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A path to sainthood

Rita Joseph |

Mother Teresa was perhaps the only one whose works of mercy and compassion got people to acknowledge her as a saint during her lifetime. There was never a question about whether Mother Teresa would become a saint. Within two decades of her death, the fact has become a reality. On 4 September, a day before her 19th death anniversary, Pope Francis will confer sainthood on the Nobel Laureate at a ceremony in Rome.

The Albania-born nun, who made India her home ever since she arrived in Kolkata on 6 January, 1929, is the sixth Indian to be canonised a saint. (Canonisation is the Roman Catholic Church’s process of declaring a person as a saint).

The process of Mother’s sainthood was the shortest in modern history of the Roman Catholic Church.  Though it was the same as for any other individual. More than 100 people who knew her were interviewed and 80 volumes of data were collected and analysed. Miracles were validated and within two decades of her death she is all set to be officially declared a saint. Pope John Paul II, who described Mother Teresa as "God&’s gift to the poorest of the poor", waived the normally mandatory five-year waiting period to start a cause. The diocesan inquiry (the first key step in the process) began in 1999 just two years after the "angel of the slums" passed away at the age of 87.

Mother’s miracles

Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, a Missionaries of Charity priest and the postulator for the cause, said, "The five-year rule is to ensure that there is a genuine reputation for holiness among the people and that there is not just passing enthusiasm soon after a person dies. But in Mother’s case, there was no need to wait, as her holiness was a matter of worldwide belief." Many possible miracles were reported around the globe and the Church launched comprehensive and meticulous investigations, he said.

For sainthood, two miracles need to be validated for the beatification and canonisation process. In the first such miracle, Monica Besra, a mother of five hailing from a village in West Bengal’s South Dinajpur district, claimed to have been cured of an abdominal tumor after praying to her. The miracle took place in 1988 and following investigations by a Vatican committee, the Mother was Beatified as "Blessed Teresa of Calcutta" on 19 October, 2003, at Rome.

A second miracle was credited to her intercession by Pope Francis in December last year. The miracle took place in 2008 in Brazil. Marcilio Haddad Andrino, a mechanical engineer, who had eight brain abscesses and little hopes of survival, was miraculously healed. "We always prayed to Mother Teresa. I put the relic on Marcilio’s head, where he had the abscesses," his wife Fernanda is reported to have said. That healing paved the way for Mother&’s canonisation.

A panel of physicians convoked by the Congregation for Saints’ Causes agreed there was no medical explanation for the recovery of the Brazilian. In September 2015, they presented the report to Pope Francis for his final approval. On 17 December last year, the Holy Father officially recognised the miracle that was needed for Mother Teresa to be canonised.

He set the date for canonisation this year which coincides with the Holy Year of Mercy being celebrated by the Catholic Church.

Holy footsteps

Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu to an ethnic Albanian family in Skopje, Macedonia. In 1928, at the age of 18 she joined the Loreto Sisters of Dublin and was sent to Darjeeling a year later. From there she was sent to a school in Calcutta where she taught Geography and History. She went on to become the headmistress of the school.

But her calling lay elsewhere. "I heard the call to give up all and follow Christ into the slums to serve him among the poorest of the poor." She left the congregation in 1948 armed with a five-rupee note she got as compensation. With that she learnt nursing and went on to start the Missionaries of Charity in 1950. Today her congregation has 5,000 consecrated persons and 758 houses in 139 countries.

Mother Teresa, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, summed up her life and mission saying, "By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus."

Saints in India

The first Indian to attain sainthood was Gonsalo Garcia (1556-1597) a Franciscan friar from India, who died as a martyr in Japan. He was born in Vasai, Maharashtra, to a Portuguese father and a native Indian mother.

 Garcia worked with leprosy patients as his attempts to become a priest failed. He left for Japan and then moved to Manila where he joined the order of Franciscan Friars Minor. Four years later he returned to Japan and worked at the Franciscan monastery at Kyoto. In January 1597, he along with some missionaries were arrested on charges of sedition by Japanese rulers and later crucified in Nagasaki. Garcia, along with his fellow martyrs, was declared "Venerable" by Pope Urban VIII. However, his canonisation took place 250 years later on 8 June, 1862.

The second was the more recent and the first woman saint, St Alphonsa Muttathupadathu of Bharnanganam. She lived as an unknown simple nun within the four walls of the Franciscan Clarist convent. She was canonised on 12 October, 2008, by Pope Benedict XVI.

Born Annakutty, she was brought up by her father and grandmother after her mother expired weeks after her birth. Annakutty wanted to join a convent but her aunt wanted her to get married. In a bid to avoid getting married, Annakutty burnt her legs to disfigure herself. The aunt later relented and allowed her to join the convent. However, she continued to be plagued by illness and died 10 years later at the age of 36.

Taking into account the numerous miraculous cures that happened through the intercession of Sr Alphonsa, Mar Sebastian Vayalil, the bishop of Pala initiated the preliminary steps for her beatification and on 2 December, 1953, Cardinal Tisserant formally inaugurated the process.

Sr Alphonsa was beatified by Pope John Paul II along with Fr Kuriakose Chavara CMI at Kottayam, Kerala. Blessed Alphonsa was canonised by Pope Benedict XVI at Rome on 12 October, 2008. To mark the occasion, the Union government released a commemorative postal stamp in November, 2008.

Six years later, two more Keralites, Fr Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Sr Euphrasia Eluvanthingal were declared saints by Pope Francis. Born in 1805, Chavara was ordained a priest in 1829. Two years later, he co-founded the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, the first indigenous congregation in India. He is credited with launching an educational and social revolution in Kerala with his plan of "pallikuudam" or a school with every church, in the 19th century. Nearly half of the 15,000 private primary schools in the state currently are run by the Church.

In contrast, Sr Euprasia led a life confined within the convent. Born as Rose into a rich family, she chose to live a very secluded life. She died at the age of 75 in 1952 and years later, the tomb of the nun in Thrissur in Kerala turned into a pilgrim centre for the faithful. Several miracles were reported from the faithful through the intercession of Euphrasia.

Both saints belonged to the Syro-Malabar Church, a sui juris (self-governing) Eastern Catholic Church in Kerala. It traces its roots to St Thomas the Apostle, who reached Kerala coast in the year 52 AD in the company of spice merchants from the Middle East.

Last year, another priest of Indian origin Joseph Vaz was canonised. Though he was born and ordained a priest in Goa, he left for Sri Lanka as the island nation had no Catholic priest then. Vaz, who died in 1711, is considered the patron saint of both Goa and Sri Lanka.

Steps to canonisation

The process of canonisation starts five years after the individual’s death. This waiting period ensures that the person has an enduring reputation for sanctity among the faithful.

The traditional canonisation procedure requires at least two medical miracles, one before a deceased Catholic can be declared "Blessed" and another before he or she can be canonised as a "Saint". Members of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes review the physicians’ report on the healing.

Five years after an individual’s death or earlier, if all or some of the period is waived, the Bishop of the diocese in which the individual died can petition the Holy See to allow the initialisation of a Cause for Beatification and Canonisation. If there is no objection by the Roman Dicasteries, in particular the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the permission, or "Nihil Obstat", as it is called in Latin, meaning nothing hinders, is communicated to the initiating Bishop.

Once the process of canonisation is opened and the candidate is deemed worthy, he/she is considered a "Servant of God". After it is proved that the candidate lived heroic virtues, he/she is considered "Venerable".

The third step is called "Beatification". To be beatified and recognised as a "Blessed", one miracle acquired through the candidate’s intercession is required.

The final step canonisation requires a second miracle after Beatification, though a Pope may waive these requirements. (A miracle is not required prior to a martyr’s Beatification, but one is required before his/her canonisation.) Once this second miracle has been received through the candidate’s intercession and proved, the Pope declares the person a "Saint".