Mother Teresa, Sainthood, and the Saints

Mother Teresa was today declared a saint by Pope Francis. Her many decades of work among India’s poorest in Calcutta, left an indelible mark on the 20th Century. In front of  10,000s of people at a special Vatican ceremony, Pope Francis has canonised Mother Teresa, and there are special masses being conducted in India also.

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Pope Francis proclaimed,  “After due deliberation and frequent prayer for divine assistance, and having sought the counsel of many of our brother bishops, we declare and define Blessed Teresa of Calcutta to be a saint and we enrol her among the saints, decreeing that she is to be venerated as such by the whole Church.”

One nun, working in the same mission where Mother Teresa once served, said, “We are blessed with this canonization because we know mother is in heaven and she will pray for us and she will bless us”

Sainthood is a prestigious club in the Roman Church, although no one knows exactly how many members there are, with some estimating there being as many as 10,000 Saints. This number may seem rather large, but when one takes into account that there are over 1 billion Catholics in the world today, we begin to sense exceptional character of sainthood club.

Sainthood is rare in the Roman Church, partly because the process is arduous and only a few hold the right kind of resume to even proceed.

Canonisation (the final process of becoming a saint) begins with death. Sainthood is only given to men or women posthumously, and generally with at least 5 years separating their death from the commencement of the process.

The process begins usually with the Diocesan Bishop opening an investigation into the life of the departed person, whereby they try to ascertain if they have lived a life that is adequately holy and deserving of sainthood. In other words, if we think you’ve been good enough, as testified to by various witnesses and documents. If this all goes well, a higher authority, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, examines the holiness, deeds, and miracles of the deceased. Following this is beatification, where evidence of a miracle must be verified, of someone who has experience miraculous healing by praying to the deceased person. If all goes well, the Pope will finally canonise or declare the dead person to be a saint.

For Catholics, Saints play an active role in peoples’ lives, this side of heaven. Millions of Catholics venerate (honour and even worship) saint, praying to saints, and allegedly experience healing, guidance, and help from these saints.

In contrast, when we read the Bible we don’t find different classes of Christian, depending on levels of holiness or miraculous deeds. Rather, every Christian is known as a saint. The word itself comes from the Greek verb, meaning, to set apart or to be holy. It is a designation that is true for every Christian, indeed the Christian life is contingent upon this work of the Holy Spirit.

“To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people” (Romans 1:7)

“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2)

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…” (Ephesians 4:11-13). Note that the Saints are not leading churches, but a normal congregation members.

Does it really matter? Yes, it matters because it is fudging the teaching of the Bible, and it matters because it creates  false classes of Christians, and it matters because it empties the Gospel of its power by leading many people to believe in merited salvation. In the Scriptures from which Christianity forms its beliefs,  we find that saints are not spectacular Christians who should be awarded special honours; saints are the only Christians to be found in heaven or on earth.

There is no gold or platinum level club in heaven, and there ought to be no elitism in our churches. The Christian message is about God’s undeserved grace and kindness to us, and everyone has equal standing before God in Christ.

We can thank God for the multitude of ways various Christian brethren have served Christ, the Church, and the world. We would be foolish and ungrateful if we didn’t remember and give thanks for lives devoted to the service of the poor, lives spent in the service of the gospel, lives laid down in martyrdom for the name of Jesus. We may (and we must) celebrate good deeds done in love, and remember the stories of lives worthy of imitation. But “sainthood” is not the category for these stories, apart from how the Bible defines sainthood – those who know God through faith in Jesus Christ.

And should anyone be wondering, should I or can I pray to someone who is not God? Is it ok to pray to a saint? If I may respond by asking another question,  why would we want to pray to a saint? Even if we leave aside the fact that the Roman category of sainthood is erroneous, the extraordinary good news of Christianity is that Jesus Christ has opened the way to God the Father. If this is true, that we have freedom to enter the presence of God through trusting Jesus; we have no need of knocking on empty doors.

As the Bible tell us,

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16)

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