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Mother Teresa is to attain the highest honour bestowed on any within the Catholic Church – on the 4th of September this year, she will be made a saint. But her ‘fast-tracked’ canonisation is seen by many as controversial – convenient for a Papacy willing to use her fame for its own ends. In many ways, Mother Teresa’s transition to sainthood mirrors that of many other female women religious throughout history.

Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, soon to be (yet another) Saint Teresa, was the youngest daughter of an Albanian family who would grow up to be the most renowned nun in the world. She received the Noble Peace Prize in 1979. The order she founded to help the poor in Calcutta, the Missionaries of Charity, had over 4,000 members by her death, and over a million people attended her funeral in 1997.

Her canonisation has been passed after the Church accepted a second miracle attributed to her, following Pope John Paul’s recognition of the first in 2003, only five years after her death. It has been suggested that Pope Francis has been keen to continue this so-called papal ‘fast-track’ of Mother Teresa to sainthood to coincide with the Year of Mercy, twelve months actively encouraging compassion and charity by Catholics around the globe. 1

As a household name across the world for her charity work, Mother Teresa certainly appears a wise choice for the Church to symbolically further a positive message. Few, it can be argued, capture the world’s imagination like this iconic, frail nun in a blue and white habit.

She has not, of course, been without her critics. The ‘fast-track’ nature of her canonisation is, for some, built on shaky proof of the miracles attributed to her, whilst others point not only to her conservative attitudes to contraception and reproductive health as damaging – her motives in caring for the poor being driven by conversion, rather than care. A frequent focus of criticism for Christopher Hitchens and Germaine Greer, dogged by rumours of misuse of funds and abuse within her charitable homes, she remains controversial, as does her sainthood. 2

The canonisation and holiness of women has long been a political and controversial issue. Female canonisation peaked in the late middle ages  – around 28 percent of all saints in the fifteenth century were women – despite the fact that the overall number of saints had declined. 3 Exemplars of holiness were increasingly outside the professional realms of the Church, offering positions of spiritual authority and autonomy to women through exclusively ‘female’ avenues: mystical marriages to Christ and aspects of motherhood were common saintly features.

But the rise of these female roles in spiritual life were frequently met with suspicion, and by 1500, the very aspects that had created and defined female sanctity mirrored what would become the popular image of the Devil-kissing, lactating, nursing witch. The church looked to male writers were turned to ‘discern the truth’ in female visions.

Theologians like Jean Gerson famously decried the orthodoxy of the spiritual claims made by these women, most especially when, like in St Bridget of Sweden’s case, such holy behaviour was seen to have political currency. Bridget had, for Gerson, vocally supported the wrong side in the Hundred Years War, and her role as prophet only intensified the power of her political support.

Calls for the canonisation of these late medieval women appeared with speed. Requests for St Catherine of Siena’s canonisation began almost immediately after her death, following her involvement in the negotiation to end the Avignon Papacy. The case for St Bridget’s sainthood had been put forward to the pope in 1379, only six years after her death, and were unsuccessful predominately because the Great Schism meant proceedings had to be aborted. The popularity of the cults of late medieval female saints, due in no small part to the different, politically active role they played in society, was used as evidence for their canonisation. The popes that affirmed their canonisation often shared these political sympathies.

The popularity and the criticism of late medieval spiritual women was based on this shared position: sitting outside the authority of the establishment, holding political currency and, often as a result, causing controversy. The debates regarding the ‘fast-track’ of her sanctification, the ‘rightness’ of her religious behaviour and the power of her personality, echo these traditions of female canonisation.

One thing is for certain – just as Catherine of Siena, Bridget of Sweden and their contemporaries held iconic positions at the heart of late medieval religious devotion, in September, Saint Teresa looks set to characterise the Year of Mercy for Pope Francis in much the same way.

Dr Elizabeth Goodwin has just completed her doctorate at the University of Sheffield. Her research examines the impact of reform on female monastic communities in England during the years 1300-1540. You can find her on twitter at @ElizMGoodwin.

Image: Mother Teresa banner hangs outside a church in Macedonia [Wikicommons].

Notes:

  1. Mother Teresa on the fast-track to canonisation, 2003 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/oct/02/philipwillan.
  2. Outline of many of the criticisms levelled at Mother Teresa from the 1990s onwards https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/02/25/why-to-many-critics-mother-teresa-is-still-no-saint/.
  3. For an in-depth and fascinating discussion of this, see Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast, Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (London, 1987), pp. 20-26.
Tags : Catholic Churchhistory of female saintsmedieval historyMother TeresaPope FrancisSaint Teresa
Elizabeth Goodwin

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