Among the 120,000 people who filled St. Peter’s Square on Sunday morning to witness Pope Francis’s canonization of Mother Teresa, perhaps none felt closer to the ethnic Albanian nun than Sister Immacula and none was having more fun than Ellen Ricci.
Sister Immacula, 50, is from India, works in Haiti and was baptized Teresa Joseph. She was one of the hundreds of nuns in blue and white saris – the distinctive habits of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity – given front row seats to the canonization. As she waited for the Pope to declare Mother Tesesa as Saint Teresa of Calcutta, she clutched a large silver cross, kissing it frequently.
“I worked with Mother when she was in India and was there when she died,” Sister Immacula said. “She had blessed this cross and it was placed on her body.”
The cross was all the more precious to her because a relic of the new saint – a strand of her hair – was fastened to the base of the cross with clear tape. “Mother Teresa was good to us,” she said. “When she went abroad, she would bring us chocolate and we would line up to get small pieces from her. She was like a real mum.”
On the other side of the square, Ellen Ricci, 72, a retired nurse from New Jersey, was busy making enormous bubbles with two plastic wands, which were attached by a long piece of string and dipped in soapy water. The children around her were delighted. “Inside the bubbles are prayers that float to heaven,” she said. “One of the prayers says thank you for Mother Teresa.”
The experiences of Sister Immacula and Ms. Ricci, who volunteers at a Missionaries of Charity soup kitchen, reflected the joy, devotion and love for Mother Teresa among millions of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world. None of her numerous critics, some of whom considered her legendary altruism a myth, would have been at the canonization.
For the Pope, she was the “tireless worker for mercy” and the highlight of the Vatican’s Year of Mercy. In the canonization ceremony, the Pope admitted he would have trouble calling her “Saint Teresa” since she was universally known simply as “Mother” or “Mother Teresa” and renowned for her maternal tenderness. “I think we’ll carry on calling her Mother Teresa,” he said, speaking from under a canopy in front of St. Peter’s Basilica on a blazingly hot and cloudless Roman day.
The Pope praised the diminutive nun, who died in 1997 and was fast-tracked into sainthood by Pope John Paul II, for her care of the poorest of the poor among her hospices in some 120 countries. He couldn’t resist using his homily to take a political swipe at world leaders.
“She bowed down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity,” he said. “She made her voice heard before the powers of the world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crimes of poverty they themselves created.”
In spite of Mother Teresa’s huge popularity, her critics endure. They say she did little to alleviate the pain of the terminally ill and nothing to tackle the root causes of poverty. Some 20 years ago, atheist writer Christopher Hitchens made a documentary about her called Hell’s Angel and his book The Missionary Position accused her of being more interested in promoting fundamentalist Catholic beliefs than in helping the poor.
Mother Teresa was lavish with her prayers, but penny-pinching with the wealth amassed by her foundation, according to Serge Larivée and Geneviève Chénard from the University of Montreal’s department of psychoeducation, and Carole Sénéchal of the University of Ottawa’s faculty of education in a 2013 study in the journal Studies in Religion/Sciences religieuses.
The Canadian researchers said the Vatican chose to ignore Mother Teresa’s “rather dubious way of caring for the sick, her questionable political contacts, her suspicious management of the enormous amounts of money she received, and her overly dogmatic views regarding … abortion, contraception and divorce.”
The decades of criticism did not seem to dent Mother Teresa’s popularity. She ranks as one of the best-known and celebrated Catholic figures of the 20th century, according to Crux, the U.S. website that covers the Catholic Church.
Sister Monica Tywang, 77, a Trinidadian Daughters of Wisdom nun who lives in London, said Mother Teresa was not popular just because of her devotion to the poor around the world, but because she was something of a rebel.
While she was still fairly young, Mother Teresa moved on from teaching with the Loreto Sisters congregation and struck out on her own to work in the slums of Calcutta, launching her Missionaries of Charity. “She was not a conformist,” said Sister Tywang. “She had freedom of the spirit. She left the Loretos because she believed in her calling.”
– With a report from ReutersReport Typo/Error