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On Sunday, Pope Francis will declare Mother Teresa a saint. That's the end of a process that began back in 2003. The Vatican spent more than a decade examining her qualifications. To be a saint, you must be associated with two verified miracles, and that process offers some insight into Catholic teaching. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Mother Teresa will be just one of hundreds of people declared saints since John Paul II was pope. But Robert Barron, a bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, says her case is special.
ROBERT BARRON: When I was coming of age, she was the living saint. You know, if you were to say, who's someone today that would really embody the Christian life, you'd turn to Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
GJELTEN: It's no simple matter to embody the Christian life. To become a saint, one normally has to be associated with at least two miracles, and they have to be proven. If someone is suddenly healed after praying to a would-be saint, the Vatican has doctors verify there's no medical explanation for it. A group advocating sainthood for a nun in Canada asked Dr. Jacalyn Duffin to investigate the sudden recovery of a woman with incurable leukemia who had prayed to the nun 200 years after the nun's death. Duffin, a hematologist at Queens University in Ontario, agreed after warning that she was not herself a believer.
JACALYN DUFFIN: I revealed my atheism to them. I told them my husband was a Jew. And I wasn't sure if they'd still want me. And they were delighted.
GJELTEN: Delighted because if she, an atheist, found there was no natural reason the woman should have recovered, who could doubt it was a miracle? In fact, Dr. Duffin agreed that the woman's healing was, for lack of a better word, miraculous. The two miracles linked to Mother Teresa had to be likewise verified. A woman in India whose stomach tumor disappeared and a man in Brazil who woke up from a coma had both credited their recovery to prayers offered to Mother Teresa after she had died. Intrigued by her experience with the woman cured of leukemia, Dr. Duffin investigated hundreds of other cases in the Vatican archives. She came away convinced miracles do indeed happen.
DUFFIN: To admit that as a non-believer, you don't have to claim that it was a supernatural entity that did it. You have to admit some humility and accept that there are things that happen that science cannot explain.
GJELTEN: Hardcore rationalists wouldn't be likely to call these things miracles, even while acknowledging they have no obvious explanation. Catholicism says they involve heavenly intervention. A miracle can happen if you pray to someone who is with God and therefore advocating on your behalf directly to God. Bishop Barron says this is why the Vatican says it's not enough that a candidate for sainthood has had an exemplary life on Earth.
BARRON: The saint is also someone now who's in heaven, living in this fullness of life with God. And the miracle, if you want to put it this bluntly, is the proof of it.
GJELTEN: Proof that the would-be saint is actually in heaven - a supernatural explanation.
JAMES MARTIN: Absolutely. It's completely supernatural.
GJELTEN: James Martin is a Jesuit priest and editor of the Jesuit magazine America. He says, if you have a problem with the supernatural, you probably have a problem with religion or God in general.
MARTIN: In a sense, it's a little arrogant of us to say, before I can believe in God, I need to understand God's ways. To me, that's kind of crazy - that we could sort of fit God into our mind. There are some things that happen that we cannot possibly understand.
GJELTEN: Pope Francis wants to reform the canonization process, making it less subject to organized lobby efforts. But the two-miracles requirement is likely to remain. Bishop Barron of Los Angeles says, without it, the church would be left with a watered-down Christianity.
BARRON: There is the trouble, if you want, with a liberal theology. It tends to domesticate God, make everything a little bit too neat and prim and tidy and rational. I kind of like how the miraculous shakes things up and shakes us out of a too-easy rationalism. We'll affirm everything great about modernity, you know, and the sciences and everything else, but I'm not going to affirm that that's all there is to life.
GJELTEN: There's one irony about Mother Teresa's canonization. Father James Martin says that her diary writings revealed after her death that, for the last 50 years of her life, Mother Teresa didn't actually feel she was in touch with God.
MARTIN: At one point she says, in my heart, I feel that terrible pain of loss, of God not being God, of God not wanting me - I'm paraphrasing - and of God not existing.
GJELTEN: In the end, Father Martin says, Mother Teresa tells God, even though I don't feel you, I believe in you. He points out that she once suggested she would be called a saint of the darkness. Though she was seen in traditional terms during her lifetime worthy of veneration because of her devotion to the poor, Mother Teresa becomes, after her death, in Martin's words, a much more modern saint, a saint for all those Christians today who doubt and struggle with their faith. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
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