... but even she must wait her turn for sainthood

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The Independent Online
BEHIND a black iron door in a wall by the side of the church of San Gregorio Magno in Rome nestle two rows of low, concrete cells which would not look out of place in a Calcutta slum. Towels flutter from makeshift washing lines strung across windows, and the occasional piece of Sixties furniture can be glimpsed in sparse interiors.

It is from here that the Missionaries of Charity dispense food, clothes, and a few lira to the city's needy. And it is here that Mother Teresa's flame is kept burning just a stone's throw from the Vatican, where high church officials will be called upon to decide whether the woman dubbed the "Saint of the Slums" should in fact be canonised.

The sisters, however, are loath to talk about the process. "It's nothing to do with us," says a dour nun who declines to give her name. "We know nothing about it. You'll have to talk to the order in Calcutta. They're handling it all from there."

If this seems a little too ingenuous, the Vatican is all too ready to back the sisters up. Soon after Mother Teresa's death a year ago, the Congregation for the Cause of Saints moved swiftly to quash speculation about a fast-track canonisation, saying the regulation five-year pause would be observed. The Congregation will not consider a request for sainthood, nor will it begin to study the weighty documentation in Mother Teresa's favour which the Calcutta diocese is reported to be accumulating, until October 2002.

"These rules are drawn up for good reasons," said a Vatican spokeswoman last week. "The dust has to be allowed to settle, and the bad as well as the good has to emerge before a balanced decision can be made. There is no question of a waiver in Mother Teresa's case."

If this is so, there is little chance that the diminutive Albanian-born nun will take her place among the congregation of saints until the second decade of the new millennium.

Despite some streamlining by Pope John Paul II in the early 1980s, the canonisation process remains lengthy, and many saints gain their haloes after centuries, rather than decades. Even if the documentation presented to the Vatican by the Calcutta diocese looks convincing - allowing Mother Teresa to be declared "venerable" - two miracles directly attributable to her intercession are necessary, first for her beatification and then for her final canonisation. Forced to play to an increasingly cynical audience, the Catholic Church is growing more and more careful about what it accepts as truly miraculous.

This, however, has not prevented the Pope from breaking all previous records for swelling the ranks of saints and martyrs. During his 20-year pontificate, he has beatified 803 people and canonised a further 279, often in mass ceremonies. The swiftest canonisation in the history of the modern church was that of Monsignor Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, the shadowy founder of the controversial and powerful Opus Dei movement, who was made a saint just 17 years after his death in 1975.

That the Pope, who knew Mother Teresa well, is keen to see her become Saint Teresa is well known, as the Vatican's deputy spokesman, Ciro Benedettini, made clear on the day she died. "The Pope believes she is a woman who has left her mark on the history of this century," he said then.

Having left such a deep mark, Indians close to the Vatican feel her canonisation is merely a matter of time. "Everyone knows that she'll be made a saint," said one source. "That's a foregone conclusion... Everyone is sitting back, waiting for the inevitable to happen."

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