Saints Among Us: The Work of Mother Teresa

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Mother Teresa

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Saint. The word is heavy with meanings, not all of them congenial to modern man. The original Latin from which it derives, sanctus, means holy, and all the definitions since have revolved around just whom or what people consider holy. To many, saint is a medieval word, redolent of incense, conjuring up halos and glowing, distant images of spiritual glory in some great cathedral's stained-glass windows. To others, the word is still useful,

if prosaic, shorthand to describe someone who willingly suffers something that seems beyond the call of duty: a son or daughter, for instance, who spends years caring for a senile and demanding parent.

Somewhere between the two is the vision of the contemporary saint as a person of persistently heroic virtue and courage whose life is a model for others —a Mother Teresa, perhaps, or a Mahatma Gandhi. "A saint is someone by whom one lives," says the Rev. John Crocker, Episcopal chaplain at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "someone who for us is a revelation of what life is all about."

To the Roman Catholic Church, the only saint is a dead saint. Indeed, the very process of formal canonization was designed to determine who among the departed were certainly with God in heaven, and therefore could safely be asked to intercede for divine favors.

The path to canonization, though streamlined these days, is still long and tortuous. Usually required, among other things, is proof of between two and four miracles as evidence that the saint is really in God's presence. In practice a candidate must also die a Catholic. When he visited Uganda in 1969, Pope Paul prayed at a sanctuary for Anglican martyrs at Namugongo, but that is as close as any Protestants have come to Rome's recognition.

Still, the Catholic Church has honored a variety of saints.

The "two Teresas" are a classic example. St. Teresa of Avila was a mystic and 16th century religious reformer who, according to legend, stood mired in the mud on one of her journeys and cried out to God: "If this is the way You treat Your friends, no wonder You don't have many!" St. Therese of Lisieux was a sickly 19th century nun who died young and unknown. Her principal virtue was an awesome courage in the face of her long and excruciating fatal illness. Similarly, the church has sainted kings and rebels against kings, noblemen and tramps, virgins and mothers, activists and hermits.

In Protestant democratic usage, all faithful Christians are saints, as the word is used throughout the New Testament epistles. Thus a popular Protestant hymn notes that the "saints of God are just folks like me." But Protestants, like Catholics, do sometimes distinguish between the everyday and the heroic. Despite the criticism of his authoritarian personality and his patronizing attitude toward Africans that arose even before his death, Albert Schweitzer is still commonly considered a Protestant saint. So is the Lutheran martyr to the Nazis, Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Salvation Army Founder William Booth, African Missionary David Livingstone and Methodism's revered founder John Wesley are among many cited as Protestant saints.

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