What’s so special about Mother Teresa? Why did everybody from the president of the United States to your neighbor next door call her a “living saint”? Why, now that she is dead, is the Church ready to affirm with finality that she is dwelling in heaven, near to the face of God, a saint from whom we can ask prayers and after whom we can pattern our lives?

If we go with the official definition of a saint from the Catholic catechism, we would say she is worthy of sainthood because she “practiced heroic virtue” — that she lived by faith, hope and love and was prudent, just, temperate and brave. St. John Paul II said as much on Oct. 19, 2003, when he beatified Mother Teresa during a solemn ceremony before a throng of 300,000 devotees in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.

In advancing her status from “blessed” to “saint” on Sept. 4, Pope Francis will describe her as a living witness to God’s mercy. Francis had met Mother Teresa in Rome in 1994, when he was still a cardinal from Buenos Aires. At the time, he joked about how tough she was, saying he would have been afraid of her if she had been his religious superior.

Mother Teresa, in fact, met all four of the popes who have led the Catholic Church since the mid-1960s — and she left her mark on each of them. Not only for her toughness, but for her humble love for Jesus and her selfless service to the poorest of the poor. But force of personality alone does not explain why the Church has inscribed her name in the official canon, or register of saints.

After Pope Francis canonizes St. Teresa of Kolkata on Sunday, you will be able to name churches after her, pray for her help, read her writings as bearing a certain divine stamp of approval and make her your role model. The Church will celebrate her feast day every year on Sept. 5, the anniversary of the day she died in 1997.

A simple saint

Mother Teresa was simply a cradle Catholic raised in a pious, generous home, who went off at age 18 to be a nun in the missions in Kolkata, India, which in her lifetime was known as Calcutta. Some years later, she was riding on a train, and she heard a voice that she took to be that of Jesus telling her to leave her religious order to serve the poor. So that’s what she did.

But the work that made her famous, while admirable, wasn’t all that exceptional, especially for a nun. You can find plenty of people doing what she did — taking care of the sick and the dying, finding homes for abandoned children, defending the poor, the unwanted and the unborn.

There is no denying she was a devout, deeply prayerful woman who knew her Bible. But a great spiritual master, a poet laureate of the soul — these things she was apparently not. She was a saint of the commonplace — a sound-bite saint — uttering gnomic things such as, “Do something beautiful for God” and “Many people are talking about the poor, but very few people talk to the poor.”

“Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent,” the great essayist George Orwell wrote of Mahatma Gandhi. And there have always been plenty of people ready to bring up Mother Teresa on charges of being a great fakir in whom can be found much guile, a kind of Trojan horse for reactionary popery and medieval morals, a peddler of religious Prozac for the poor.

A lot of people didn’t like what Mother Teresa stood for either. She drew fire from a loose coalition of atheists and agnostics, abortion advocates and others who wanted the Catholic Church of the late-20th century to start endorsing a lot of things it had never endorsed before — such as women priests, birth control, violent revolution and divorce.

What really seemed to rankle her detractors was the success of the religious order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity — more than 4,000 nuns serving the poor in 123 countries by the time of her death in 1997, along with another 400 or so religious “brothers” and thousands of lay volunteers.

What her opponents couldn’t explain, some tried to chalk up to corruption and ill-gotten gain. But even these folks couldn’t turn any real dirt on her.

One of Orwell’s brightest disciples, British journalist Christopher Hitchens, tried the hardest. But his 1995 exposé, “The Missionary Position,” when shorn of its antireligious cant, actually exposed very little: her hospices for the destitute dying needed modernizing; she kept the names of those who gave her money confidential, along with the amounts of their donations; and she sometimes supped with sinners and accepted contributions from them.

Reality with Mother Teresa was far less sinister: she worked hard, prayed a lot, lived simply and died as she lived — her personal effects consisting of a prayer book, a pair of sandals, and a couple of saris, the trademark blue and white linen habit of her order.

‘One at a time’

Mother Teresa restored the ancient Catholic ideal of almsgiving. Care for the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the helpless and the sick defined the identity and character of the early Church. Charity performed as personal service to God was what set Christians apart from the rest of the world.

The motives of the first Catholics were heavenly and divine as much as earthly and humanitarian. They wanted to anticipate on earth the kingdom that Jesus had told them would come. The hinge between these two worlds was the Body of Christ — in the poor and in the Eucharist.

Early devotional manuals instructed that the poor should be “revered as the altar” because, like the altar, they presented us with the body and blood of Christ. From the ordinary believer to the well-to-do, all were expected to set aside a generous portion of what they earned and owned to share with the poor.

But for many Catholics in Mother Teresa’s day, almsgiving and charity had lost their savor. This would become a source of serious criticism and misunderstanding of Mother Teresa and her message.

The 1960s and 1970s were marked by what has been called “the irruption of the poor” into the conscience of the West. With the advent of rapid travel and mass communication, we could see for the first time the vast, worldwide scale of human want and misery.

The Scripture that Mother Teresa quoted the most — “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you do unto me” — became the basis for a thousand Church antipoverty action plans and initiatives. In the developing world, it became a battle cry for missionary priests, nuns and theologians of liberation as they took sides and sometimes took up arms in the class war, seeking to liberate the ancient lowly, the wretched of the earth.

Mother Teresa was never radical enough, never angry enough for many in this crowd. For many, she stood for long-suffering charity and the church-of-the-status-quo, for “the poor you will always have with you.” They stood for prophetic justice, for throwing the rich out to wail and gnash their teeth, for the kingdom to come marching in on earth as it is in heaven — by the barrel of a gun, if necessary.

Invited to a United Nations conference in Vancouver in 1976 to discuss urban poverty and housing issues, Mother Teresa had to listen to the harangue of one panelist who accused her of letting the bourgeoisie “dump their guilt” by donating money instead of fighting injustice and changing the social system.

When her Missionaries of Charity started working in the slums of Lima, Peru, one of the world’s poorest cities, a group of local priests published an open letter of protest. Instead of caring for the victims of a rotten global economic system, they cried, she should stand with them in working to overthrow it.

Until her last days, she endured the same criticisms — that she was putting a bandage on the cancer, that she was naive about the evils of neoimperialism and neocolonialism, that she was indifferent to the root causes of the exploitation and domination of the poor.

Her harshest critics, it often seemed, were people pulling down a decent wage as professional Catholic poverty-fighters. “Mother Teresa takes care of the poorest of the poor but never deals with why they are poor,” a charities official for the British Catholic bishops complained to a newspaper the year before she died. In the same article, another British Church aid worker said, “We are fighting for justice. ... Mother Teresa limits herself to keeping people alive. She deals only with the disease [of poverty] and not with preventing it. But people in the West continue to give her money.”

Her critics were right, of course — on their terms. She had nothing of substance to show for more than a half-century of work with the poor. The poor were poor and badly treated in Kolkata before she arrived. They are poor and badly treated still today. You could say the same for each of the countries where her nuns have set up shop.

Still, her critics’ picture of her was a frustrating caricature. She did criticize the arms race in the developing world as a theft from the poor; she decried the avarice and greed by which some nations live high on the hog while others barely survive. She denounced new forms of imperialism and exploitation that she saw in the policies of rich nations forcing birth control, abortion and sterilization on the poor. She made pointed appeals to world leaders on behalf of refugees and victims of war, and she was vocal against the death penalty, euthanasia and abortion.

But she had no illusions that revolution or a change of political parties would improve the lot of the poor. She never faulted those working to change political institutions and economic structures non-violently.

She, however, heard a different calling. Mother Teresa worked from below, waged her war on poverty person to person, soul to soul. “I know there are thousands and thousands of poor, but I think of only one at a time,” she explained. “Jesus was only one, and I take Jesus at his word. He has said, ‘You did it to me.’ . . . You can save only one at a time. We can only love one at a time.”

“When all recognize that our suffering neighbor is God himself, and when you draw the consequences from that fact, on that day, there will be no more poverty,” Mother Teresa said. And again: “If everyone could see the image of God in his neighbor, do you think we should still need tanks and generals?”

A dark silence

For more than 50 years following her initial visions and locutions, Mother Teresa was wrapped in a dark, pitiless silence. She only once more heard the voice of God, and she believed the doors of heaven had been closed and bolted against her. The more she longed for some sign of his presence, the more empty and desolate she became.

We always saw her smiling. She had a playful smile, mischievous, as if privy to some secret joke. Especially when she was around children, she beamed with delight. In private, she had a quick, self-deprecating sense of humor and sometimes doubled over from laughing so hard. So many people who spent time with her came away saying that she was the most joyful person they had ever met.

Now we know that in secret her life was a living hell. As she confided to her spiritual director in 1957:

“In the darkness . . . Lord, my God, who am I that you should forsake me? The child of your love—and now become as the most hated one. The one — you have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer . . . Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. Love — the word — it brings nothing. I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”

Mother Teresa lived in a spiritual desert, panicked that God had rejected her, or worse, that he was there in the dark hiding from her. As if by some strange formula, the greater her success and public adulation, the more abandoned, humiliated and desperate she felt.

There was a brief period, one month in 1958, when she was able to pierce the darkness. Her light came during a requiem Mass celebrated the day after the death of Pope Pius XII, the pope who had granted her permission to leave Loreto and go among the poor.

“There and then disappeared that long darkness, that pain of loss, of loneliness, of that strange suffering of 10 years,” she wrote. “Today my soul is filled with love, with joy untold, with an unbroken union of love.” Four weeks later, the darkness had descended: “He is gone again, leaving me alone.” She lived in this darkness until the end of her life.

After her death, it was disclosed that in her early missionary days, long before hearing her call to the poor, Mother Teresa had quietly made a private vow of spiritual espousal — to be all for Jesus and to refuse him nothing.

From her letters, we can see that she understood her darkness as an ordeal, a divine trial. In the dark night, her vow of self-offering was being put to the test. Would she really refuse him nothing, drink the cup her Lord drank, lay down her life as he had laid down his life, offer herself as he did, completely and without reserve?

In her dark night, Jesus was claiming Mother Teresa for his own, pledging himself to his spiritual bride, pruning away her self-love and pride, purifying her in heart, mind and intention, stripping away all that would keep her from total union with him.

A mother in the night

Jesus came for her on Sept. 5, 1997. She had been an apostle of joy and light in the dark final hours of the second Christian millennium.

She was our mother, coming to us in the dark night of our times to give us comfort and prove to us that we had not been orphaned by God. She taught us to call on our Father in all our desolations and diminishments, to cry out as she did — as children of his love, born of his desire, never out of his care, destined to love and be loved.

These were the lessons she was teaching every day in Nirmal Hriday. For the despised and unwanted, for those who had defiled themselves in sin and bad living, she wanted to prove the love of God, “to make the mercy of God very real and to induce the dying person to turn to God with filial confidence.”

Helping others to die, she was teaching us how to live — with the confidence of children finding their way back to the loving arms of their Father.

She was an apostle sent to us in our time of dying, to a culture in which death had become the last refuge of the living. Hers was a ministry of final moments and last chances. She believed in deathbed conversions, that we were never too old to learn the lessons of spiritual childhood, that on this side of death it was never too late for any of us — or for the world.

“I am convinced,” she said, “that even one moment is enough to ransom an entire miserable existence, an existence perhaps believed to be useless.”

She once said, “All of us are but his instruments, who do our little bit and pass by.” The little bit she did, she did with grace. But what she accomplished in her life was only partial. The accomplishments of the saints always are. They await their fulfillment in the lives of those who follow, in your life and in mine.

She turned our heads as she passed by, made us want to come and see what she saw, to follow where she was going.

Adapted from David Scott’s updated book, “The Love that Made Mother Teresa,” available through amazon.com.

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Highlights

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