Mother Teresa’s canonization began in India, and is only being given the finishing touches in the Vatican
A saint, Ambrose Bierce explains in The Devil’s Dictionary, is a dead sinner revised and edited. As the late Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhio — better known as Mother Teresa — moves along the fast track to official sainthood, it might be an idea to take a look at the notions and practices of reverence (Christian as well as pagan) which make up this process of canonization. With a global icon like Mother Teresa, whose life and works span continents, cultures and religions, it would be blinkered and boring to think of transfiguration as a purely religious process. Habits of reverence, both in the Vatican and in modern India, confound the sacred and the profane. What could be better than the life and afterlives of this celebrity nun to explore the vagaries of human worship'
Mother Teresa’s sanctification is only being given the finishing touches by the Vatican. The process was begun and was taken a long way in India, where it was the result of a wholly indigenous and secular process. This process is a unique mix of residual colonialism, collective sentimentality and bad conscience, which only a poor, unequal and imperfectly decolonized society like India could foster and formalize. This is not simply a question of popular sentiments, but also a creation of state ceremony. India bestowed its first accolade, the Bharat Ratna, on her in 1980 — promptly after she got the Nobel peace prize the previous year. There is nothing like the Nobel to inspire Indian worship. (The Booker, Magsaysay, Oscar, Golden Lion and Bear and the Legion d’Honneur can work the same magic — the “acclaim” has to be “international”.) By the time she died in September 1997, the nation deemed her fit for a state funeral — normally reserved for presidents, serving prime ministers and M.K. Gandhi. That month, Mother Teresa and the People’s Princess — two great icons of the human heart — were both canonized. And religion had very little to do with these phenomena.
The Vatican now believes in the first of the two miracles which have to be approved by the pope for Mother Teresa to attain full sainthood. Faith, as Pascal knew, is a leap in the dark. And there seems to be some darkness surrounding this particular act of faith. The woman who had a vision of the nun in a Missionaries of Charity hospital, and was then taken to be miraculously cured by the saint-makers, had been diagnosed with a lump in her uterus and was treated successfully by a number of doctors in several hospitals in north Bengal. Passing off such a cure as a miracle not only belittles “ordinary” human achievements, but also risks fostering a superstitiousness which India, and the world, could well do without.
Significantly, the two mandatory saint-making miracles have to take place after the candidate’s death — to prove that the person is in heaven and can intercede for the living. Mother Teresa’s life only guarantees her holiness and the blessings of the church. Therefore, if she does eventually become a saint, it would not be for what she did when she was alive.