Pope Francis will canonize Mother Teresa on Sunday, declaring the sainthood of a 20th-century figure renowned for her ministry to the poor and dying. Yet as the pope celebrates her sanctity, he will also be furthering a boom in the business of minting saints during his papacy.
Theologians and papal watchers say Francis is proclaiming new saints at a rate not seen since the heady days of John Paul II, the church’s canonization champion. In his 3 1/2 years as pope, Francis has presided over 29 canonizations — 11 more than Benedict XVI, his predecessor, at the same point in his papacy. If you consider that one of Francis’s canonizations involved 813 15th-century Italian martyrs, he may even hold the record — a record the pope is said to have jokingly embraced.
It is not just the number that is notable but, in some cases, the speed and manner of the canonizations, as well as Francis’s willingness to bless the causes of candidates touched by controversy. By doing so, he has sparked a measure of controversy himself.
“When John Paul II died, there was a very strong feeling that there had simply been too many saints made, that the process was
being cheapened,” said Austen Ivereigh, author of “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.”
“I think there’s a feeling that Benedict deliberately slowed the whole thing down,” Ivereigh said. “He canonized fewer. I suppose what’s happening with Francis is that the pace we saw before Benedict is being resumed.”
In the Roman Catholic Church, the path to sainthood can take decades, frequently centuries. Yet Mother Teresa — who will now be officially known as Saint Teresa of Calcutta — reached the threshold of sainthood a relatively quick 19 years after death.
Francis, in fact, has now presided over three of the fastest canonizations in modern church history — those of Mother Teresa, John Paul II and a Spanish nun who died in 1998 and was declared a saint last year. The blessing of such rapid sainthoods has irked critics who argue that the Vatican is in danger of becoming an assembly line of saints.
“A certain historical distance is required in order to properly examine the holiness of a person’s life,” said Edmund Arens, professor of fundamental theology at the University of Lucerne in Switzerland. “If a person led an exemplary life, why not take time to analyze it properly?”
Some also say that Francis may be favoring candidates who reflect his personal focus on inequality, mercy and the plight of the poor. They cite, for instance, last year’s beatification — an intermediary step to sainthood — of the Rev. Óscar Romero, a Salvadoran bishop assassinated in 1980.
Romero is seen by some as a leftist symbol in his native El Salvador, and his cause had been stalled for years. But in 2013, only a month after Francis assumed office, a senior Vatican official announced that the pope had “unblocked” Romero’s path to sainthood.
“This is very important, to do it quickly,” Francis said of Romero’s cause a year later.
Some Vatican officials privately concede that the pope is playing “pastoral politics” — utilizing the saint system to leave his mark. Yet others strongly counter that the pope is not cherry-picking saints, adding that the system simply does not work that way.
Yes, the pope gives the ultimate up or down on candidates he is presented with. But, they say, he does not select his own.
“The final word is the pope’s, but the pope does not act in a vacuum,” said the Rev. Robert Sarno, a senior official in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. “He does not just reach back in time and look for saints.”
Many Catholic scholars see an added benefit in faster canonizations, especially for contemporary figures such as Mother Teresa and John Paul II who can seem more relevant to the lives of modern Catholics.
Rather than study her life through arcane texts, the student of Mother Teresa can simply watch reruns of her television interviews on YouTube. Many Catholics still vividly recall the electric, stadium-size Masses of John Paul.
“They lived under the same circumstances as we do, therefore they’re much closer to us,” said Manfred Becker-Huberti, a Catholic theologian at the Philosophical-Theological University of Vallendar in Germany. They “serve as role models. Someone like Mother Teresa can inspire people not just to worship her but to change their own lives.”
Like John Paul, Francis has not shied away from candidates considered relatively controversial — including Mother Teresa, who labored for most of her life in the slums of the Indian city of Calcutta, now known as Kolkata. She became perhaps best known for her hospices, where the poor could die with dignity.
“The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis but rather the feeling of being unwanted,” she is quoted as saying in a 1971 biography.
Yet if her life’s work generated admirers and earned her a Nobel Prize, it also spawned critics who charged that her missions failed to embrace modern medicine as a way to ease the suffering of patients.
“The people she ‘saved’ were people in a graveyard waiting to be buried, people who were not given the right medications. People who suffered,” said Tariq Ali, a British journalist who co-produced a critical documentary on Mother Teresa in 1994. “That Francis is doing this is a regression in the sense that you just make all these people saints with dodgy records.”
Many theologians and Vatican watchers say Mother Teresa — a woman who often seemed canonized by public opinion while she lived — would have been on the fast track to sainthood regardless of who was pope.
Saints are lofty figures seen by practicing Catholics as someone who can intercede with God on their behalf. Typically a cause, or case, for sainthood can start only five years after death. Candidates are generally forwarded to Vatican City from the diocese where they died, with postulators in Rome compiling reports to submit to a panel of Vatican authorities. Most candidates generally require two “proven” miracles, though figures who died for the faith need only one. Such claims are verified through exhaustive, if secretive, reviews.
In the case of Mother Teresa, John Paul initially lifted the five-year rule, allowing her process to start early. Although the second miracle attributed to her intervention — a Brazilian man who recovered from a brain infection after praying to her — is alleged to have occurred in 2008, Vatican officials say they were not made aware of it until 2013, following Francis’s official trip to Brazil.
All Francis did to further her cause, officials suggest, was sign on the dotted line.
Yet in other instances, Francis has effectively waived the two-miracle rule — accepting only one, or even none — no fewer than eight times. In select cases, that has served to speed up sainthood.
They include the case of Peter Faber, one of the founders of Francis’s own Jesuit order and a figure viewed as a personal hero of the pope. Francis, on his own birthday, canonized Faber, earlier telling the Catholic magazine America the reasons he found him so worthy.
It was, the pope said, because of Faber’s “dialogue with all, even the most remote and even with his opponents, his simple piety, a certain naivete perhaps, his being available straightaway, his careful interior discernment, the fact that he was a man capable of great and strong decisions but also capable of being so gentle and loving.”
Stefano Pitrelli in Rome and Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.