By Fr. Tirso Villaverde
St. MARGARET PARISH
Mother Teresa’s life and canonization
At the start of last month, a historic event took place in the life of the Catholic Church. I speak of the canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta who is now officially a Saint of the Catholic Church. It was a joyful moment in the lives of the members of the congregation of religious women founded by St. Mother Teresa. It was also a joyful moment for virtually the entire Catholic Church throughout the world.
However, it was also a moment that was greatly questioned by critics of the woman who took care of so many of the poor on the streets of Calcutta, India. As admired and revered as she was by so many people—Catholics and non-Catholics alike, she was also harshly criticized by a great number of people both in life and now in death and perhaps even more now that she has become St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
In response to the criticisms, there was an underlying misconception of what sainthood signifies for the Catholic Church. Much of the criticisms were in regard to many of the practices and tactics used by Mother Teresa. Some branded her as an angel who did not come from heaven. Perhaps these comments were based on the type of personality that Mother Teresa displayed in being a very tough person. As the saying goes, she was a force to be reckoned with and she made it very well known to people.
Another criticism stemmed from the issue that Mother Teresa had been known to take donations from people of ill repute. I recall hearing one time that she accepted a donation from a very corrupt world leader. But I also recall that her response was something like, “He took this money from the poor. I am taking it so that the poor will now benefit.” It was actions like these and perhaps more that were the source of much of the criticisms against Mother Teresa and for this reason they questioned just as strongly why the Catholic Church would still elevate such a person to sainthood.
However, in this, we find the misconception of sainthood that I mentioned in the beginning. Oftentimes, people automatically equate perfection with sainthood. In other words, the prevailing thought is that a Saint is a “perfect person.”
This is far from the truth. To be elevated as a saint in the Catholic Church does not imply that a person was perfect. If truth be told, there is absolutely NO human being who is or ever has been perfect. For Catholics, the only human being who can be considered perfect is the Virgin Mary simply because she is believed to be “full of grace” that strengthened her to avoid sin that makes every human being imperfect creatures striving for holiness. However, this is a topic for another time.
In terms of sainthood, a person is not canonized a saint because he/she is perfect. Holiness is not the same as perfection, at least in the common understanding of that word. Instead, the holiness that becomes the qualification for sainthood is based on how much that person recognized his/her dependence on God’s grace for everything. Perfection is not a prerequisite for sainthood. Therefore, a person need not have lived a perfect life in order to be considered a saint of the Catholic Church. Perhaps, there is no example greater than this than St. Peter himself who denied knowing Jesus three times in order to save himself from embarrassment and/or punishment for having conspired with Jesus. The long list of saints of the Catholic Church is full of men and women who were among the worst of sinners in their own lifetimes.
Further, sainthood in the Catholic Church is not a denial of a person’s sinfulness. Rather, in some sense, it is a celebration of the fact that the person was a sinner who perfectly relied on God’s grace to overcome daily his or her personal weakness. It is that reliance on God’s grace that makes saints the role models and inspirations they are for the Catholic faithful.
For St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, it was not her perfection that gained her the recognition of sainthood. It was her continual turning to God for everything she needed even when she felt that God had been absent in her life. St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta then not only is a saint to inspire those who work for the benefit of the poor but also those who search for the presence of God in their own lives.