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.

But the work that made her famous, while admirable, wasn’t all that exceptional, especially for a nun. You can find plenty of people doing what she did—taking care of the sick and the dying, finding homes for abandoned children, defending the poor, the unwanted, and the unborn.

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.


“The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” That was another important slogan in the early Church.

The saints show us the human person most fully alive—living the life that Jesus came to give us, a divine life in human skin. Living not as “gods,” but as God’s—as His possession, filled with His grace.

Saints aren’t born and they aren’t made. They’re sent.

God sends the saints to show us what Jesus looks like in our time and place, to show us how to live a holy life in unholy times. And all times are unholy times.

Some saints, a relative handful in the last 2,003 years, are sent with a message that transcends their particular moment and culture. They’re raised up at critical moments in history, when a great truth of the Gospel is in danger of being hijacked by heretics or plowed under by Christian indifference and forgetfulness.

These saints function something like the chorus in an ancient Greek play—giving us God’s commentary on events as they unfold in the Church or on the world stage.

They speak God’s truth to the powers and principalities of their day. And in that they speak to believers of all ages.

Augustine was one of these rare saints. So were Francis of Assisi and Therese of Lisieux. There are others, of course, many of them martyrs killed for the message they were sent to deliver.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta also will be numbered among these special saints. Her whole life will be seen as a pilgrimage by which God shed His light on the world and the times we live in.

She’ll be remembered as a prophet of life in a culture of death, a mystic who taught us to find Christ in the Eucharist and in the flesh and blood of every person she met, especially the poor and the lame, the hungry and the dying.

She’ll be remembered as a comforter to the dying who showed us how to live, a singer of love in a time when love had grown cold.

The greatest hunger, she always said, was the hunger for love. The greatest poverty, the poverty of love. When she looked at the West, she didn't see power, progress, and prosperity, she saw lonesome valleys filled with the brokenhearted, the almost living: "In some countries there is no hunger for bread. But people are suffering from terrible loneliness, terrible despair, terrible hatred, feeling unwanted, helpless, hopeless. They have forgotten how to smile, they have forgotten the beauty of the human touch. They are forgetting what is human love." That's how it was with this saint. She judged the health of a civilization by its ability to smile, by whether parents had time for their children, husbands for their wives, the young to listen to the stories of the old; whether we knew how to laugh and play, to be tender, to be still and know that God lives in every breast.
She watched patiently as wave after wave of young men and women headed East, following some star they thought was rising as their parents' Christianity gave up its ghost, exhausted by a century of gulags and gas chambers, holocausts and hypocrisy. "People come to India," she would say, "because they believe that in India we have a lot of spirituality and this they want to find...Many of them are completely lost." She sensed this generation of seekers was more like a band of runaways, in flight from identities they wanted to shed like bad skin, from the mess they'd made of relationships back home. One of those who crossed her path was Morris "Mo" Siegel. In 1969, the Summer of Love, he launched an herbal tea company, Celestial Seasonings, Inc., that caught the first wave of the all-natural, go-organic, health craze and rode it all the way to the bank. By 1985, he had sold his company for $40 million and was desperately seeking meaning, his mid-life crisis manifesting itself in charitable outfits with names like "Earth Wise" and the "Jesusonian Foundation." He wound up, as so many of his generation did, in Calcutta, trying to find himself as a volunteer at Mother Teresa's home for the destitute dying. She just poked him the chest and sent him home with these words: "Grow where you're planted." Mother Teresa knew it wasn't her that we were looking for. "You must first forget yourself," she would say. "Once we take our eyes away from ourselves-from our interests, from our own rights, privileges, ambitions-then we will become clear to see Jesus around us." She knew it was easy to love strangers. So easy that it was no love at all. For her, holiness, like charity, always begins at home:

"It is easy to smile at people outside your home. It is easy to take care of the people that you don't know well. It is difficult to be thoughtful and kind and to smile and be loving to your own in the house day after day, especially when we are tired and in a bad temper or bad mood. We all have these moments and that is the time that Christ comes to us in a distressing disguise." Could it be just coincidence that in a century of world war and mass movements of social engineering, God would send us a saint who not only sweated the small stuff but told us the road to heaven was paved with it? She was the saint of ordinary time, of the divine found in the routine. It's not what she did that made her holy-saying her prayers, going to Mass, serving others, speaking out for what's right and true. It's why she did it. How she did it. Mother Teresa is a saint because with every breath she drew she tried to do something beautiful for God. She is a saint because she tried to make everything she did, even the smallest thoughts and tiniest gestures, an oblation, an offering of love. She tried to do all for Jesus. In this she made herself transparent. We could see right through her. We could see Jesus. But she wanted us to see something more. She wanted to be our mirror. That's why every time she fielded the inevitable "What's it like to be a living saint" question, she always shot back: "I'm very happy if you can see Jesus in me, because I can see Jesus in you. But holiness is not just for a few people. It's for everyone, including you."
This was her most sublime message to our times: God didn't share in our humanity so that a chosen few could be raised to the altars by the Pope at St. Peter's. He has global ambitions. He wants to create a new humanity, a race of heroes and saints, a race that includes you and me. You were made to be a saint. That's why He made you, that's the purpose He had in mind when you were in your mother's womb. Mother Teresa talked this way. She spoke the language of the Bible, made it sound so natural, so ordinary. It wasn't anything new she was sent to tell us. We had just never heard it put that way before. It wasn't just words, either. She made sainthood seem possible, something within our reach, a call we could respond to. All we had to do was what she did-make every moment count. Make it beautiful for God. Do all for Jesus. That's what is so special about Mother Teresa. She showed us the glory that could be ours if we were fully alive. She gave us another chance to see Jesus. Another chance to become truly human.
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