The Fast Track Saint


sk anyone who knew Mother Teresa, and you'll hear that the nun from Calcutta was the closest thing imaginable to a living saint.

In death, however, Mother Teresa must convince a much tougher audience--the Vatican--to earn sainthood. To be called a saint is one thing; to be canonized is quite another.

Ranking among the names in the Roman Catholic "canon" of holy men and women involves a complex process that takes time, money, testimonies, miracles and patience. That, and a campaign on the scale of a U.S. presidential election.

Within hours of her death on Sept. 5, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of the Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles suggested that Mother Teresa might find herself on a "fast track" to canonization. He took action, recommending to Rome that the pope break a rule requiring a five-year wait after death to begin the process.

This is a bold proposal, since speed has never been of the essence in the task of making saints. The fastest canonization on record took 28 years. St. Theresa of Lisieux, a French Carmelite nun who developed a spirituality based on acts of kindness and self-denial in everyday life, died in 1897 and was declared a saint in 1925.

Among the slowest cases: Queen Isabella I of Spain, who ruled when Columbus discovered America. Her cause was put forward centuries ago but put on hold in 1992 because she was a prime force in expelling Jews from Spain and insisting that Muslims convert to Christianity. Those in the know doubt that she will make it to sainthood.

Even at its smoothest, canonization involves one hurdle after another.

To determine who qualifies, the Vatican looks to its Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Typically, a would-be candidate's "cause" is presented to the local bishop by his or her admirers who, in turn, is persuaded that the life was a model of holiness.

In the case of Mother Teresa, predictions are that her own community, the Missionaries of Charity, will champion her cause before the bishop of Calcutta.

Any perceived blemish or lapse can block a campaign. Efforts to make Princess Grace of Monaco a saint in the 1980s were halted by revelations about her off-screen life in Hollywood. Steps to canonize Dorothy Day, a more likely candidate who founded the Catholic Worker movement, were blocked because she had a child out of wedlock in her youth.


Once the applicant is approved as a candidate, an appointed postulator interviews those who knew the individual. Personal testimonies both pro and con, letters and writings by the would-be saint are compiled. Next, a relator sifts through it all and prepares a position paper. If the volumes of evidence prove a life of "heroic virtue" the person is given the title "venerable" by the pope. If it can be proved that a miracle occurred after the death of the candidate, the result of someone praying to that person for help, the candidate advances to the next title--"beatified," or blessed.

Those who know the system expect Mother Teresa will be put through the usual legal paces but at a greatly accelerated pace.

Proving heroic virtue involves a debate between the postulator, the spokesperson for the cause, and the promoter of the faith, whose job it is to challenge every claim. To finalize a canonization, it must be established that a second miracle occurred. Most often prayer requests are for a physical healing.

Martyrs are the exception. The pope can reduce their miracle requirement to one or waive it altogether.

Verifying a miracle is considered the most difficult hurdle in the process. Just deciding what constitutes one prompts debate. An exemplary life of heroic virtue is far easier to establish than a healing that results from prayers.

The Rev. Noel Francis Moholy, who is advancing the cause of Father Junipero Serra, has seen all this firsthand. Serra, a Franciscan missionary priest, founded California's first mission, in San Diego, in 1769. His name was put forward for canonization in 1934 and he was beatified in 1988. Nine years later, Serra's canonization still depends on proof of one miracle. Moholy, based at the Old Mission Santa Barbara, is in the odd position of praying for a miracle for Serra.

Moholy receives frequent letters from people who claim a miraculous healing that they attribute to Serra's intercession. "I've been to Rome four or five times, hoping I had a strong enough case," Moholy says. Each time he submitted medical records to a board of doctors in Rome, none passed scrutiny. When such records are considered strong enough, the next step is to set up a tribunal that collects testimony from the cured patient as well as family, friends and the patient's doctor.

All this costs money. Count up expenses for lawyers and doctors as well as travel and research. Moholy says he has spent $250,000 since he took over Serra's cause in the early 1950s.


Five years ago, the Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy of Brockton, Mass., a priest in the Melkite Rite of the Catholic Church, found himself at a tribunal giving testimony about his daughter, Benedicta. She was 2 years old in 1987 when she swallowed a massive dose of Tylenol. At the time, Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, for whom the baby was named, had been declared "blessed" by the church--one miracle shy of canonization.

Sister Teresia Benedicta was born Edith Stein in 1891 and raised in a Jewish household in Poland. She converted to Catholicism as an adult and became a Carmelite nun at age 40. Stein left behind a reputation as a brilliant educator and writer to enter religious life. She died in 1942, in Auschwitz, because of her Jewish heritage.

"We asked people to pray to Edith Stein," says McCarthy, recalling daughter Benedicta's brush with death. He and his family never doubted that it would take a miracle to cure her.

"The doctor who played devil's advocate at the tribunal was absolutely opposed to the idea of a miracle," McCarthy recalls. His daughter Benedicta's own doctor, Ronald Kleinman, made a convincing case that no life can be restored from the level of cell death that she had reached.

In the spring, Stein was approved. Her canonization Mass will probably be celebrated in Rome next year.

Clearly, it is too soon to know whether Mother Teresa will be judged a powerful intercessor for those who pray to her. This soon after her death, no miracles have been investigated.


Unlike his predecessors, Pope John Paul II seems to be on an undeclared mission to build up the number of saints. Since his election in 1978, John Paul has directed more than 600 beatifications and close to 300 canonizations--almost five times as many as the seven previous popes of this century.

In large part, he has done so to expand the ranks of ethnic saints and affirm the validity of the church in corners of the world far from Rome.

For those pressing a cause, technology is making a difference. The Rev. Kirian Kavanaugh of the Carmelite monastery in Washington, D.C., was closely involved in Edith Stein's canonization. "If it wasn't for computers and the fax machine," he says, "we'd still be going after her approval."

Ultimately, it is not quick technology but human tenacity that leads to canonization. "People get behind an individual and push for them," says Kenneth Woodward, whose "Making Saints" (Simon & Schuster, 1990) is the most thorough account of the steps involved.

Even now, Mother Teresa's name appears in several books about saints. Robert Ellsberg includes her in "All Saints" (Crossroad, 1997), his book of profiles on holy men and women, published before Mother Teresa's death. If she never makes the official list, it won't change public opinion, he says: "She is one of the most universally acclaimed holy people of all time."

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