Mother Teresa dedicated her life to helping the downtrodden and shaming world leaders for the “crimes of poverty they themselves created.”
Pope Francis canonized Mother Teresa as a saint before 120,000 Catholic faithful Sunday, hailing the humble nun as a powerful symbol of the righteousness of helping society’s most marginal, from prostitutes to prisoners, refugees to the homeless.
“She bowed down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity,” Francis said in his homily.
“Let us carry her smile in our hearts and give it to those whom we meet along our journey, especially those who suffer.”
Teresa, who died Sept. 5, 1997 at the age of 87, is in many ways a kindred spirit of Francis, whose papacy has focused on mercy and devotion to the poor and outcast.
For Francis, Teresa put into action his ideal of the church as a “field hospital” for those suffering both material and spiritual poverty, living on the physical and existential peripheries of society.
Teresa, he said, demonstrated her faith through actions in her adopted city of Kolkata, India.
“We are thus called to translate into concrete acts that which we invoke in prayer and profess in faith. There is no alternative to charity: those who put themselves at the service of others, even when they don’t know it, are those who love God,” Francis said.
“She made her voice heard before the powers of the world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crimes of poverty they themselves created,” Francis said.
He then repeated with emphasis, the “the crimes of poverty they themselves created.”
Sainthood is one of the Catholic Church’s highest honors, but Francis noted that Teresa’s humanity made it difficult to begin referring to her by her new title.
“I think, perhaps, we may have some difficulty in calling her ‘Saint Teresa’: her holiness is so near to us, so tender and so fruitful that we continual to spontaneously call her ‘Mother Teresa,’” he said.
“Today, I pass on this emblematic figure of womanhood and of consecrated life to the whole world of volunteers: may she be your model of holiness!”
The pope did not shy from Teresa’s fierce opposition to abortion, praising as a merciful saint who defended the lives of the unborn.
“Mother Teresa, in all aspects of her life, was a generous dispenser of divine mercy, making herself available for everyone through her welcome and defence of human life, those unborn and those abandoned and discarded,” Francis said. “She was committed to defending life, ceaselessly proclaiming that ‘the unborn are the weakest, the smallest, the most vulnerable.’”
Born Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu on Aug. 26, 1910, Teresa came to India in 1929 as a sister of the Loreto order.
In 1946, she received what she described as a “call within a call” to found a new order dedicated to caring for the “poorest of the poor” in the slums of Kolkata.
The Missionaries of Charity order went on to become one of the most well-known in the world, with more than 4,000 sisters in their trademark blue-trimmed white saris doing as Teresa instructed: “small things with great love.”
“Mother Teresa loved to say, ‘Perhaps I don’t speak their language, but I can smile,’” Francis said.
At the order’s Mother House in Kolkata, hundreds of people watched the Mass on TV and clapped with joy when Francis declared her a saint.
They gathered around Teresa’s tomb, which was decorated with flowers, a single candle and a photo of the wrinkled saint.
“I am so proud to be from Kolkata,” said Sanjay Sarkar, a high school student who joined the celebration. “Mother Teresa belonged to Kolkata, and she has been declared a saint.”
Hundreds of Missionaries of Charity sisters had front-row seats at Mass, alongside 1,500 homeless people and 13 heads of state and even royalty: Queen Sofia of Spain.
Francis offered the homeless a luncheon afterward in the Vatican auditorium, catered by a Neapolitan pizza maker who brought his own ovens for the event.
While big, the crowd attending the canonization wasn’t even half of the 300,000 who turned out for Mother Teresa’s 2003 beatification celebrated by an ailing St. John Paul II.
The low turnout suggested that financial belt-tightening and security fears in the wake of Islamic extremist attacks in Europe may have kept pilgrims away.
Those fears prompted a huge, 3,000-strong law enforcement presence to secure the area around the Vatican and close the airspace above.
“Her heart, she gave it to the world,” said Charlotte Samba, a 52-year-old mother of three who traveled with a church group from Gabon for the Mass. “Mercy, forgiveness, good works: It is the heart of a mother for the poor.”