What Mother Teresa (And Her Critics) Can Teach Us About Saints

What Mother Teresa (And Her Critics) Can Teach Us About Saints September 6, 2016
Photo Credit: Funky Tee.
Photo Credit: Funky Tee.

I’m not going to lie, I’ve been intentionally avoiding all the negative press swirling around Mother Teresa’s canonization this past Sunday.

I’ve read the headlines as they’ve popped up in my newsfeed. I’m aware of the allegations and criticisms of her work, her character, and her saintliness. I even had the pleasure of reading a hilarious exchange between two of my good friends and a marginally well-known religious commentator on Twitter.

He hates Mother Teresa.

But I’ve avoided the bad press on purpose, and for good reason.

Because those who deride the elevation of Mother Teresa to sainthood fundamentally misunderstand the process: saints aren’t perfect, they’re redeemed.

Growing up in the 90’s Mother Teresa was one of those rare pillars of charity. Someone who stood—and served—in stark contrast to the rest of the world. Even as a kid, and then a teenager, Mother Teresa’s face, her frail little frame and white-and-blue habit, were immediately identifiable on any supper hour newscast.

Even as a kid, growing up in a secular household, the distinct mission of the future saint was unmistakable: Mother Teresa served the poor, relentlessly.

We knew who she was—everyone knew who she was—and her witness of Christian mercy and love was undeniable.

In Christian circles, Mother Teresa is famous for both her incredible works of mercy but also for the incredibly painful dry spell she went through for most of her life. Remarkably, after experiencing a time of intense spirituality, visions, and a deep sense of calling Mother Teresa found herself essentially abandoned by God in the midst of her most difficult trials; while working with the poor and destitute.

Incredibly, it was in the midst of this challenging work that God remained silent.

Yet she continued to serve; continued to live in poverty herself to meet the needs of the impoverished around her.

In the time since her death, the ranks of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity have swelled worldwide. These are women serving in dangerous and difficult places. In Haiti, Argentina, and Yemen where four members of her order were recently killed by Islamic terrorists.

But now, as the Vatican elevates her to sainthood, there are those bent on rewriting her legacy. Their charges are as varying as they are absurd.

That Mother Teresa forced those she served to convert to Catholicism before delivering them aid and comfort.

That Mother Teresa insisted that those living in poverty, those in the slums that she ministered to, remain in their destitute state.

That Mother Teresa was ultimately backed by high-rolling millionaires who somehow profited from her mission of mercy.

That she was corrupt, crooked, and her mercy was a false front for something more sinister.

And, well, maybe it’s all true. But that’s not the point.

That Mother Teresa was perfect is not, and never was, up for discussion as Pope Francis moved her cause towards canonization.

That is not the impossible standard to which saints must rise.

Remarkably, the Vatican does interview and consider the accounts of those critical of its future saints. In the case of Mother Teresa, her most vocal and vitriolic critics like Christopher Hitchens took an active part in the rigorous screening process which lead the future saint toward canonization. In these processes, not only is her character and her life’s work closely and painfully examined but miracles must also be brought forth to fundamentally prove her saintliness.

As Bishop Robert Barron explained in an interview on NPR this past week,

The saint is also someone who’s now in heaven, living in this fullness of life with God. And the miracle, to put it bluntly, is the proof of it.

And that is really the crux of the thing.

See, St. Teresa wasn’t a perfect human being but she didn’t need to be.

The Catholic Church elevates Christians who it recognizes as having exemplified the mission of Christ, who we’re called to emulate, who we have the distinct privilege of asking for help in prayer, and who are unmistakably living, right now, in the holy presence of God.

In the case of Mother Teresa, out of the scores of miracles brought forth for consideration it was two spontaneous and scientifically inexplicable healings which were ultimately decided upon to forward her cause.

According to the Church these miracles, screened by teams of doctors (including non-Catholic practitioners), ultimately indicate that Mother Teresa is in Heaven and can pray for us. That she is actively praying for our needs in the presence of God. This is what Catholics call the Communion of Saints, and it’s an ancient understanding of the Church.

These miracles, as Bishop Barron put it bluntly, are “the proof” that Mother Teresa is now with God.

Was she without flaw? Certainly not. Are there aspects of her life or mission which might be problematic? Even though the Vatican puts its candidates through a rigorous screening process, it’s always possible. But, more importantly, the miracles which have resulted from her prayers, so says the Catholic Church, indisputably place her within the presence of Christ.

In Heaven.

Flawed or not.

And that’s the whole point of the thing; what her critics miss.

Yes, we should emulate her good works but maybe she was deeply flawed and maybe, remarkably, she was secretly funded by a cabal of questionable characters and maybe, despite doing its homework, the Church got something wrong what is important—and important for all of us—is that Mother Teresa, according to the Church, is unequivocally in Heaven.

She’s been redeemed by Christ through the mystery of salvation and despite whatever good or bad work she ultimately carried out while alive she didn’t need to be perfect after all.

And the takeaway from all of this?

I think we need to understand that saints like Mother Teresa are holy people we can and ought to emulate but they aren’t necessarily perfect. What they are, above all else, are examples of Christians who leaned heavily on the cross, on Christ, and who reign with Him forever.

Christians who recognized, fundamentally, that they couldn’t do it on their own.

And this is what Mother Teresa’s critics fail to understand: That she, like all of us badly broken vessels, needed to be redeemed.

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