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Mother Teresa, pictured c. 1986, will become Saint Teresa of Calcutta on Sunday. (Mary Ellen Mark)
Mother Teresa, pictured c. 1986, will become Saint Teresa of Calcutta on Sunday. (Mary Ellen Mark)

Mother Teresa's ‘reverence for life’ remembered ahead of canonization Add to ...

Harry McAvoy, a Toronto Humber College business student determined to build a career in marketing, was 22 when he visited India in 1981. He came back utterly transformed and devoted his life to charity instead.

He credits Mother Teresa, who on Sunday is to become Saint Teresa of Calcutta at a Vatican canonization ceremony, for the dramatic and sudden change in his life plans. He and a couple of friends banged on the door of the Missionaries of Charity – Teresa’s “Motherhouse” – in Calcutta’s grubby backstreets. The diminutive, ethnic-Albanian nun was in Rome at the time and the sisters invited the Canadians to visit the missionaries’ Home for the Dying and Destitute and the orphanage.

They were overwhelmed. “People lay dying on mats,” said Mr. McAvoy, who is now 57 and a fundraising manager at ShareLife, the outreach program of the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto. “The sisters were cleaning them and feeding them, lifting their heads up. There was a happiness about the sisters, a deep happiness. I was so moved about what I saw.”

About a week later, he returned with some money for the missionaries and Teresa was there. “I knocked on the door and someone who had won the Nobel Prize said ‘Come in’ – there were no airs,” he said. “There was something about her. I had a sense that she had a profound relationship with Jesus and that she had an incredible reverence for life. She was a saint.”

Teresa touched millions, especially Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005, eight years after Teresa’s death at age 87, and fast-tracked her beatification, the last step before canonization – full sainthood. She was adored by the poor and sickly in India, where she was known as the “Saint of the Gutters” and was given a state funeral, and by millions of others around the world, from AIDs victims to the mentally ill.

Not everyone respected her. The late author Christopher Hitchens turned Teresa-bashing into a minor industry, accusing her in his book The Missionary Position of being more interested in promoting fundamentalist Catholic beliefs than helping the poor and of taking donations from dictators and unscrupulous businessmen. Even a few of her admirers and advocates found her brash in spite of her famously warm smile. One donor, who did not want to be identified, said she did not thank him when he handed her a wad of cash.

But there is little doubt that she is the ideal saint for the era of Pope Francis, the Argentine Jesuit who called for a “poor church for the poor” when he became pontiff in 2013. “These two would be incredibly kindred spirits,” said Jeanette Petrie, the Canadian film director at Petrie Productions who, with her sister Ann, made a well-known documentary about Teresa in 1986. “Teresa was a bridge between the rich and powerful and the poor.”

Father Thomas Rosica, chief executive of Toronto’s Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and English-language press spokesman for the Holy See media office, agrees. “Mother Teresa is a saint of the periphery, just as Pope Francis is from the periphery,” said Father Rosica, who met Teresa several times. “She’s a saint who fits in beautifully with the ministry and vision of Francis and is ideal for [Francis’s] year of mercy.”

But the comparisons to Pope Francis can only go so far. Teresa was a hardline proponent of traditional Catholic teaching. She was vehemently against premarital sex and considered all abortion abhorrent. “If we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another,” she said in Washington in 1994.

In an interview, Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins said Teresa was “radiantly beautiful in her reverence for life. She was very much pro-life. She saw people as ‘who’ and not ‘what’ – people are not disposable.”

While against abortion and gay marriage, Pope Francis has sought merciful ways to oppose them and has urged the church not to be “obsessed” with these issues. He is also a social reformer whereas Teresa avoided piling pressure on governments to move the poor above the poverty line.

She insisted that her life, and that of the thousands of sisters of her Missionaries of Charity order, was apolitical and existed to care for the poor, not change the world. In a recent article, John Allen, editor of the Crux, a U.S. site that covers the Catholic Church, called Teresa a “how-to manual for mercy … a sort of human user’s guide to what mercy looks like in practice.”

Teresa was born in 1910 in what is now Macedonia and baptized as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu,. At age 18, she joined the Sisters of Loreto in Ireland, where she received the name Sister Mary Teresa, and was assigned to the Loreto community in Calcutta in the early 1930s. Inspired by her deep devotion to Jesus Christ and moved by the poverty she saw in the Indian slums, she founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950. The order has gone global, with hospices and orphanages in 139 countries, including Canada, which she visited at least four times. Her Nobel Peace Prize came in 1979.

By all accounts, Teresa mixed toughness and efficiency with love and mercy. At a Vatican press conference on Friday, Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, a Canadian member of the Missionaries of Charity who became Teresa’s postulator – the official advocate of a candidate’s journey to sainthood – said that the future Pope Francis met Teresa at a synod in Rome “and made the comment that he would not have wanted her as his superior,” an apparent reference to her tough style.

Teresa and her sisters were renowned not just for helping the poor, but living like them, eschewing all luxuries, right down to fans and washing machines. Mother Teresa, the 1986 documentary, shows the sisters taking over a well-equipped hospice building in San Francisco, only to throw the carpets out the window. “She always said that to know the poor, you have to live like the poor,” Ms. Petrie said.

Teresa’s can-do attitude and simple lifestyle masked a dark psychological interior, making her a complex figure. After her death, a published collection of her personal letters revealed that she had felt that Jesus had became silent to her. She relied on raw faith in Jesus to overcome her sense of “emptiness and darkness.”

Pope Francis will preside over the canonization, which will be covered by more than 600 journalists. Teresa’s beatification, in 2003, attracted a crowd of 300,000. Sunday’s event is expected to attract as many, or more, among them India’s foreign minister.

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Vatican announces Mother Teresa will be made a saint (The Globe and Mail)

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