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Albania: Vatican Considering Beatification For Mother Teresa

  • Don Hill

The Roman Catholic Church has placed Mother Teresa, the nun who won the Nobel Prize and world fame for her work with the poor in India, on the path to recognition as a saint. To her followers, the outcome is certain. They say that for them, Mother Teresa is already a saint. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports that, in Albania, excitement is mounting at the prospect that Mother Teresa will become the first Vatican-recognized Albanian saint.

Prague, 21 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Only three in 10 Albanians are Christian, and only one in three of these is Roman Catholic. But excitement is growing among many Albanians as the Vatican places one of their own, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu better known as Mother Teresa, on the path to recognition as a saint.

Archbishop Henry Sebastian D'Souza of Calcutta, India, and a diocesan commission have labored since 1999 -- two years after Mother Teresa's death at age 87 -- to gather documentation on what the Roman Catholic Church calls the "life, virtues, and reputation of sanctity" of the respected nun. This month, the commission dispatched 35,000 pages in 76 volumes to the Vatican as evidence to support her beatification, a step toward sainthood.

Mother Teresa spent most of her life ministering to the poor and helpless of India. Born to Albanian parents in Skopje, she has become an idol for Albanians of all faiths.

Actor Sulejman Rushiti is a Muslim Albanian who lives in Skopje. He says Albanians hold Mother Teresa in the highest possible regard:

"The act of sanctification of Mother Teresa, for me as an Albanian, has a very important meaning because Mother Teresa as a phenomenon proves that we have -- and we will have -- people who are ready to consume their being for humanity."

Bojaxhiu left her home in Skopje at 18 to join the Sisters of Our Lady of Loreto religious order. She learned English, took the name Teresa and received religious training in an abbey near Dublin in Ireland. She was nearly 19 when she arrived in Calcutta.

She began work as a teacher, but less than a year passed before she decided that her real vocation was to leave the convent and to live and work among the poor. Her church superiors took 20 years to grant her permission to do so.

After training as a nurse, she then took up residence with the Sisters of the Poor and began a solitary ministry. Story has it that she first went into Calcutta's teeming streets wearing a cheap white sari and carrying nothing but a bar of soap and five rupees. A year later, a former student joined her. Others came. And in 1950, she and her associates founded, with papal permission, the Society of the Missionaries of Charity.

The society's work spread to a number of houses serving the poor in Calcutta. It then spread to other areas of India, and on to other countries.

In 1979, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In her acceptance speech, she said that she and her sisters could feed the unfed they met but could not provide enough love for the unloved.

Despite worldwide admiration, the tiny Albanian nun from Macedonia did not escape criticism. In India, Hindus complained that her charity was conditional, that she proselytized to convert to Catholicism people who were too weak to resist.

Dom Lush Gjergji is well-known in Kosovo as an author and exponent of the Roman Catholic Church in Albania. His books, including a number about Mother Teresa, have been translated into 35 languages. He denies that Teresa conditioned her care on conversion:

"Through mankind she tried to see, to experience, to love and to be devoted to Jesus Christ. That's why she was not a person who wanted to convert people to Catholicism, because love and suffering is the same all over the word, and because God is the father of all humanity."

Mother Teresa herself put it succinctly in a documentary about her life made in 1979: "Never turn your back to the poor."

Another oft-repeated criticism is that for all the houses created by her order, for all the years of work all over the world, Mother Teresa and her Society of the Missionaries of Charity never really solved any of the world's great problems -- hunger, illiteracy, disease. Teresa herself said that she treated people, not causes nor classes. As she said in the same documentary:

"And so, you and I, let us look straight into our own families, for love begins at home. Do we really understand the poverty of Christ? The poverty of the poor in our own home? In our own communities?"

Gjergji, the Kosovar-Albanian scholar, says he considers Mother Teresa a divine gift to the Albanian people:

"I believe that Mother Teresa represents a gift of God's providence, not only to her personally, not only to the Catholic Church, but also to our Albanian nation."

The 70 percent of Albanians who are Muslims, the 20 percent who are Albanian Orthodox, and the 10 percent who are Roman Catholic cannot look for the Vatican to name Mother Teresa a saint soon. The priest appointed to advocate for her beatification says he will need two years merely to write his report. And beatification, in Roman Catholic custom, is only one step along the way to sainthood. Although the sanctification process for Mother Teresa has been relatively speedy so far, it may be years before she is officially named a saint.

But to Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu's followers, that is not a problem. As Kristo Das, a charity worker in Calcutta, put it recently, "She was always a saint for us."

(Ulpijana Neziri of RFE/RL's Albanian unit contributed to this feature.)

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