ROME — A vial of blood, a splinter of wood from a confessional and two dubious medical miracles are the ingredients making Mother Teresa a saint not just figuratively but literally, and this Sunday in Rome she will be canonized with great fanfare. More than 100,000 tickets have been issued for an event that will be one of the spiritual highlights of Pope Francis’s Jubilee Year of Mercy.
To some, the woman who was born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in 1910 in what is now Macedonia and who died on Sept. 4, 1997, in the Indian city of Calcutta, has long been known as the “saint of the gutters.” She founded the Missionaries of Charity congregation whose members wear the recognizable blue-rimmed white robes and headscarves.
But to others, she was a head-strong sister who put her unwavering devotion ahead of common sense when ministering to the poor, often cutting corners on hygiene and focusing on the virtue of suffering in lieu of the benefits of medical treatment.
She also admitted in letters published at the time of her beatification, that she suffered a major crisis of faith, known in religious circles as the “dark night of the soul.” For 50 years, most of her adult life, she apparently didn’t feel the presence of God, which left her unable to pray, which, for a nun of her status, was surely rare.
“There is so much contradiction in my soul. Such deep longing for God, so deep that it is painful, a suffering continual, and yet not wanted by God, repulsed, empty, no faith, no love no zeal,” she wrote to the Jesuit cleric Ferdinand Perier, who was her archbishop at the time. “Souls hold no attraction. Heaven means nothing, to me it looks like an empty place. The thought of it means nothing to me and yet this torturing longing for God. Pray for me please that I keep smiling at him in spite of everything.”
Few criticized the Nobel Prize-winning nun more than the late Christopher Hitchens, author of The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, who called her “a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud.”
At the time of her beatification in 2003, he was asked by the Vatican to be the “devil’s advocate,” which was the practice of asking for testimony against a potential saint’s character. That office was later abolished by John Paul II, which has streamlined the saint-making business.
Hitchens says Mother Teresa’s sainthood was rushed by four years by the late John Paul II, who waived the usual five-year wait between death and the opening of a person’s cause, which is the first step to sainthood. Hitchens wrote a damning essay about her alleged dark side and about what he called the “medieval corruption” of the Catholic Church.
“MT was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty,” he wrote. “She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.”
Another naysayer of Mother Teresa’s sanctity is Aroup Chatterjee, a doctor who was born in Calcutta, now known as Kolkata, who lives in London. In his book Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict, Chatterjee says the nun defamed his city of birth. He spent his career searching for proof of her less-than-saintly work. “I personally think that she did more harm than good," he wrote. “She was very cruel in how she treated people at her home for the dying. I think she preached a very negative, very medieval, obscurantist ideology.”
Still, there is no question that Mother Teresa offers the kind of hope for goodness and purity of heart that many Catholic faithful need. As hard as it is for the logical mind to accept the medical miracle aspect of making saints without raising an eyebrow, it is inarguably a fundamental part of the faith for many Catholics, who believe that miracles might save them, too.
In Teresa’s case, her first miracle happened when Monica Besra, a Bengali woman, apparently saw a beam of light shining from a picture she had of Mother Teresa one year after the nun’s death (miracles only count if the would-be saint is dead). At that moment, she says she was relieved of her cancerous tumor. Doctors working for the Vatican’s saint-making machine say there was no medical cure and deemed it divine intervention, although Besra’s own doctor, Ranjan Mustafi, has told countless reporters that the woman never had cancer in the first place, she had cysts.
''It was not a miracle,'' he told The New York Times when Teresa was beatified. “She took medicines for nine months to one year.”
The second miracle happened in 2008, but only came to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints in 2013, when the office was notified that a Brazilian medical engineer named Marcilio Andrino was cured of a viral brain infection.
Apparently Andrino, who was a big fan of Mother Teresa, was in a coma awaiting surgery when his wife Fernanda and all the family started praying to Mother Teresa for an intercession. When the doctor arrived, Andrino was sitting up and asking why he was there. “Marcilio was fine. He was sitting up. He was talking in intensive care and I realized that he was cured, that Mother Teresa had interceded on our behalf and cured Marcilio,” his wife said, according to official reports on her cause. “This was confirmed by the exams which proved the reduction of the abscesses and the disappearance of the hydrocephaly, making us sure that operations and drainage were no longer needed.”
The couple went on to have a family for which they credit the soon-to-be Saint Mother Teresa.
On Sunday, it will likely be only true believers in St. Peter’s Square to celebrate Mother Teresa’s ascension from saint of the gutters to formal Catholic sainthood.