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Mother Teresa: A saint with a private struggle

So Mother Teresa will become an official “saint” on Sunday. The prospect of her canonization means very little to those outside the church, many of whom deride her. Indeed, she was the subject of a famous diatribe by Christopher Hitchens, who described her as “a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud.”

In my view, she deserves sainthood for a number of reasons, and even those not wholly committed to the angelic orders should revere her example of commitment to helping the poorest of the poor.

Let’s understand what it means, in Roman Catholic terms, to become a saint. There are over 10,000 saints in the church, and these figures acquire sainthood through a process that has been in use since the 10th century.

Editor’s note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont and is the author of “Jesus: The Human Face of God..” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Before that, people became saints by popular acclaim — a process that was obviously not rigorous. There is now a step-by-step that starts with the death of somebody who was regarded by many as “holy.” The local bishop investigates the life of the person for signs of THIS holiness. After this, a panel in the Vatican investigates the potential saint, and — if successful — the person becomes “venerable.”

Then comes “beatification,” which involves at least one miracle. A miracle suggests that the person lives in heaven now, and therefore can intercede with God on someone’s behalf. The idea isn’t that the church makes someone “blessed,” hence beatified; the idea is that God has already done this, and the church is acknowledging the fact of it. At least another miracle is required for actual sainthood.

There is an elaborate process involved in making saints, and the church listens to those who have opposing views, such as Hitchens on Mother Teresa. The late writer didn’t like her because she took money and awards from lots of creeps — including the horrible Duvalier family of Haiti.

He wondered where all the money went, as the hospice she ran in Calcutta was "as run down when she died as it always had been---she preferred California clinics when she got sick herself---and her order always refused to publish any audit. But we have her own claim that she opened 500 convents in more than 100 countries, all bearing the name of her own order. Excuse me, but this is modesty and humility?"

So she was self-serving at times, not so good at running her organization, and less than perfect as a human being. Let's just say all of that is true.

I would argue that she still deserves sainthood.

My reasons for loving Mother Teresa, and regarding her as a true saint, have to do with the work she did, as well as her example as a Christian who persevered despite her long-standing personal despair. She devoted herself for over half a century to those on the ragged edge of society: orphans, the poor and dying, the sick. She did so despite 50 years of spiritual aridity, a "dark night of the soul" that seemed endless, as revealed in her posthumous letters.

She felt utterly bereft, cut off from God and his grace for reasons she could not quite comprehend. To one confidante, she wrote: "Jesus has a very special love for you, [but] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see,--Listen and do not hear--the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak ... I want you to pray for me--that I let Him have [a] free hand."

One priest who knew her recently recalled that as a young woman, she had enjoyed a close relationship with Jesus, who actually spoke to her, telling her to found an order of nuns who would be "so united to me as to radiate my love on souls."

She did found this great order, the Missionaries of Charity, a movement that has spread through the world and is dedicated to the poorest people in any given society. Their number has grown from a dozen workers in 1950 to over 5,000 at present. Their mission will be found in 139 countries. It would be difficult even to count the number of human beings helped in some way by this organization.

In spite of her private misery, she persevered, believing in the work of identifying with the mission of Jesus, who had a special love of the poor -- those on the margins of society, those without fame or wealth or power, those truly discarded by the rest of the world. She believed she could, indeed must, take on the cross herself and find her way to union with God through these labors.

I don't think you have to be a Christian (as I am) or a Roman Catholic (as I am not) to appreciate the depth of her example.

Mother Teresa is already a saint in my heart. I don't especially care whether she has official recognition or not, although I'm glad to think she has it, and that those who wish to follow her example, which is the example of Christ, may find a way to grace through her.