This essay originally appeared on Beliefnet in 2003.
What’s so special about Mother Teresa? Why did everybody from the President of the United States to your neighbor next door call her a “living saint” when she was alive?
Why, now that she’s dead, is the Roman Catholic Church ready to affirm with finality that she’s dwelling in heaven, near to the face of God, a saint we can ask prayers from and pattern our lives after?
If we go with the official Catholic catechism definition of a saint, we’d say it’s because she “practiced heroic virtue”—that she lived by faith, hope, and love, that she was prudent, just, temperate, fortitudinous, or brave.
Pope John Paul II will no doubt say as much on October 19 when he “beatifies" Mother Teresa during a solemn ceremony before a throng of devotees in St. Peter’s Square.
Technically, the pope will be declaring Mother Teresa to be a “Blessed,” not a Saint. On the Catholic ladder of sanctity, you find the Blesseds one rung down from the Saints, who’ve made it all the way to the top. Practically speaking, there’s not much difference anymore.
Once Mother Teresa is beatified, you’ll be able to pray for her help, read her writings as having a certain divine stamp of approval, and make her your role model, just as you would any saint. There just won’t be any “feast” in her honor on the Church’s calendar—not until she’s made a saint, that is. But all the experts agree that’s only a matter of time.
None of this, however, helps us figure out what qualifies her for such lofty stature in the first place.
It can’t be because she led a stirring life. She had no dramatic conversion, like St. Paul. We find with her none of the high sexual drama of Augustine’s confessions. None of the shuttle diplomacy of a Bridget of Sweden or a Catherine of Siena.
Her contemporary, Padre Pio, declared a saint a couple years back, was a stigmatic, one whose hands and feet bear Christ-like wounds. She wasn’t that either.
Mother Teresa was simply a cradle Catholic, raised in a pious, generous home, who went off at age 18 to be a nun in the missions in India. Some years later, she was riding on a train and she heard Jesus telling her to leave her religious order to serve the poor. So that’s what she did.
Nor was she noted for her mystical heights or original teachings. There’s no denying she was a devout, deeply prayerful woman who knew her Bible. But a great spiritual master, a poet laureate of the soul—these things she wasn’t. She’d be the first to admit that hers was a decidedly commonplace, garden variety of religious experience.
She lived simply and she died as she lived, owning a prayer book, a pair of sandals, and a couple saris—the trademark blue-and-white habit of the order of nuns she founded, the Missionaries of Charity.
Is that enough to make you a saint—to lead a simple, prayerful life and do good unto others?
Yes and no.
Inevitably, when you pose the question this way you wind up with a sort of “reductionist” approach to sainthood, as if becoming a saint is like getting a gold watch for a lifetime of loyal Catholic service.
To understand what makes Mother Teresa a saint, to understand her meaning and importance in the Church and for our times, requires entering deep into the Catholic psyche and imagination.
The saints are spokesmodels for the Catholic belief that all men and women are made to be secret sharers in God’s very own life. If dogmas and doctrines are the theorem, the saints are the proofs of Catholicism.
All that Catholics believe is summed up in a short prayer the priest prays silently at the altar before every Eucharist: “By the mingling of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.”
Think of the saints as God’s answer to that prayer. The prayer itself grew out of a slogan used in the early Church, a kind of snappy shorthand for what Catholicism is all about: “God became human so that humans might become divine.”
That’s what Jesus makes possible. Because He became human, we can aspire to the divine. Jesus showed us not only the face of God, but the true face of the human person, the glorious place that men and women hold in God’s creation.