by the Reverend Nicholas L. Gregoris, S.T.D.
The canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta was an extraordinary experience. We were able to gather in the tens of thousands to see arguably the most famous and renowned woman of the twentieth century raised to the altars.
In 2003, I was privileged to attend Mother Teresa's beatification, which had been fast-tracked by Pope John Paul II like none other in history. At that time, we were also celebrating the Pope's twenty-fifth anniversary of election to the Chair of Peter. Little did we know that in a few short years, on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday, he would be at the door of his Father's house as then-Cardinal Ratzinger, Dean of the College of Cardinals, so lovingly put it.
The canonization of Mother Teresa took place in a special context as well since the Church is observing an Extraordinary Jubilee or Holy Year of Mercy to conclude on the upcoming Solemnity of Christ the King.
In a certain real sense, Mother Teresa has become the icon of this Jubilee. Her life, profoundly rooted in the harsh realities of physical suffering and extreme poverty and likewise characterized by a spiritual mysticism that led her to confront even the temptation to despair of God's mercy, to abandon her life-long belief in God as she suffered through her own version of what St. John of the Cross had termed the "dark night of the soul" (la noche oscura del alma) reveals the marvelous nature of God's inscrutable mercy and infinite love.
God alone is perfect. Undoubtedly, He calls us to strive for perfection, but He is well aware of our human sinfulness, weaknesses, character flaws and other imperfections. And He allows us to suffer and be tempted in order to purify and refine our faith like gold or silver in the furnace, a veritable crucible of divine-human love which is nothing else than the mystery of the Cross of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, whose Heavenly Father is unfailingly and forever "Dives in Misericordia" ("Rich in Mercy," as St. Paul put it and as immortalized in John Paul’s encyclical of that name).
Mother Teresa could be harsh on herself and others. She had a strong and determined character and was decisive in her vision of how her order, the Missionaries of Charity, was meant to function both in its internal/communal life and in its evermore visible relationship to the world of the poorest of the poor.
To be sure, Mother had her detractors – perhaps none more vocal than the late atheist Christopher Hitchens, who seemed to be haunted by Mother Teresa and her legacy of charity that one can assume by its very gratuitous and selfless nature spoke to him the mystery of God's existence and providential love, both realities that Hitchens spent his entire adult life denying without amassing any convincing proof to the contrary.
One must suppose that Hitchens, as smart and articulate a man as he indeed was, never quite learned that most basic Aristotelian principle of Logic 101: You cannot prove a negative. While Hitchens was content to condemn Mother Teresa from his perch inside an academic ivory tower (and can we not challenge: Did Hitchens ever help a single poor person in any way at all?, the future saint was too busy allowing herself to be used as a pencil in God's hands, doing “something beautiful for God” (as the convert-author Malcolm Muggeridge saw it), like touching lepers and bringing the most unloved and unwanted members of our society, especially in India, off the streets into environments where they could be cared for and loved with a simple smile and a tender caress of their faces, worn out and wearied by life's many travails and unfortunate allotments.
Some may have called Mother stubborn. But it was precisely that stubbornness that was the essence of her sanctity, that kept her on the go and allowed her to spread the Gospel of Mercy untiringly all over the globe before the great and small alike from the filthy and cramped streets of Calcutta to the pristine and august assembly halls of the United Nations and Nobel Prize for Peace. Mother Teresa was the gritty, down-to-earth, hard-nosed version of the Gospel of Mercy that Pope Francis learned to embrace in the great metropolis of Buenos Aires with its sprawling barrios and villas miserias. Mother Teresa embodied – not just for the Catholic Church but for the whole world – the theme of our present Jubilee "Misericordes sicut Pater" ("Merciful like the Father").
The question remains for each one of us, and not just for clergy or religious: How can we fulfill Mother's mission in our own concrete circumstances? How can we reflect the mercy of God in a world that has become so accustomed to the callousness of sin? What can we do to mitigate and perhaps even transform (better yet, eradicate!) those sinful structures of our society that serve to marginalize the poor and the oppressed to the point that their exclusion has a tendency to render them useless and less than human in the eyes of the world, especially in the developed countries of the so-called "First World" where many people have a tendency to be fixated on the superficial, narcissistic and materialistic to an extreme?
Our adamant defense of the sacredness of human life from conception to natural death, so admirably and courageously championed by Mother Teresa wherever she traveled around the globe, is one that opposes abortion – noted by Pope Francis in his canonization homily and dwelt on extensively by the Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin in his homily for her Mass of Thanksgiving the following day. St. Teresa of Calcutta spoke her pro-life message in receiving her Nobel Prize and in her address to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington (as the Clintons set by mute and stone-faced, refusing to applaud her assertion that abortion is the greatest poverty of all).
Her emphasis on abortion caused some of her critics to argue that she (and other pro-lifers) are quick to condemn abortion but fail to do anything once someone is born. That charge could never be leveled against her for she knew that a pro-life stance demands palpable justice for the poor already living in our midst whose true and lasting worth derives not from any form of monetary currency, economic system or amassing of material wealth and possessions but rather from the inestimable gift of God's mercy which entrusts these our misfortunate brothers and sisters to our humble care so that we can provide for them their daily bread, a bread that is both physical and supersubstantial or heavenly in nature.
St. John Chrysostom, whose memorial we celebrated on September 13, made abundantly clear that we could not legitimately tend to the divine mysteries of the altar of the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Banquet while at the same time choosing to ignore the suffering, hungry members of the Mystical Body of Christ whom we encounter on our streets.
St. Teresa of Calcutta believed firmly in proper reverence for the Body and Blood of the Lord. She emphasized the importance of the centrality of the tabernacle in our churches and believed that receiving Holy Communion on the tongue was a far more noble expression of our Eucharistic reverence than receiving Holy Communion in the hand (so much so that the Constitutions of her Missionaries of Charity require her Sisters always to receive in the traditional manner). Out of this sincere love for the Eucharistic Body and Blood of the Lord was born her love for the suffering members of the human family and of the Church, Christ's Mystical Body.
I write these reflections as the evening of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14) slips into the morning of the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows (September 15), which feasts cause to ask: How might we bring together, in our pastoral activities and personal experiences and expressions of faith, hope and charity, our love of Christ Jesus truly present in the Eucharist, of His Body that was broken for us and of His Blood that was shed for us and the Church's "preferential option for the poor," recognizing in their broken bodies and scarred faces the very image and likeness of Christ Crucified, the image, dare we say, of the Son of Man, of the Man of Sorrows which is so hauntingly and indelibly impressed on the ever enigmatic and even more mysterious Shroud of Turin? St. Teresa of Calcutta, with her omnipresent rosary in hand and her daily adoration of her Eucharistic Lord, shows the way.