Our former Rome Correspondent, Father Raymond J. de Souza, traveled to Rome to cover the beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the anniversary celebrations of Pope John Paul II. The two are related, he told us in the reflection that follows.
Tens of thousands of pilgrims heading to St. Peter's Square to witness Pope John Paul II beatify Mother Teresa will pass by a nondescript doorway that speaks volumes.
The door to the Dono di Maria Casa di Accoglienza per i Più Poveri (Gift of Mary House of Welcome for the Poorest) is not as impressive as the monumental doors on the Holy Office next door, where the Catholic Church's chief doctrinal officer, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, works. But as important as Cardinal Ratzinger is to understanding the work of John Paul II's 25-year pontificate, the little house next door is arguably more so.
Dono di Maria is the home of Mother Teresa's order of nuns, the Missionaries of Charity, who care for the “poorest of the poor.”
When Karol Wojtyla was elected in 1978, there were plenty of religious sisters who worked in Vatican City, but no convents. He decided to change that, installing a contemplative order of nuns to pray for the needs of the universal Church, and, after his visit to India in 1986, inviting Mother Teresa to open a house for the poor in Vatican City.
Vatican officials were not quite sure what to do. How could you have the poor traipsing into the Vatican City — let alone staying overnight in a Missionaries of Charity shelter? Security alone would be a problem, not to mention the impropriety of having the (literally) unwashed in the sacred precincts. Would it not be more suitable to find some other spot in Rome?
But John Paul insisted that it was precisely in the Vatican that he wanted the poorest to be looked after, and so Mother Teresa brought the poor to the very heart of the Church. Now, John Paul decided to make the beatification of Mother Teresa, the final step before a declaration of sainthood, the heart of his own 25th anniversary celebrations.
The Pope intervened twice to accelerate Mother Teresa's beatification process. The first time, 18 months after her death in September 1997, he waived the five-year mandatory waiting period before the process of investigation — known as a “cause” — could begin.
By last December, everything was set, including the miraculous healing of a Bengali woman's abdominal tumor. Given John Paul's personal enthusiasm for the cause (and growing frailty), it was expected that he would set the beatification date as soon as possible. To the contrary, he announced he would wait 10 months — until the week of his 25th anniversary.
John Paul prefers to use his personal milestone events as teaching moments. He focused his 20th anniversary in 1998 on the Carmelite nun, St. Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein), who, like him, was a philosopher devoted to the mystics. He dedicated his 80th birthday to the priests of the world, concelebrating Mass with 7,000 of them in St. Peter's Square.
And so with the eyes of the world on Rome for his silver jubilee, he chose to focus the world's attention on Mother Teresa.
Papal biographer George Weigel, discussing Mother Teresa with John Paul a few weeks after her death, reported that John Paul saw her as a “person-message” who “embodied many of what he regarded as the central themes of his pontificate — the defense of life, the defense of the family, concern for the poor, the dignity of women, the human rights of the humblest of men and women.”
It is clear that John Paul wished to shift the focus from himself to Mother Teresa — and to the proclamation that it is still possible to live the Gospel today in all its fullness — by scheduling her beatification now. But in focusing on her, he has provided a key to how he understands himself.