Blessed Teresa of Kolkata came to The Catholic University of America 45 years ago to receive her first honorary degree. If I’d been president of our school at the time I would have tried hard to get a picture of her in a Catholic University sweatshirt.
I do have a picture of my predecessor Clarence Walton with Mother Teresa in her sari, with the hood the university confers on Doctors of Humane Letters. The citation for the degree said the university was privileged to recognize a woman “for whom love is not a slogan but a way of life.”
In 2010 the U.S. Postal Service held a ceremony at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, at the corner of our campus, to dedicate a 44-cent stamp to Mother Teresa. I did attend that ceremony. So did Mother Teresa’s novice mistress from the Sisters of Loreto (the order she joined before she founded the Missionaries of Charity). The novice mistress was 105, though she didn’t look a day over 80.
On Sept. 4 of this year, Pope Francis will proclaim Mother Teresa a saint. And so she is, one of the great and holy women of the 20th century.
This might seem a little sudden, as these things go. She died only 19 years ago. Most saints whose feasts we observe in September (Matthew, Cornelius, Cyprian, Jerome, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Great) died a long time ago. And at least since the Reformation, the canonization process itself has taken a long time.
But St. John Paul II changed the process in 1983 in ways that made it faster. It’s now more like an academic inquiry than a trial. The office of the “devil’s advocate” (a canon lawyer whose job it was to find fault with the cause) was eliminated. The number of required miracles attributed to the candidate’s intercession was reduced from four to two.
In recent years we have seen many more saints, beatified and canonized at a faster clip, than ever before. Pope John Paul II himself was canonized in 2014, just nine years after his death.
I’m a big fan of the new approach. When our children were growing up we used to read the lives of the saints over breakfast. The idea was to set for them examples of holiness, to keep in mind during the day. Kids find stories about real people more accessible than, say St. Paul’s letters.
But when all your examples come from the third or the 13th century, there is a danger that they’ll become like Aesop’s fables. The lessons they teach are poignant and useful. But the characters may seem unreal, like they were drawn with the lesson in mind. Mother Teresa was real, and recent. She came to our campus, and we gave her an honorary degree. I met her novice mistress at the basilica. My father used to send Mother Teresa money and got a thank-you note from her.
We know from the testimony of many people still living what good she did for the poor in Kolkata and around the world. When I read her own account of Jesus speaking to her in 1946 on a train to Darjeeling, and saying “come be my light” to the poor, I feel a conviction about God’s acting in the world that is as certain as faith can be.
Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.