Mother Teresa on Fast Track to Sainthood

As she ministered to the destitute on the streets of Calcutta, Mother Teresa was often called a "living saint." Now, six years after her death, she is about to take the last step toward official canonization.

Pope John Paul II plans to beatify Mother Teresa on Sunday at the Vatican. Beatification is the recognition by the pope that a deceased person lived a holy life and is worthy of public veneration, and is a prerequisite for being declared a saint.

"There was just no mistaking that this little tiny woman who had worked so hard and for so long was a saint," said Linda Schaefer, author of Come and See: A Photojournalist's Journey into the World of Mother Teresa.

Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu on Aug. 27, 1910, to Albanian parents in what is now Skopje, Macedonia. After taking her vows as a nun, she moved to India, where she spent nearly a half-century caring for the poor and dying in the city of Calcutta. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

At the time of her death in 1997, her Missionaries of Charity order had expanded to 500 centers in 132 countries. Since then, the number has risen to 710, with nuns from her order stationed in places ranging from the Gaza Strip to Gallup, N.M.

"She challenged all of us to do whatever it takes in our lives to make the life of the poor, especially the poor in the Third World, much better," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, author of Inside the Vatican.

A Special Bond

Traditionally it is decades — and more often centuries — after death that someone is formally recognized as a saint. Mother Teresa's canonization, however, is on the fastest of tracks. Just five years after the Calcutta nun's death, John Paul began laying the groundwork for her sainthood.

"This is the fastest beatification we've had in centuries," Reese said.

The pope has scheduled Mother Teresa's beatification for the same week as the celebration of this 25th year of his papacy, signifying his great devotion to the late missionary. "Pope John Paul II consulted with cardinals to see about canonizing her right now — skipping beatification and going straight to sainthood," Reese said. Apparently, though, the decision was to go the traditional route, with beatification first.

There was a deep bond between the pope and Mother Teresa, said Father Brian Kolodiejchuk of the Missionaries of Charity. Kolodiejchuk said Mother Teresa will be a saint in the eyes of many, whether or not it's ever made official.

"I think the moment she died she went to heaven and she's a saint," Kolodiejchuck said.

A Miraculous Cure?

To date, John Paul has named 477 men and women as saints, and beatified a further 1,318. The Vatican requires proof of two miracles performed by a prospective saint; one for beatification.

Mother Teresa's miracle involves a woman named Monica Besra who says her stomach tumor disappeared after Mother Teresa's colleagues rubbed her abdomen with a pendant blessed by the nun.

Skeptics say her claim is nonsense, and that it was medication that shrank the tumor.

One of those disputing Mother Teresa's role in the cure is Probir Ghos of the Bengali Rationalist Association. He says that medical treatment cured Besra.

But the Vatican found otherwise. Her cure was indeed a miracle, the Vatican Miracles Investigation Committee ruled.

And because the pope is said to have a soft spot in his heart for Mother Teresa, he has chosen to cap his anniversary week with her beatification.

Devoted to Prayer, Occasional Chocolate

Schaefer, a photographer, got to know Mother Teresa when she was invited to document the nun's work after volunteering with one of the Missionaries of Charity's 40-odd orphanages.

"She was always in a state of prayer," Schaefer said. "You could tell even when she was talking to you. You could tell she was praying." In the course of photographing Mother Teresa, Schaefer says she found her girlish qualities almost as endearing as her spiritual qualities. One time, she was asked to bring something special for the nun: Godiva chocolates.

"And I thought, 'Godiva chocolates for Mother Teresa?' And they said, 'She loves expensive chocolate,' " Schaefer said.