Mother Teresa's elevation to sainthood was marred by controversy and it was far from easy

Pope Francis on Tuesday approved sainthood for Mother Teresa, the missionary nun who became a global, if controversial, symbol of compassion for her care of the sick and destitute. The pontiff set 4 September as the date for her canonisation, elevating the Nobel peace laureate to an official icon for the Catholic faith.

The move comes 19 years after the death of the Albanian nun who dedicated much of her adult life to working with the poor in the slums of Kolkata, India.

Officials said the canonisation ceremony would take place at the Vatican — an announcement which had been expected but nevertheless disappointed Indian Catholics who had hoped for a visit by Francis.

Teresa, who was 87 when she died in 1997, was revered by Catholics and and many others around the world.

Known as the "Angel of Mercy" or "Saint of the Gutters", she won the 1979 Nobel peace prize for her work with the poor.

But she was also a controversial and divisive figure with critics branding her a religious imperialist whose fervent opposition to birth control and abortion ran contrary to the interests of the communities she claimed to serve.

Mother Teresas elevation to sainthood was marred by controversy and it was far from easy

Mother Teresa. Reuters

The path to sainthood requires at least two miracles.

First miracle

The first miracle attributed to Mother Teresa was recorded in 1998, when an Indian woman Monica Besra was reportedly cured of an abdominal tumour after nuns prayed for her, and placed a Mother Teresa medallion on her stomach.

Her husband later said doctors at an Indian hospital cured his wife, but hospital records of Ms Mesra's treatment went missing, apparently taken by a sister of the Missionaries of Charity.

Mesra insisted she was healed by a miracle. Mother Teresa was beatified by then pope John Paul II in a fast-tracked process in 2003, in a ceremony attended by some 300,000 pilgrims. Beatification is a first step towards sainthood.

Anjeze, as she was known as a child, was drawn to religion and missionary work at the early age of 12. She joined the Sisters of Loreto at 18 and was known as Sister Teresa, after the patron saint of missionaries, Saint Therese de Lisieux.

Second Miracle

The second miracle involved a 35-year-old Brazilian man who had not long been married when he was diagnosed with eight brain tumours in 2008, according to Vatican expert Andrea Tornielli. On 9 December, the man was wheeled into the operating room in an induced coma, but doctors were forced to delay the medical procedure by half an hour because of technical problems.

While they waited, the man's wife led prayers to Mother Teresa in the hospital's chapel. When the surgeon returned to the operating room, he is said to have found the patient awake, sitting up and asking "what am I doing here?".

"I have never seen a case like it," the surgeon was quoted as saying, after a CAT scan showed that the Brazilian's tumours "had suddenly and inexplicably disappeared", Tornielli said in La Stampa daily.

Critics of Mother Teresa have said that she opposed contraception and abortion, setting back the progress of women. British author Christopher Hitchens wrote a critical biography titled The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa In Theory and Practice.

Hitchens wrote in, "What is so striking about the "beatification" of the woman who styled herself "Mother" Teresa is the abject surrender, on the part of the church, to the forces of showbiz, superstition, and populism."

He accused her of hob-nobbing with unsavoury characters such as Haiti's ex-president Jean-Claude Duvalier. Questions have also been raised over the Missionaries of Charity's finances, as well as conditions in the order's hospices where there has been resistance to introducing modern hygiene methods.

'Saint of the Gutters'


Despite posthumously published letters revealing that she suffered crises of faith throughout her life, Teresa has been fast-tracked to canonisation in unusually quick time, underlining her status as a modern-day icon of Catholicism.

Teresa took the first step to sainthood in 2003 when she was beatified by Pope John Paul II following the recognition of a claim she had posthumously inspired the 1998 healing of a critically-ill Bengali tribal woman.

Last year she was credited by Vatican experts with inspiring the 2008 recovery of a Brazilian man suffering from multiple brain tumours, thus meeting the Church's standard requirement for sainthood of having been involved in two certifiable miracles.

Gentle eye that 'sees'

Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu to Albanian parents in 1910 in Skopje, now the capital of Macedonia.

She started her life as a nun as a teenager with a missionary order in Ireland and arrived in India in 1929. She founded her own Missionaries of Charity order in 1950 and was granted Indian citizenship a year later.

Francis, who regards Teresa as the incarnation of the kind of Church he wants to lead, met the by-then internationally famous nun three years before her death, when he was still a bishop in Argentina.

He later joked that she had seemed so formidable he "would have been scared if she had been my mother superior".

Others were much harsher in their judgement, with the likes of Australian-born feminist writer Germaine Greer and British polemicist Christopher Hitchens accusing her of contributing to the misery of the poor with what they saw as her dogmatic views.

In her Nobel acceptance speech Teresa described terminations of pregnancies as "direct murder by the mother herself".

Critics also raised questions about the Missionaries of Charity's finances and the often insalubrious conditions in the order's hospices.

The late Italian film director and writer Pier Paolo Pasolini was among those who fell under her spell, in his case when he met her during a trip to India in the early 1960s.

"She has an almost virile jaw and a gentle eye that in its gaze 'sees', he wrote, describing Teresa as a a combination of "goodness without sentimentality, someone with no expectations who is both calm and calming, powerfully practical."

India granted her a state funeral after her death and her grave has since become a pilgrimage site.

With inputs from AFP

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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2016 20:18:15 IST

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