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By Navin Chawla
WITHIN HOURS of Mother Teresa's funeral ceremony, a week after she passed away on September 5, 1997, television and radio channels across the world asked me the "next" question as it were: when would Mother Teresa be canonised? Given her life spent in selfless devotion to the destitute, to those abandoned and to those shunned by family or society; given her tireless efforts to expand her mission and given the wide recognition of her good deeds, it seemed almost the natural question to ask. Although in my own eyes, and in the eyes of millions everywhere irrespective of nationality or religion, she had been anointed a saint in her lifetime, I nevertheless answered that the Catholic Church would address this question sooner than later. Privy as I was personally to the admiration and regard, almost reverence, that Pope John Paul II had for this Albanian-born nationalised-Indian nun, I was confident that this would become the fastest-ever case of sainthood in recent centuries.
Indeed, within days of her funeral, thousands of letters poured in to the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata, to the Vatican and churches in many parts of the world requesting the conferment of immediate sainthood on Mother Teresa. On October 17, 1997, Sister Nirmala personally met the Pope at the Vatican and apprised him of the growing demand. Barely a week later, the Archbishop of Kolkata, in whose diocese it was that Mother Teresa's mission was headquartered, wrote formally to the Vatican for a first-ever dispensation from the rule of waiting for the mandatory five years after death for the process of enquiry and investigation to begin. This system had been established over the last few centuries to enable the dust to settle as it were, and to allow any negative aspects to emerge. The overwhelming demand caused Pope John Paul II, for the first time in his Papacy and the first time in several hundred years, to grant this special dispensation.
En route to Mother Teresa's funeral in Kolkata, Cardinal Sodano, the Vatican's Secretary of State, observed that in the cases of the Church's two most beloved saints who lived in the Middle Ages St. Francis of Assisi and St. Anthony of Padua it had taken a mere two and one year to be canonised. Earlier Cardinal Ratzinger, one of the most powerful cardinals in the Vatican, spoke of Mother Teresa's life as "so lucid and transparent" that he believed the Pope would want the process to be speeded up. Both remarks were significant in the context of the textured history of the Church, when from the 12th century onwards, more scientific methods of investigation had made the process leading to sainthood more rigorous. It was not unusual then for sainthood to be conferred even after a century or more. For instance Joan of Arc was declared a saint 489 years after her death.
Pope John Paul II in his 25-year papacy has conferred sainthood on more persons than any previous pope. As many as 464 men and women have been canonised and an even larger number beatified, which is the halfway mark to full sainthood. It is however remarkable that almost the shortest case was that of the nun who was Mother Teresa's inspiration, the humble French girl Therese of Lisieux, canonised 28 years after her death in 1897.
"Mother Teresa marked the history of our century", Pope John Paul II had once famously remarked. "She courageously defended life, she served all human beings by providing them dignity and respect, and made those who had been defeated by life feel the tenderness of God". With the Pope perhaps wishing to canonise her before he himself, now old and ill, passes away, this would involve her beatification as a first step, and after a second `miracle' is researched and accepted, it is only then that she would be declared a saint. In other words, after the beatification ceremony at the Vatican on October 19, 2003, one more `miracle' must be researched by the Missionaries of Charity and accepted by the Church before `blessed' Mother Teresa can actually be called `Saint Teresa of Calcutta'.
The route to beatification necessitated an enormous amount of hard work by a team set up by Sister Nirmala, Mother Teresa's successor and the present Superior-General of the Order. It entailed two and half years of intense preparation, collection of evidence both oral and written and documents; it was in effect the preparation of their case for acceptance by the Archbishop of Calcutta, himself the representative of Rome, before he would be convinced to forward it to the Vatican.
The enquiry then was conducted in two parts; in Kolkata and in the Vatican. Sister Nirmala appointed Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, a Canadian Missionary of Charity priest, as the Diocesan Postulator, or the advocate to the enquiry. The initial documents prepared by him included a biography of Mother Teresa, a report on her virtues, evidence of her reputation of sanctity, reports of favours granted through her intercession, as well as possible obstacles to the Cause. It included her writings and the scanning of thousands of letters and replies that she herself had written to people all over the world. On July 26, 1999, the Archbishop of Kolkata formally opened the Cause by calling upon those with any substantial information, positive or negative, to give evidence if they so wished. Over a hundred witnesses were examined in India and overseas. These included her only living blood relative (a niece), people who had worked with her, as well as her critics including Christopher Hitchens, the author of the polemic against Mother Teresa entitled "The Missionary Position". People from all faiths gave evidence; I, too, agreed to be a witness and gave evidence; that I did not share Mother Teresa's faith but was associated with her work for 23 long years and saw several facets of it from an administrator's point of view, was perhaps more significant than I had imagined.
The Church's insistence on the need for a miracle caused the enquiry team to sift through hundreds of "miracle letters". Most were rejected but some were termed as "favours" and "graces", as apart from "miracles". The case that was eventually selected was from the village of Dakshin Dinajpur in West Bengal. It involved a 30-year old woman, Monika Besra, who was suffering from an abdominal tumour that was inexplicably healed after prayers were made, by those attending on her, to Mother Teresa. The `miracle' incorporated all four points that were considered necessary by the Church; that the cure was instantaneous, that it was complete, that it was permanent, and that it is scientifically inexplicable.
The case was not without its share of controversy. The doctors at the Government Hospital claimed that Ms. Besra had responded favourably to their treatment. However, both Ms. Besra and her husband were consistent in their belief that it was the miraculous intervention of Mother Teresa that had caused Monika's tumour to recede instantaneously. The entire enquiry process took two and a half years. By the time it concluded on August 15, 2001 Father Brian and his team had produced almost 35,000 pages of documents, which were then sent to Rome.
In its turn, the Vatican examined the case history of Mother Teresa at various levels, theological and medical amongst others. For instance a committee of five medical experts examined the Besra case for its diagnosis, prognosis, therapy and manner of healing. They concluded that Ms. Besra's cure defied equally treatment and the laws of nature. Once this was established, the case finally went up to the Pope himself to whom belongs the right of final approval.
On December 20, 2002 the Vatican announced that the Pope had set October 19, 2003 as the date for the beatification. For the Church, it will be a celebration of an exemplary life. The fact that the date coincides with the 25th anniversary of his own election indicates that Pope John Paul II sees in Mother Teresa a living example of his own vision. This diminutive nun will become, even more than ever, a beacon in a world disheartened by difficulties and scandals and dazzled by consumerism. For in her humble and simple way, she never passed a single day without the Mass that sustained her, and entrusted her every action to her God.
(Navin Chawla, IAS, is Mother Teresa's biographer and is Secretary, Department of Consumer Affairs, Government of India.)
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