The Road to Sainthood

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MEENAKSHI GANGULY CalcuttaA Chicago bank executive ended up in a wheelchair after a car accident 12 years ago. In despair, she went to Calcutta to see Mother Teresa. As the banker wheeled herself into the room, the world's most famous nun smiled and blessed her. The crash had turned me into a vegetable, recalls the woman. But within a few days of her blessings, I began to find strength. I began to improve. Today, I can move around without any problem.

Though Vatican protocol dictates that the identities of the woman and others like her must remain secret for now, stories like this are pouring into the quiet Calcutta office of the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order that Mother Teresa founded in 1950. Since her death a year and a half ago, friends and followers have insisted that Mother Teresa was specially blessed and deserves to be recognized by the Catholic Church as a saint. Earlier this year, the Vatican proclaimed that it would forgo the requisite five-year waiting period before the process of canonization can begin. It appointed Father Brian Kolodiejchuk to represent her order, and gather evidence of her holiness. Already, several people have written to Sister Nirmala, Mother Teresa's successor, to express hope that their heroine becomes the first person to attain sainthood in the new millennium--and more than 100 have reported miracles.

A supervisor of a rubber factory in southern India writes that he thought his life was over 17 years ago when he contracted leprosy. But his skin started improving after a blessing from Mother Teresa. Today I still have some patches, but I am cured. In 1984, Mother Teresa visited a cancer hospital in Tel Aviv to bless the patients, most of whom had lost hope for life. One of them was an 18-year-old girl. Now 33, she says that Mother's magic touch cured her.

Though the Missionaries of Charity are working with Father Brian, a Canadian, to collect evidence, they are not hurrying the process. It would be great if Mother Teresa were declared a saint, Sister Nirmala told TIME. It would be great for us in the Missionaries of Charity. It would be great for the people of Calcutta and for the whole Church and the whole world. But I will not press for her canonization in the year 2000. It must happen when it has to happen.

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To happen, Mother Teresa's case for sainthood has to meet three stringent tests under Church regulations. First, Vatican authorities must be convinced that her religious faith was greater than what is considered normal. Then they have to accept a miraculous act of healing--one certified by an independent board of physicians--that she performed in her lifetime. Finally, a similar act has to be attributed to her intervention after her death. The process is long and tedious. Last week, more than 30 years after his death, Italian friar Padre Pio moved a step closer to sainthood when the Pope announced his beatification. In Mother Teresa's case, the initial process may take six to 10 years. Witnesses will be examined, and their cases considered by both the Vatican and a disputer it appoints to challenge the claims. Allegations that Mother Teresa accepted charity from unsavory dictators and criminals will also be debated. It is like a court case, says Father Brian. We will certainly investigate all the things both for and against her. After all, people are not born saints--normally.

Initially, Father Brian will gather historical and biographical details to show that Mother Teresa lived as a good Christian. He will hear evidence from people who knew her after she chose her vocation, as well as from friends, neighbors and family. A panel of nine theologians, followed by a group of bishops and cardinals, will examine each testimony. If two-thirds are convinced, the case will come before the Pope, who may order her veneration as a Servant of God. In Mother's case, says Father Brian, there is no shortage of witnesses.

There is no shortage of reported miracles, either. Several doctors have already certified that her blessings helped cure patients who had no hope of surviving. The leprosy patient from India, reports his doctor, showed amazing improvement within a few days of being blessed by Mother Teresa. The Chicago banker's physician pronounced her improvement miraculous. Once again, theologians and then senior clerics will hear the evidence. If they accept the miracle, the Pope can order Mother Teresa's beatification, a preliminary step toward sainthood, and her congregation may display her statues and relics.

Only after a second miracle has been verified will she be canonized. She can then be publicly venerated with a feast day, and churches and altars dedicated to her. Sisters at the Missionaries of Charity already say that Mother Teresa is watching over them and helping them save lives. A nun at Sishu Bhawan, the order's Calcutta home for orphaned and abandoned children, bends over a crib and tickles a thin, bright-eyed baby. He is one of 150 infants in the large, sunlit hall who had been left to die on the garbage dumps and filthy sidewalks of Calcutta. You see, the nun says, picking up the chuckling child, who is far too small for his 10 months, he was born premature and was nearly dead when he arrived. I prayed to Mother. I knew that she would help him. It is a miracle.

With reporting by Subir Bhaumik/Calcutta

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