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U.S. pilgrims say they always knew Mother Teresa was a saint


Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Joining tens of thousands of people at the Vatican to celebrate the newly declared St. Teresa of Kolkata, many U.S. pilgrims said it was about time Mother Teresa officially had the title.

A tapestry of St. Teresa of Kolkata is seen on the facade of St. Peter's Basilica as Pope Francis celebrates her canonization Mass at the Vatican Sept. 4. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
A tapestry of St. Teresa of Kolkata is seen on the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica as Pope Francis celebrates her canonization Mass at the Vatican Sept. 4. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Organized diocesan and parish pilgrimages generally had a priest-chaplain with them, celebrating daily Masses and joining them on tours. But many people came on their own or with their immediate family; the Missionaries of Charity — priests, brothers and nuns — organized Masses and tours for them, too.

At the Basilica of St. Anastasia Sept. 2, English-speaking pilgrims, most of whom were not part of a tour group, gathered for a Mass celebrated by Indian Cardinal Telesphore Toppo of Ranchi.

Mother Teresa was “an iconic personality of mercy and service,” the cardinal said. “She drank, from the font of Jesus, the living water of love.”

The 76-year-old cardinal said that when he was a new, young bishop in the late 1970s, he accompanied Mother Teresa on a car trip to visit some of her projects. Knowing how hard she worked, “I found the courage to ask, ‘Where do you get your strength from?’ The answer came from her like a bullet: ‘From Jesus in the Eucharist.’”

Deacon John and Arlene Storm from the Diocese of Santa Rosa, California, were among those at the Mass. The deacon is involved in prison ministry and what he terms “restorative justice,” a combination of advocacy and one-on-one ministry aimed at rehabilitating prisoners and promoting reconciliation between them and the victims of their crimes.

Mother Teresa was criticized during her lifetime for not using her high profile to do more to press governments to remedy the injustices that kept so many people so poor. While Deacon Storm’s work combines promoting justice on an institutional level as well as showing concrete care for individuals, he said not everyone has to do both. “She had a wonderful ministry of her own.”

His wife added, “I don’t care if you are Christ, someone will say you are wrong,” but Mother Teresa “did wonderful works” and members of her order continue that today.

Arturo Martinez, a young man from Miami, showed up at the Mass alone. “I love this lady, Mother Teresa, so I thought I would see Rome and honor her at the same time,” he said before rushing into the church.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Woodinville, Washington, organized a pilgrimage for 87 people, about 10 percent of the parish membership. Because most of the staff was heading to Rome, Father Frank Schuster said, the parish website, bulletin and sign were changed to “St. Teresa of Calcutta” Aug. 31 before the group set off.

“When we built the church we made sure the sign was on snaps because we knew all along that mother church would recognize what we all knew: Mother Teresa is a saint,” Father Schuster said during a brief interview at Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary Major.

Honoring Mother Teresa on the outside of the building obviously is not enough, said the pastor of the parish in the Archdiocese of Seattle. “She said everything begins with prayer. We want to have as close a relationship with Jesus as she did, to see Jesus in others and reach out to them.”

For four months in the spring, the parish hosted Camp Unity Eastside, a tent encampment for people experiencing homelessness. Different churches and community organizations take turns providing land for the encampment, showers for the residents and a place for distributing meals. “It was amazing to be Mother Teresa to these people,” said Meg Nafziger, a member of the parish staff.

Nafziger described Mother Teresa as “my mentor,” the person who helped her accept her own suffering and care for her mother, then her father and then her husband, who all developed cancer and died within a short time of one another.

“I would put my hands on the feet of our bronze statue of Mother Teresa and pray that I would have some of her strength,” she said. “She taught me how to see Jesus in the eyes of others and to do small things with great love.”

“I was suffering along with them,” Nafziger said of her loved ones, “but I was feeling that joy — defiant joy,” telling herself, “I will suffer through this so someone else might be blessed.”

Allen Larpenteur, another parishioner, said he and his wife, Suzi, always wanted to visit Rome and so the canonization was a perfect opportunity to do it. Belonging to a parish named after Mother Teresa was less a motivation for the pilgrimage than honoring Mother Teresa was, he said.

“This beautiful nun was not beautiful from a physical standpoint,” he said, “but from a spiritual and a compassionate viewpoint, she is beyond words. She did not consider herself anything in God’s eyes, but she saw God’s eyes in the dying, the poor and the outcast.”

Mother Teresa “took great chances to help the neediest when others would ignore them,” he said, and “Pope Francis cares about the outcast as much as Mother Teresa did.”

The 71-year-old Larpenteur said he had expected the parish would need to change its name long before now. Waiting 19 years after Mother Teresa’s death in 1997 “seems like a long time to formally recognize someone as a saint whom we all knew was a saint,” he said.

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