When a massive crowd converges on St. Peter's Square this Sunday to watch Pope Francis make Mother Teresa a Catholic saint, Janet and Steve Ray will have a perch with a bird’s-eye view: the roof of the Vatican.
The Rays will lead a group of 44 American pilgrims, a fraction of the thousands of Americans traveling to Italy, India and the Holy Land this year to commemorate the life of Mother Teresa, the modern-day "saint of the gutter." Known for half a century for her unconditional love for the poor and marginalized, Mother Teresa died in 1997 and was put on the fast track to sainthood by
Speaking by phone on Wednesday from Rome where he was awaiting his group, Steve Ray said he’d just finished a similar Teresa-themed pilgrimage to India with another group. “Everyone in India loves her, and she’s not even Indian — she’s Albanian,” he said. “She transcends national boundaries and religious boundaries.”
Francis announced last spring that Mother Teresa would become a saint on Sept. 4.
PHOTOS | Mother Teresa becomes a saint
Ray, whose Catholic-oriented travel service, Footprints of God, is based in Ypsilanti, Mich., said Mother Teresa is “famous not because she tried to be famous, but because she poured her life out for the poor.”
Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu of Albanian parents in 1910, in Skopje, in what is now Macedonia, she joined the Loreto order of nuns in 1928. In 1946, while traveling by train from Kolkata (then called Calcutta) to Darjeeling, she was inspired to found the India-based Missionaries of Charity order. It has since opened more than 130 houses worldwide to provide comfort and care for the needy. She earned several international honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
At the time of her death at age 87, Missionaries of Charity supported 4,000 nuns and ran hundreds of orphanages, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and clinics around the world.
John Paul II beatified Mother Teresa in 2003 after a first miracle was attributed to her: answering an Indian woman's prayers to cure her brain tumor, according to the Vatican. Beatification requires one miracle, described by the Catholic Church as recognition of a person's entrance into heaven. Sainthood requires two.
Francis officially cleared Mother Teresa for the honor last December, recognizing her "miraculous healing" of a Brazilian man with multiple brain abscesses.
Without dispensation from the pope, five years must pass from the time of the candidate’s death before an examination for sainthood can begin. Once deemed worthy by the Vatican, the candidate is called a “Servant of God.” In Mother Teresa's case, the examination began almost immediately after her death.
Francis, who has made outreach to the poor a priority for the Catholic Church, met Mother Teresa more than two decades ago, while he was Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina. He is known for admiring her ministry as well as her fearlessness in speaking out on behalf of society’s outcasts.
Sean Callahan, chief operating officer of Catholic Relief Services, based in Baltimore, worked with Mother Teresa while stationed in Kolkata from 1994 to 1996. The public perception of her is accurate, he said, but it doesn't capture her warmth and personality. "She was always full of joy, fun-loving and (she) loved to tell jokes. You’d see her reverence and solidarity with the poor, but if there was somebody who needed help, she would be there, hugging them, touching them.”
He added, “She was someone who thought about those who were least recognized among us — she frankly saw them as Jesus in the guise of the injured, the poor, the forgotten. She never thought anyone was expendable.”
Fr. Donald Calloway, vocation director for the Marian Fathers, based in Steubenville, Ohio, said he met Mother Teresa three times in Washington, D.C., as sisters from Missionaries of Charity made their vows at Washington’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The order’s work with the poor, he said, became a model for modern times.
“It inspired the whole world,” he said, “with all of the advances we’ve made, to not forget love.”
“I think people are looking for more when they’re traveling,” he said. His groups, accompanied by priests — many of whom met or worked with Mother Teresa in India or the USA — plan to attend mass each day.
Even with recent terror threats in Europe and the Middle East, McKenna said 206 hasn’t had to cancel any of its tours. Of his clientele, he said, “They go in faith — they don’t worry about what might happen.”
The difference, she said, may not immediately be apparent to outsiders. While the group will enjoy sightseeing like other tourists, they’ll be reflecting on Mother Teresa’s life and teachings.
“It’s enjoying the wine and gelato with my girlfriends and thanking God for their lives,” she said, “but it’s this constant reminder that there’s a bigger purpose to our lives than just the stuff around us.”
Darrow called Mother Teresa “a saint for all times, especially for today — she’s incredibly important for this time, when we’re trying to decide what lives matter. Mother Teresa would say all lives matter.” Especially those of the poor, she said, who deserve to live in dignity like everyone else.
“She showed us how to do that in the most simple of ways,” Darrow said.
While Mother Teresa's actions gained widespread admiration in her lifetime, she wasn't beloved by all — she was criticized for the quality of care in her clinics and for taking donations from Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and disgraced American financier Charles Keating.
Calloway called the criticisms “really unfounded and, I think, misguided.” Her work, which few others would do, was vitally important, he said, and not the only path she could have followed back in the 1940s. “She could have lived a quiet life in a convent among the flowers,” he said. “She went out and got her hands dirty.”
The author of nine books, most recently Champions of the Rosary, which profiles 26 people including Mother Teresa, Calloway said, “To me, what she points to is that holiness, in this crazy world, is still possible.”
Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY; Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo