of us wouldn't. That takes guts."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company