Five years ago, on Sept. 4, 2016, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from around the world gathered in a sun-drenched St. Peter’s Square to hear Pope Francis officially declare what the world had known for decades: Mother Teresa is a saint.
In his homily during the canonization Mass, Pope Francis challenged the world to continue the work of St. Teresa — work, he noted, that was not easy, and that took humility, courage and compassion to perform. In a word: love.
Pope Francis said: “Her mission to the urban and existential peripheries remains for us today an eloquent witness to God’s closeness to the poorest of the poor. 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! I think, perhaps, we may have some difficulty in calling her ‘St. Teresa’: her holiness is so near to us, so tender and so fruitful that we continually … call her ‘Mother Teresa.’ May this tireless worker of mercy help us increasingly to understand that our only criterion for action is gratuitous love, free from every ideology and all obligations, offered freely to everyone without distinction of language, culture, race or religion. Mother Teresa loved to say, ‘Perhaps I don’t speak their language, but I can smile.’ Let us carry her smile in our hearts and give it to those whom we meet along our journey, especially those who suffer. In this way, we will open up opportunities of joy and hope for our many brothers and sisters who are discouraged and who stand in need of understanding and tenderness.”
My wife, my daughter and I were among the pilgrims in the crowd that day, standing on the roof of a convent overlooking St. Peter’s Square, baking in the scorching Roman sun but also realizing that there wasn’t a place on earth where we would have rather been. The atmosphere was one of jubilation, certainly, but it was more than that; there was also an unspoken recognition of how one woman’s selflessness can change the world.
Five years after her canonization, and 24 years after her death on Sept. 5, 1997, we could use her inspiration and intercession now as much as ever.
We could use her in Haiti, where more than 2,200 people have been killed and tens of thousands more have been injured or made homeless by another deadly earthquake. In 1988, after an earthquake killed as many as 50,000 people in Armenia, Mother Teresa sent eight Missionaries of Charity sisters to help care for the wounded, saying: “We have no gold and silver to give. But we are very happy to give tender love and care to the people, to the sick, the dying, the lonely, to anybody who needs love.″
We could use her in Afghanistan, where so many are fleeing — or trying to flee — from the vicious rule of the Taliban. Mother Teresa once said: “Let us not use bombs and guns to overcome the world. Let us use love and compassion. … Today, if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other — that man, that woman, that child is my brother or my sister. If everyone could see the image of God in his neighbor, do you think we would still need tanks and generals?”
We could use her in any number of situations all over the world, where too many people are hungry and thirsty, where too many people are sick and dying, where too many people have lost their faith in God. But while the world may seem dark, and while we might look at Haiti, at Afghanistan, at the seemingly never-ending COVID-19 pandemic or other tragedies around the world, let us see Mother Teresa as the example we need to inspire us to become beacons of God’s light in a world of darkness.
“Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary,” Mother Teresa said. “What we need is to love without getting tired. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” Amen.
St. Teresa, pray for us!
Scott Warden is managing editor of Our Sunday Visitor.