Mother Teresa, the founder of Missionaries of Charity, who dedicated her life to the care of the “poorest of the poor”, will be Canonized by the Vatican on September 4. Ahead of her canonization, Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, who has been the postulator for Mother’s Canonization cause – responsible for documenting and investigating her life, as well as the miracles attributed to her, to facilitate her canonization, speaks to HT from Rome. Excerpts from a telephonic interview.
Father, when was the process of Mother’s canonization initiated and what are the different steps in the process?
The first step in the process is when people sense there is something holy about the person. Like in Mother Teresa’s case, people felt she was a holy person. After that the Bishop of the diocese in which the person died has to petition that a cause for Beatification and Canonization be initiated. If no objection is made by the Vatican, the process is started, after which the person is addressed as a ‘Servant of God’. In Mother’s case that petition had to come from Kolkata. Usually there has to be a five year gap between the person’s death and when the petition can be made. But in Mother’s case the Pope waived off three years, so the petition was moved and accepted in 1999. I was appointed postulator in March 1999.
Was the process fast-tracked because in 1998, a year after her death, Mother Teresa was already to have performed a miracle?
No, the miracle had nothing to do with it. Typically the investigation of miracles happens at a much later stage in the beatification or canonization process. The logic is to say that we have made all humanly possible efforts to find whether there are any obstacles in the path of beatifying or canonizing this person, and we have found nothing. The miracle then is the last possible confirmation, a confirmation from God of the holiness of the person.
So after the cause for Beatification and Canonization has been accepted, what happens then.
After that starts the investigation into and documentation of the person’s life. From that investigation and gathering of information in support of the person’s holiness, is drawn up the Positio, the “Position” in English – or a position on the cause. This is put to vote at multiples levels. In Mother’s case it was unanimously cleared by the commission of nine theologians and the council of 15 bishops. It is then forwarded to the Pope. Once the Pope has recognized the heroic virtues of the person, he or she is referred to as Venerable.
After that starts the search for, and investigation into, the first miracle.
However, in Mother’s case since Monica’s case was reported in 1998, and the tribunal was already in Kolkata in 1999 to document Mother’s life, they recorded both.
But for a miracle to be accepted as once, it has be to proved beyond doubt that it can’t be explained medically, right? However, in Monica’s case there was a doctor at a government hospital who had claimed that medicines had cured Monica. So how was it accepted as a miracle?
We had to consider his claim of course. But we had the medical reports. And the tribunal spoke to 11 doctors, 10 of whom were Hindus. And they all said that they couldn’t explain it medically.
And then the Beatification happened in 2003… As in the case of initiating the cause, when three years were waived off, were any other exceptions made for Mother?
There was never any requirement for the proper performance of the procedure that was not followed in Mother’s case. For example, in Mother’s case we spoke to 117 witnesses while documenting her life. Simply because so many people knew her and from around the world. In a typical case, one will only speak to about 50 witnesses. However, usually the confirmation of the holiness of one’s life and the confirmation of the miracle are announced by the Pope one after the other on different days. But for Mother, both declarations were made by Pope John Paul II on the same day in December 2002, because he wanted the Beatification to happen on the occasion of his 25th anniversary as Pope.
After the Beatification then, one only needs to find a second miracle for the Canonization?
Tell us a little about Marcilio – what had happened to him and how we was cured. We in India don’t have very many details about him.
Marcilio is an engineer in Brazil. He was suffering from a bacterial infection in the brain which had caused multiple abscesses, because of which he developed hydrocephaly. On December 9, 2008, Marcilio complained of excruciating pain in his head and slipped into a coma. The doctors took him to the operation theatre, hoping to drain the water, but the surgery doesn’t go as planned, and the doctor leaves the OT to find help. When he returned, Marcilio was awake, in no pain and wondering what he was doing in the OT. Two brain scans were taken, one on Dec 9 and the other on December 13, and none of the doctors could medically explain how Marcilio was cured. In fact, the doctor who had been treating Marcilio told his brother that he had had 30 patients with similar conditions and Marcilio was the only one who survived.
And was Marcilio praying to Mother Teresa?
Both Marcilio and his wife had been praying to Mother. They had a relic of her and they would put it on his head and pray. Marcilio used to sleep with her relic under his pillow. On December 9, after Marcilio slipped into a coma, his wife started praying to Mother intensely and told everyone in the family to do the same.
I have read that for a miracle to be attributed to someone, not only does it have to be established beyond doubt that the situation can’t be explained scientifically, but also that neither the person, nor anyone in his or her family were praying to someone else…
Oh yes. In fact between the first and the second miracle there were so many other cases that had come up. There was a case in Philippines. One of the doctors said that there is a slight chance that it might have been natural. So that was the end of it. In another case, there was no scientific explanation, the family had been praying to Mother, but one person in the family was praying to someone else. So whose miracle was it?
Is there a position caller the Devil’s Advocate in the Canonization process?
There is such a thing as the devil’s advocate, but that role was more in the old process, which was more legal. The postulator would have a lawyer who would defend the sainthood cause and the Promotor of the Faith (the devil’s advocate’s official name) would argue against. Now it is more a scientific, historical process, but the Promotor of the Faith (as the head of the theological commission of 9 theologians who study the case) still has the responsibility to look for negative points, if he can find any.
There have been people such as journalist Christopher Hitchens and physician Aroup Chatterjee who have criticized Mother and the kind of care offered at the Missionaries of Charity centres. Were these criticisms considered while documenting Mother’s life for the Beatification and Canonization?
Oh yes. In fact both were called as witnesses, the first in the US and the second in London. We had to consider what they said and then either prove that it was factually incorrect or that they had misunderstood the situation and how. For example the allegation about her taking money from people of questionable characters. That’s not factually true. In fact, there are many instances when she refused to accept a donation if she felt the money was ill-gotten.
In many interviews you have talked about how Mother, in her later years, felt that Jesus had abandoned her. Wasn’t that an obstacle in the way of the canonization?
Not at all. In fact even in the case studies on her life we talk about the years of darkness. In fact in Christian spirituality there have been others who have felt the same. What made Mother different was that she felt it for a very long 50 years and yet she never lost faith. That makes her spiritually more heroic. Even Jesus, on the cross, asks God why he had forsaken him. He had felt that sense of being abandoned. So one explanation of why Mother Teresa was feeling it is that she had become so one with Jesus so as for him to share his deepest pain with her.
The other explanation is that Mother when talking about poverty spoke not just of material poverty, but also spiritual poverty. Which is why she wanted to give love to those who were unloved and uncared for. And now we know that she was in solidarity not just with those who were materially poor, but also those who were spiritually poor.
In the years that you have been the postulator of Mother’s Canonization cause what is it that you have found most frustrating or challenging?
The most challenging thing was the size of the project. What I mean is that most of the people considered for sainthood are from a certain place and time. But since Mother was known and loved globally, so for us the challenge was to connect to people in all these different places and record their experiences. Only 77 of the witnesses were from Calcutta. The others were from various parts of the world. There were over 200 archives of material on her to go through.
And were you never frustrated with the pace of things? There was a ten year gap between the Beatification and the reporting of the second miracle.
I can’t really complain about the pace. Her Beatification was the fastest in history. After that people would ask me where’s the second miracle. And I would say it will happen when it has to happen. Or that it has happened, but I haven’t heard about it. Sure enough, the miracle happened in 2008, but I didn’t hear of it till five years later.
Why is that? Aren’t these cases meant to be reported by local bodies?
They are meant to be, but sometimes, as in this case, it wasn’t. But the great thing is that the Canonization is happening now and it is happening in the Year of Mercy, which makes us very happy, because the whole idea of the Missionaries of Charity is mercy.
So what will you feel when you stand there on September 4. Apart from happiness, of course.
I will feel gratitude and satisfaction at the successful culmination of the process. I will also be thankful that as Postulator I wouldn’t be held responsible for having messed up the Cause or making too many mistakes.
And what do you think should Mother Teresa be patron saint of?
Oh, she could be patron saint of women who are having trouble conceiving. Even during her life couples who were having trouble having a baby would come to her. And she would take a medallion of Mother Mary and tell them to pray to Mother Mary saying, “Mary, Mother of Jesus, give us a child.” And their prayer would be answered. She could also be a patron saint of travelers, she did so much travelling herself. In fact, ever since her death I have always prayed to her to take care of my luggage whenever I have travelled and I have never had any trouble with luggage. It hasn’t ever been lost or delayed or anything.