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Mother Teresa was a saint on a revolutionary mission

Members of the Missionaries of Charity attend a service marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta in 2010 (CNS)

That Mother Teresa is to be canonised soon is truly joyous news for the whole Church.

Moreover, given that the canonisation is likely to happen this coming September, the Year of Mercy has just received what promises to be its crowning moment. Some three hundred thousand turned up to see Mother beatified by St John Paul II in 2003; the coming canonisation is likely to be huge, and not just in the number of people it will attract, but also the attention it will draw to the Church and to the new Saint.

Mother Teresa was, in her lifetime, and is, since her birthday into heaven, one of the best advertisements for Catholicism. While we can expect in the months leading up to her canonisation a renewal of the criticisms made by Christopher Hitchens and others, this should not bother us overmuch; indeed it is to be welcomed. Hitchens and others disliked Mother Teresa for the simple reason that she was a Catholic. Any renewal of criticism will only serve to remind people of this important point. Consider this, for example, as reported by the Crux website

Two years ago, researchers at the University of Montreal and the University of Ottawa combed through the literature on Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity religious order, concluding, basically, that she was a fraud. Among other bones of contention, the authors cited ‘her rather dubious way of caring for the sick, her questionable political contacts, her suspicious management of the enormous sums of money she received, and her overly dogmatic views regarding, in particular, abortion, contraception, and divorce.’

Yes, you heard that right: Mother Teresa was against contraception, abortion and divorce. She did not shun sinners, either. If the world is to be reminded of that, so much the better.

I only ever saw Mother Teresa once. It was at the Gregorian University, where Mother Teresa had called in for ten minutes or so, to see myself and two or three thousand other people. She was tiny, and there was a very tall cardinal accompanying her, beaming benignly. She soon wiped the smile off his face. “When you get to heaven,” she said, “You will find it is full of the street people of Calcutta. And all the people you expected to find there, won’t be there.” I watched the Cardinal’s face as she said this, and read the shock in his bland features. Hers was a subversive, even revolutionary message, but delivered in a way that was accessible and clear to all.

That meeting with Mother Teresa has stayed with me ever since. She was, along with one or two others, the most impressive religious figure I have ever encountered. The reason for this is because she was utterly genuine. It wasn’t an act. She spoke from the heart. Her character and her faith were in complete harmony. The grace of God filled her entirely. In other words, she was a saint.

On a different occasion, in the company of the late Fr Jean-Marie Charles-Roux, I visited the convent of her sisters on the Celio in Rome. Both of us were invited in to see the chapel. It had a concrete floor and no benches. The sisters were in rapt contemplation of the exposed Blessed Sacrament. The silence was annihilating. The convent was Spartan in the extreme, very much like the sort of buildings I was to see later in the slums of Nairobi.

Long before everyone started chattering about it, Mother Teresa and her sisters had gone to the margins and lived with the poor. In this she was a trailblazer for our own age, though of course she was merely carrying on an important tradition in the Catholic Church, and following in the footsteps of, among others, St Francis. And all without fuss: others made a fuss of her, but she never made a fuss of herself.