Mother Teresa canonized; pope creates office for laity

By Christopher Lamb
Sunday, September 4, 2016

VATICAN CITY — With her selfless dedication to the dying in some of India’s biggest slums, the life of Mother Teresa of Kolkata is exactly the sort of “faith in action” example Pope Francis wants to hold up to the Church. And on Sunday, September 4, in St. Peter’s Square, he canonized the founder of the Missionaries of Charity whose work for the suffering in one of India’s biggest cities was recognized throughout the world.

Mother Teresa was canonized almost exactly 19 years after she died — an event that occurred just six days before the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The princess was, incidentally, a keen supporter of Mother Teresa’s work, as were many other prominent figures across the globe. This was due to the saint’s extraordinary work of helping those with HIV, tuberculosis and leprosy on the streets of Kolkata and later across the world. She was also renowned for her savviness when it came to fundraising; she could convince all sorts of high-profile people to donate to her charities.

But the Albanian nun — who spent the vast majority of her life in India — was not a picture-postcard saint. Several years after she died letters emerged revealing her long, excruciating dark night of the soul.

“The silence and emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear,” she wrote to Father Michael Van Der Peet, a spiritual confidant, in 1979 (the year she received the Nobel Peace Prize). “The tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak.”

In many respects this makes her work all the more heroic — and Mother Teresa a lot more human. For Francis, who argues that the acid test of Christianity is how it treats outcasts, her witness is a living out of the gospel. It is charity inspired by faith; a life lived with those marginalized but not simply the Church as a “compassionate NGO,” as Francis warned against early in his pontificate.

For his part, helping those on the margins was how the pope decided to spend the summer weeks during his now traditional “staycation” in the Vatican.

During the middle of August he had lunch with a group of Syrian refugees, some of whom he had taken back with him to Rome on the papal plane following his visit to the Greek island of Lesbos. For some refugees it was the first time they had seen Francis since that dramatic gesture in April, and for Francis it was a chance for him to hear about their progress. A number of the refugees have been given apartments in Rome by the Vatican while they learn Italian and try to find work.

Two days after the refugees’ lunch, Francis visited a group of former prostitutes who had been victims of human trafficking. In a moving encounter the pope asked their forgiveness for those Catholics and Christians who had abused them and for himself for not having prayed enough to end the evil of human slavery.

Throughout August Francis kept working, including making the important announcement that the Bishop of Dallas, Kevin Farrell, would be the first leader of a new Vatican dicastery titled Laity, Family and Life, with his department starting their work this Thursday.

The move puts a U.S. churchman into a prominent position in Rome, which some felt addressed the hole left by the departure of figures such as the influential Vatican official Monsignor Peter Wells to become papal ambassador in South Africa.

At the top of Bishop Farrell’s agenda will be working on the implementation — and interpretation — of Francis’ document on the family, “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of the Gospel”). The text, produced in response to two synods of bishops, has been criticized by some for being too openended on certain topics, such as whether some divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion. While the pope is happy for debate in the Church, he does not want a false impression of his text — especially the idea that it contains a lack of doctrinal clarity — to take hold. This is why he has handed the task of “interpreter-in-chief” to Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, one of the Church’s top theologians, who edited the latest version of the catechism. In addition, the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano has published a series of weighty articles about the theology behind “Amoris Laetitia.”

Following Bishop Farrell’s appointment, all eyes will now be on who will be appointed his deputies. The document setting up the new dicastery says that the secretary can be a lay man or woman, while three under-secretaries will all be lay. In Vatican departments the secretaries are important figures with posts traditionally held by an archbishop, but appointing a non-cleric to the new laity department would make sense and be in keeping with the pope’s desire for a less clerical Church.

These decisions are important if Francis wants to keep up his reforms of the Roman Curia, the Church’s central administration. This work is happening gradually, even while some would like to see it speed up. Most anticipated is the subject of the next synod of bishops.

The rumor mill is rumbling with two possible topics: one of them is ordaining married men, the other is peace. The former was debated at a synod in 1967, when the bishops voted in favor (107 against 83) of keeping the status quo of mandatory celibacy. Would another vote be possible? And would it be necessary, given the large number of married Catholic priests today who were once clergy in other denominations? Peace, therefore, might be a less inward-looking subject and could help offer tools for the Church to solve conflict across the world.

In the meantime, Pope Francis continues to expand his digital horizons, as he recently met with Mark Zuckerberg, founder and chief executive of Facebook. It is the third meeting Francis has had with a major tech figure, having seen Apple’s Tim Cook and Google’s Eric Schmidt. The pope spoke with Zuckerberg — who was accompanied by his wife Priscilla Chan — about using social media to alleviate poverty and bringing the internet to developing countries.

Writing on his Facebook page afterward, Zuckerberg praised the pope for finding “new ways to communicate with people of every faith around the world,” praising the pope’s “message of mercy and tenderness.”

Whatever else Francis does, he’s taught the Church a valuable lesson in communicating the gospel: keep it clear; keep it simple.


  • pope francis
  • refugees
  • mother teresa
  • canonization
  • curial reform
  • missionaries of charity

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