300,000 gather for Mother Teresa’s beatification

Albanian nun founded order that cares for world’s most destitute

VATICAN CITY – More than a quarter-million people rich and poor, royal and regular flooded St. Peter’s Square today for the beatification of Mother Teresa, honouring the nun who built shelters, orphanages and clinics around the world to care for those no one else would.

Pope John Paul presided over the open-air mass, but for the first time in a major Vatican ceremony, was unable to utter a word of his homily, leaving other prelates to do so. In the few prayers he did say, his words were so slurred and shaky they could barely be understood.

But John Paul did declare Mother Teresa “blessed,” moving the woman many called a living saint for her work in the slums of Calcutta one step closer to official sainthood and bestowing the honour during his 25th anniversary celebrations.

The Vatican estimated Sunday’s crowd at 300,000 one of its largest ever and the ceremony was a colourful mix of Indian dance and sitar music with traditional Catholic hymns, reflecting the cultures in which Mother Teresa lived and worked.

“In her, we perceive the urgency to put oneself in a state of service, especially for the poorest and most forgotten, the last of the last,” John Paul said at the start of the service, held on a sunny Roman morning.

St. Peter’s Square and the streets feeding into it overflowed with pilgrims, tourists and nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity order, grouped in small clusters of their trademark indigo-trimmed white saris alongside cardinals in scarlet cassocks and politicians in sombre black.

Some of the nuns wept, and others buried their heads in their hands when the smiling, wrinkled face of Mother Teresa was unveiled on a tapestry hanging from the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica.

John Paul himself appeared visibly moved as Indian girls bearing blue and white flowers performed an offertory Indian dance and accompanied a wooden reliquary containing a sample of Mother Teresa’s blood to the altar.

Beatification allows public veneration for holy people. Now that Mother Teresa has been beatified, the relic of her blood on a piece of cotton inside the reliquary can go on public display.

The ceremony was broadcast live to Missionaries of Charity orphanages and leprosy homes in India, and in Albania, the government declared a national holiday. Mother Teresa was born into an ethnic Albanian family in Skopje, Macedonia.

In the reserved seats closest to the altar sat representatives from 27 official delegations, including the presidents of Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo, as well as Belgian Queen Fabiola, and royalty from Liechtenstein, Romania and Jordan. Also attending were Muslim and Orthodox Christian delegations from Albania.

Sitting along with them were about 2,000 homeless men and women who eat and sleep in soup kitchens and shelters run by Mother Teresa’s followers. They were invited to a special luncheon inside a Vatican hall after the ceremony.

“She gave me hope,” said Mara Moarem, a 55-year-old Albanian immigrant who lives at Casa Serena, a Roman shelter run by the Missionaries of Charity. “I am Albanian, she was Albanian. She is my countrywoman,” he said as he waited for the lunch of lasagna, chicken, peas and bananas.

Also on hand for the ceremony was Monica Besra, an Indian woman who the Vatican says was cured of a medically incurable abdominal tumour after praying to Mother Teresa the miracle it needed for beatification. Besra and her family embraced Catholicism after she recovered.

“I was so sick, Mother prayed for me,” she said in an interview a few days before the ceremony. “For that reason I became Catholic. This is my faith.”

Born Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in 1910, Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity order in 1949, after what she called an inspiration from God to care for the most destitute and sick in the world. The order now runs 703 houses in 132 countries and is considered the fastest-growing religious order in the Catholic Church.

Critics have taken issue with Mother Teresa’s faith-based advocacy against abortion and condoms in such an overpopulated and AIDS-stricken country as India, while others have faulted her for having accepted donations from dictators.

As her beatification neared, some in India protested the Vatican’s claim of Besra’s cure, saying talk of miracles insulted the saintly work Mother Teresa did everyday and could encourage the poor to seek out religious gurus and quacks rather than going to doctors.

Undeterred by such criticism, John Paul waived the normal five-year waiting period for the beatification process to begin and launched it a year after Mother Teresa’s 1997 death, convinced of her saintliness and apparently intent on at least beatifying her in his lifetime.

Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, the postulator or chief advocate for the beatification, said that by setting a Vatican record for beatification, John Paul was showing more than just his personal admiration for the tiny, stooped nun.

His desire to make her a new model for Catholics was “in some way to present Mother Teresa as one very prominent example of someone who in many respects lived some of the things he’s been teaching in his pontificate,” Kolodiejchuk said in a recent interview.

With Sunday’s ceremony, John Paul has beatified 1,315 people and canonized 476 far more than his predecessors of the past 500 years combined. Mother Teresa needs a second miracle to be made a saint.

But unlike other ceremonies, John Paul was unable to deliver his homily Sunday yet another sign of the toll taken by Parkinson’s disease, which has robbed him of the ability to speak clearly and compounded other ailments that prevent him from walking or standing.

It has been a particularly gruelling week for the Pope, though, celebrating his anniversary mass on Thursday and gearing up for another lengthy ceremony Tuesday to install 30 new cardinals.

Despite speculation that he might step down, John Paul has insisted on pressing head, telling cardinals Saturday that he would serve “as long as the Lord wishes.”

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