VATICAN CITY: Thousands of pilgrims thronged to St. Peter's Square on Sunday for the canonization of Mother Teresa, the tiny nun who cared for the world's most unwanted and became the icon of a Catholic Church that goes to the peripheries to tend to lost, wounded souls.
Pope Francis is declaring Mother Teresa a saint at a morning Mass, making her the model of his Jubilee Year of Mercy and in some ways his entire papacy. For Francis, Mother Teresa put into action his ideal for the church to be a merciful "field hospital" for the poorest of the poor, those suffering both material and spiritual poverty.
Throughout the night, pilgrims prayed at vigils in area churches and flocked before dawn to the Vatican under heavy security to try to get a good spot for the Mass that was expected to draw more than 100,000 people.
"I think most of all we are thankful to her (Mother Teresa) for the message, for really changing our lives with her example, humility, being close to the poorest of the poor," said Simone Massara as he prayed with his wife at a vigil at the Basilica of Sant'Andrea della Valle before the Mass.
While Francis is clearly keen to hold Mother Teresa up as a model for her joyful dedication to the poor, he is also recognizing holiness in a nun who lived most of her adult life in spiritual agony sensing that God had abandoned her.
According to correspondence that came to light after she died in 1997, Mother Teresa experienced what the church calls a "dark night of the soul" — a period of spiritual doubt, despair and loneliness that many of the great mystics experienced. In Mother Teresa's case, it lasted for nearly 50 years — an almost unheard of trial.
For the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, the Canadian priest who spearheaded Mother Teresa's saint-making campaign, the revelations were further confirmation of Mother Teresa's heroic saintliness. He said that by canonizing her, Francis is recognizing that Mother Teresa not only shared the material poverty of the poor but the spiritual poverty of those who feel "unloved, unwanted, uncared for."
"What she described as the greatest poverty in the world today (of feeling unloved) she herself was living in relationship with Jesus," he said in an interview on the eve of the canonization.
Sunday's festivities honoring Mother Teresa weren't limited to Rome: In Kolkata, where Mother Teresa spent a lifetime dedicated to the poor, a special Sunday Mass was held at the order's Mother House. Volunteers and admirers converged on Mother House to watch the canonization ceremony, which was being broadcast on giant TV screens in Kolkata and elsewhere.
Sisters of Charity sisters planned to distribute food to the poor nearby after the ceremony, and community meals were being served across Catholic parishes in India on Sunday — a symbolic reference to Mother Teresa's lifetime of service to humanity, said the Rev. Savarimuthu Sankar of the archdiocese of New Delhi.
Ceremonies were also expected in Skopje, Macedonia, where Mother Teresa was born, and also in Albania and Kosovo, where people of her same ethnic Albanian background live.
Born Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu Aug. 26, 1910, to Albanian parents in Skopje, Mother Teresa came to India in 1929 as a sister of the Loreto order. In 1946, she received what she described as a "call within a call" to found a new order dedicated to caring for the most unloved and unwanted, the "poorest of the poor."
In 1950 she founded the Missionaries of Charity, which went onto become a global order of nuns — identified by their trademark blue-trimmed saris, as well as priests, brothers and lay co-workers.
She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
She died in 1997 after a lifetime spent caring for hundreds of thousands of destitute and homeless poor in Kolkata, for which she came to be called the "saint of the gutters."
St. John Paul II, her most ardent supporter, fast-tracked her for sainthood and beatified her before a crowd of 300,000 in 2003.