Holy people known, loved, and seen ’round the world — international figures you watch on the news who sometimes turn up in person in the country where you live until they seem almost as familiar as your friends — were new in the twentieth century. Like her admiring friend John Paul II, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a household name.
“Mother! Mother!” people cried when her smiling face and familiar figure in its white sari edged with bands of blue — topped if it were cold by the shapeless, drab old sweater — emerged from a vehicle or perhaps from some unimpressive building housing a group of her spiritual children. Those children might be dressed like her, members of the Missionaries of Charity, or they might be members of one of her two men’s congregations, her cloistered women’s order, the organization of ill and disabled laypeople who backed her works up with prayer support, or other Catholic groups who considered her their leader. These all were made up of individuals striving for holiness by serving, either directly or through prayer, all those (p. 25) John Paul II so loved, the littlest and the least among us. Although she probably never thought of it, these vibrant followers of Jesus out to slake His thirst for souls through loving service to any in need, were, in God, Mother Teresa’s huge gift to the Church.
But, on a scale not seen before the twentieth century, Mother Teresa was also a huge gift to the world outside the Church, a Catholic saint nurturing large numbers of non-Catholic spiritual children too.
In a supranatural way, the Albanian-born citizen of India can be seen as a mother to all. First in India, then later to countries all over the globe, favoring the neediest ones or those where war or other crises left a flotsam of misery, she brought her smile, which was not dependent on how she felt but her gift to God and her trust in God’s providence. Like a loving mother, she tended the family — not just the Catholic family but, it often seemed, the whole human family.
A World Says Good-Bye
With her worldwide outreach, at her death on September 5, 1997, Mother Teresa left thousands of bettered lives and dozens of tangible institutions dotting the globe. With her daughters’ and sons’ help, she had tended people wherever God called her like the best of mothers, and her loving prayers had gone up to God for all the children He had given her. That many of them were not Catholic can be seen only as a mystery of His will.
Mother was home when she died, in the building where the work for Jesus had begun. It had long become the motherhouse — sold to them by a Muslim decades earlier below cost, for God’s sake, the seller said. India gave her a state funeral attended by dignitaries from around the world. Her body was borne through the streets of Calcutta on the same carriage that had transported India’s greatest, including Mahatma Gandhi, as tens of thousands of Indians lined the route for a final glimpse of the Mother of the Poor. Earlier her body had been carried from the motherhouse’s chapel to a church accessible to the poor, who crammed in to file past and speak a last word. That first trip was made in a Missionary of Charity ambulance. On the windshield someone stuck one word: Mother.
Mother Teresa’s friend John Paul was still alive when she died. He waived three years of the five-year waiting period to start a Cause for a woman much of the world had already canonized in their hearts. Still, like every other candidate for formal sainthood, her life would have to be studied to see if her virtues were truly heroic. Assuming heroic virtue were found, then would come the need for a miracle meeting the seven criteria if the Cause were to proceed past “Venerable.”
A Miracle from the Prayers of Mother Teresa
One year had passed after Mother’s death when the following events took place in Mother Teresa’s adopted homeland:
Monika Besra was a thirty-year-old native of India from a very poor rural area of West Bengal. Married to a somewhat older farmer, she, her husband, and their five children were low-caste people living in a dirt-floored hut in a remote area. Like many in the Third World, their god was local, a deity living in a little shrine in their village. There offerings were made to propitiate the god in hopes he would let things go well. Also like many in the Third World, Monika became ill with TB. She received various medications, not too consistently because they had to be paid for. The disease progressed until she was said in 1997 — experiencing fever, headache, and vomiting — to be suffering from TB meningitis.
Then there was the big lump — whatever you called it: a gynecological specialist, after an ultrasound, dubbed it a “large cystic lesion in the lower abdomen and pelvis, suggestive of an ovarian cyst”; other doctors called it a tumor on the ovary. Whether this was part of, or separate from, the TB was disputed. There was no dispute — two unconnected doctors agreed — that her distended abdomen gave her the appearance of a woman six months pregnant. Monika confirms that and that she was in terrible pain.
She ended up in May 1998 at Navajivan, the Missionaries of Charity home for the sick and the dying in Patiram, also in Bengal. She was one of about 150 patients cared for by the sisters. People are taken in based on need not religion. They are charged nothing.
Due to Monika’s serious condition, the sisters took her twice to Balurghat District Hospital and in August to North Bengal Hospital for more specialized care than they could provide. They hoped surgery could be done for the “tumor.” But the medical verdict was that Monika was too ill and weak to withstand the anesthesia needed to investigate the mass surgically. The Missionaries were advised to try to “feed her up” for three months. The hope was that she would gain strength and could be brought back for the operation.
Monika herself had no illusions: she would tell a reporter later that she went back to the home sure she was dying. Medication had helped the fevers and headache, but she continued vomiting — even water and medicine — making it impossible for her to eat. So how was she to be built up? And, as she says: “The tumor kept getting bigger. The pain made me almost senseless.”
Six days after her return from North Bengal Medical College was the first anniversary of Mother Teresa’s death, September 5, 1998. At the home there were special events, including Adoration of Jesus in the Eucharist in the residence’s chapel and healing prayer. Monika was invited at 8 a.m. to participate, thought she was too weak, and then decided to go. It took two attendants to get her into the chapel, she later recalled. She says, “As soon as I entered I felt a ray of light from Mother’s photo coming to me. It came out from that photograph and into my heart. I became nervous. I became hot, and I didn’t feel well.” She told the attendants to just let her sit so she could rest. She says, “I did not tell them what had happened.” When she eventually was taken back to her bed, she says, “I was feeling different. I felt my mind had changed.”
Sr. Bartholomea, the home superior, recounts:
“At 5 p.m. we ended the Exposition [Jesus exposed for adoration in a Eucharistic Host], and I called Sr. Ann Sevika and said, ‘Let’s pray over Monika. Mother Teresa may heal her.’ This day was for me a very special day. So with that faith we went to Monika.
“We laid our hands on her, and another patient was there [praying with us]. I prayed silently in my heart: ‘Mother, today is your death anniversary. You love all the people in our homes. Now Monika is sick; please heal her.’ Then we prayed out loud nine times the Memorarae because Mother loved this prayer very much.” As a sign of their call for Mother Teresa’s prayers, they placed on Monika’s stomach a Marian medal that had been touched to Mother’s body. With Monika’s permission at some point they secured the medal to Monika’s waist, near the young mother’s swollen abdomen. Sr. Bartholomea concludes: “I looked at Monika’s face. It was looking relaxed, and she was sleeping. We kept silence for a while and [then] moved out to the convent.”
Monika says: “At night, around one o’clock, I woke up as usual, and I was feeling lighter and with no pain. I touched my abdomen. I could not find the tumor. I told my bedside neighbor [Samira Tudu], ‘See, I am feeling lighter and there is no pain [because] the tumor is gone.’ ”
Next morning, September 6, she told various sisters about her experience in the chapel. Not only they but Samira, and Handsa, one of the laypeople who helped care for the patients, would confirm what the whole place was talking about: Monika’s stomach was flat without any lumps; the great pain was gone, as were all her symptoms. She was in good shape!
Possible to Believe in Miracles
Jubilant sisters took Monika to various doctors to confirm she no longer had either a tumor nor TB. Doctors at the municipal hospital in the Communist-run area and others acknowledged the tumor and the TB were gone. They insisted she had been cured through the TB medicine, re-diagnosing the tumor as a tubercular mass. When told the tumor disappeared in eight hours, one of these doctors said this was “impossible. She is lying . . . It is not possible to believe in miracles.” But another doctor at private Woodland Hospital in Calcutta admitted, “To say this is a miracle is technically difficult for us [as doctors] but I will say that, to the best of my knowledge as a doctor, this case is inexplicable.”
The sisters reported all this to the officials of Mother Teresa’s Cause in Calcutta. It went through the usual gamut of diocesan inquiry under Archbishop Henry D’Souza and then was sent on to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
The medical committee of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints conducted a several-month inquiry under Prof. Raffaele Cortesini of Rome University Medical School. He has, according to English journalist Mike Brown, investigated seven hundred proposed miracles, including three hundred that proved to meet all seven requirements. Dr. Cortesini noted first, in his interview by Brown, that Monika was very near death if she could not tolerate even exploratory surgery, satisfying the requirement that an illness be serious. That the tumor / cyst was real had been verified by ultrasound and various doctors. Had it been a cyst that burst, the abdominal cavity would have been filled with the distending fluid. It was not. Above all, the TB and the mass, whatever it was, had vanished suddenly and completely. No drug could do that. The cure was accepted for Mother Teresa’s beatification.
Bengal is an area about equally divided between Hindus and Muslims with a Catholic minority. Monika is a member of an indigenous tribe long resident in this part of India. As mentioned, her god was a little enshrined object in her village. Thus, she is described as an animist. God’s friend, Mother Teresa, loved and served everybody in God’s name. Monika’s healing is a reminder that God, too, cares for everybody.
Following the cure, Monika’s life changed. The illiterate low-caste woman from a poor farmer’s family went on a train for the first time in her life in June 1999, traveling to Calcutta “to give thanks” to Mother Teresa at her burial place. When her cure was accepted as God’s vote for Mother Teresa’s beatification, it was made possible for Monika to be in Rome to attend those ceremonies. She was, after all, the one whom God favored to make the event possible.
Some of India’s newspapers suggested she had been coerced to become a Christian by the Missionaries of Charity. Journalist Mike Brown of England’s Telegraph Magazine, to whom I am indebted for his outstanding article, told Monika what was being claimed. The miracle recipient, whom Brown has described as “graceful and composed with an air of palpable serenity,” took this in. Then she not only replied, “Nobody can tell me what to believe,” but added, “or stop me.” But in Rome she made a decision. She says, “I was not Christian before, but I thought Mother has done this [obtained the healing from God] . . . and after returning home, I would take Christianity and obey Mother as next to God.”
Brown also asked the Indian woman why she thought she had received the miracle. After long thought, she said simply she didn’t know.
In that, she joined every healing recipient. What they do know is that, through one of His friends, God’s tender mercy touched them. Faced with eternal mysteries, understanding this — that it all goes back to God — is enough.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Patricia Treece’s Nothing Short of a Miracle: God’s Healing Power in Modern Saints, and is available from Sophia Institute Press. image: Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock.com