Mother Teresa, one of the most famous modern-day figures in Catholicism, will be made a saint on Sunday in Rome. Pope Francis will canonize the nun, who was revered worldwide for her dedication to society’s most vulnerable through her work with India’s slums.
Mother Teresa’s path to sainthood for her decades of service in Calcutta began under Pope John Paul II in 1999 after he skipped the traditional five-year waiting period following a person’s death. It is particularly fitting that Francis, who has focused on service to the poor, sick and powerless, will preside over her canonization.
“Mother Teresa is exactly the kind of Christianity that Pope Francis has in mind,” said Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. “Mother Teresa embodies the future of the church and of Catholicism in a world that is closer to Francis’ personal biography and what he says than to biographies of his predecessor popes.”
The nun, who was born in modern-day Macedonia to an Albanian family, will become St. Teresa of Calcutta on Sept. 4. She will be the 28th saint canonized by Francis, who is roughly keeping up with the average of his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, who made 45 people saints during his eight-year papacy. John Paul II canonized 482 people during his nearly 27-year tenure in the Vatican.
“The problem with the canonization process in the Catholic Church today is that [it has] thousands of saints and most of them are forgotten just a few days or weeks after they become saints,” Faggioli said. “This is not going to happen for Mother Teresa.”
She founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950, an order that now has approximately 4,500 sisters worldwide. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her work in India building homes for lepers and orphans, and caring for the terminally ill. In her acceptance speech, she called herself “unworthy” of the award.
“But I am grateful and I am very happy to receive it 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,” said the nun, who died in 1997.
This same compassion for the “least among us” has made Francis stand apart from his papal predecessors.
“That’s one beautiful symmetry: Him being the one who’s really I think helped the rest of us be much more aware of those who are on the margins and outcasts,” said Mary Hasson, director of the Catholic Women’s Forum at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “She’s someone who lived that, who became a really compelling example, but labored for so many years before it was even something” that garnered attention.
Along with drawing more attention to the most vulnerable, Francis has become known for speaking frankly about some of the most difficult issues for the modern church, including gay marriage and abortion. He has also opened the door to more dialogue about Catholic women.
“We know that Francis is very open to exploring ideas about a new role for women in the church,” Faggioli said.
Last month, the pope appointed six men and six women to a commission to study female deacons. Currently, women cannot be ordained as priests or deacons, but amidst a drop in men entering the priesthood some are pushing to expand the vocation to women.
Faggioli said Mother Teresa is “the closest female model of the Jesuits that you can think of,” but her canonization is an acknowledgment of the powerful role women can play in the church without being ordained.
This is an argument against those who say women, who primarily serve the church as nuns and laypeople, should hold more power in official institutions.
“One of the things [Francis has] reinforced for women is the idea that we don’t need to be clericalized, we don’t need to be ordained to have a huge impact, in order to exercise spiritual greatness,” Hassan said. “That really is the story of Mother’ Teresa’s life.”