Explainer: What makes a saint? Mother Teresa's 'miracles' and criticism

Mother Teresa is soon going to become 'Saint Teresa of Calcutta', here's how
Explainer: What makes a saint? Mother Teresa's 'miracles' and criticism
Explainer: What makes a saint? Mother Teresa's 'miracles' and criticism
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Thousands of people have gathered at the Vatican on Sunday morning (IST) to witness India's Mother Teresa being anointed 'Saint Teresa of Calcutta'.

"All her life she worked to serve poorer sections of Indian society. When such a person is conferred with sainthood, it is natural for Indians to feel proud," Modi said last Sunday during the radio broadcast of 'Mann Ki Baat'.

In March, Pope Francis had announced that Mother Teresa, the Macedonian-born nun who founded the Missionaries of Charity, will be elevated to sainthood, after the Church recognised two 'miracles' attributed to her after her death in 1997.

Mother Teresa, who will now be declared a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, was beatified by then Pope John Paul II in a fast-tracked process in 2003.

The Nobel Laureate had spent 45 years serving the poor and sick on the streets of Kolkata.

(A coin celebrating Mother Teresa, released by the West Bengal Circle of India Post. Image: PTI)

What makes a saint?

To be recognised as a saint is no easy task, as the Catholic Church employs a long process of demanding standards to judge a person’s worthiness to be canonised.

The Associated Press reports:

The process to find a new saint usually begins in the diocese where he or she lived or died; in Mother Teresa's case, Kolkata. A postulator — essentially the cheerleader spearheading the project — gathers testimony and documentation and presents the case to the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints. If the congregation's experts agree the candidate lived a virtuous life, the case is forwarded to the pope, who signs a decree attesting to the candidate's "heroic virtues."

But besides a virtuous life, a candidate must also have two officially recognised miracles attributed to their intercession in some way. Most of these come in the form of miracles of healing. The postulator also has to recognize two persons who have been 'healed' after the candidate's intervention in a way that cannot be scientifically explained.

"Panels of doctors, theologians, bishops and cardinals must certify that the cure was instantaneous, complete and lasting — and was due to the intercession of the saintly candidate. If convinced, the congregation sends the case to the pope, who signs a decree saying the candidate can be beatified. A second miracle is needed for the person to be declared a saint," the AP report adds.

What is a miracle?

Oxford Dictionary defines a miracle as:

An extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore attributed to a divine agency

Besides something that cannot be medically explained, the healing in a miracle must also be instant and long-lasting.

A report in The Conversation adds:

A review of 1,400 canonization miracles over four centuries finds many patterns. More than 95% of miracles were healings from physical illness, with medical miracles accounting for 99% of all miracles in the 20th century.

Mother Teresa's miracles

The Mirror UK reported that over 35,000 pages of documentation were collected to prove the case for Mother Teresa's two miracles.

The first one, which led to her beatification in 2003, was of a Bengali tribeswoman Monica Besra, who was 'cured' from an abdominal tumour due to Mother Teresa's intervention.

The report in The Mirror explains:

A commission from the Vatican judged the woman's recovery was down to a locket containing a picture of the nun which was placed on the patient's stomach. However, her doctor, Ranjan Mustafi, reportedly says she didn't have cancer and the tubercular cyst she did have was cured by prescription medicine.

Mother Teresa's second miracle was associated to a Brazilian man Marcilio Haddad Andrino, who was in a coma in 2008, because of a viral brain infection.

The Times of India reported:

Scheduled to undergo surgery at a hospital in Santos, Andrino was fighting for his life. On the eve of the operation, his wife Fernanda Rocha walked into the room of Father Elmiran Ferreira of the Parish of Our Lady of Aparecida in Sao Vincente and asked for help. The Catholic priest gave Fernanda a medal and prayer of Mother Teresa and asked to pray to the Kolkata nun. The next morning, so goes the official story, Andrino was sitting on his bed. All his symptoms were gone

The couple along with their children are attending the canonisation ceremony in Rome.


The Church's notion of miracles has been heavily criticised by rationalists and scientists.

The Conversation report quotes Scottish philosopher David Hume writing that “nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happens in the common course of nature” and “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish."

Mother Teresa herself has also been at the centre of many controversies, with her critics arguing that she let many people suffer even when there was a cure.

One of her most famous critics, author Christopher Hitchens, aired a documentary 'exposing' her, where he claimed that doctors who visited her missionary alleged that patients lived in unhygienic conditions, with inadequate food and little or no access to the latest medicines.

According to a report in the National Geographic, Hitchens also raised questions about Mother Teresa accepting a large donation from financier Charles Keating, who was subsequently convicted for defrauding investors. Mother Teresa reportedly asked for clemency for Keating, while keeping mum on the nature of their relationship. She also reportedly received donations from and lauded dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, who was later accused of condoning serious human rights abuses towards thousands of Haitians under his rule.

Summing up all the criticism against her, NBC reports that she has been accused of offering stingy or substandard medical care; of proselytizing to her patients; of claiming virtue in suffering rather than trying to alleviate it; cozying up to dictators; and of promoting her efforts beyond the necessary to a global media eager for heroes. 

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