Pope musters his strength to beatify Mother Teresa

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The Independent Online

His speech was slurred to the point of incoherence. Age and illness had cruelly robbed him of the ability to deliver his homily, but Pope John Paul II somehow mustered the strength to utter the one word that, on a sunny autumn Roman day, more than a quarter of a million people had been drawn to St Peter's Square to hear.

At an open-air mass before one of the Vatican's largest ever crowds, the pontiff formally declared Mother Teresa "blessed".

"In her, we perceive the urgency to put oneself in a state of service, especially for the poorest and most forgotten," he said.

As a tapestry of Mother Teresa, in the familiar blue-trimmed white sari, was unfurled on the facade of St Peter's basilica, there were cheers from the crowd, which filled the square and stretched down the Via della Conciliazione from the Vatican to the river Tiber.

And there were tears from the small army of nuns from Missionaries of Charity, the order which Mother Teresa founded in 1950 with only 12 nuns but which now has 4,500 in 133 countries.

It was a lavish occasion on which questions about the authenticity of the miracle which led to Mother Teresa's beatification were set aside. As were questions about her rigid opposition to abortion and condoms in overpopulated, Aids-ridden India; the dictators from whom she accepted donations; and the possibility that others more worthy than she have been overlooked.

"Brothers and sisters, even in our days God inspires new models of sainthood," the Pope told the crowd, drawn to see one aging stalwart of the Catholic church honouring another by placing her on a high-speed walkway to sainthood.

"Some impose themselves for their radicalness, like that offered by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whom today we add to the ranks of the blessed," he said.

In a homily read by his aides, he expressed his personal gratitude to "this courageous woman whom I have always felt at my side". He described her as an "icon of the Good Samaritan", who had "chosen to be not just the least but to be the servant of the least."

Indian dancing girls with incense and flowers moved amid the scene, their white and gold saris colour-coordinated with the Pope's vastly ornate vestments, a touch of extravagance that could hardly be more remote from the character of the woman they honoured.

And relics of Mother Teresa, who died in 1997 from a heart attack at the age of 87, were carried in procession. One of them was a piece of cotton soaked with her blood.

Among the audience's VIPs were the presidents of Albania - the country to which, ethnically, she belonged - and of Macedonia, in whose city, Skopje, she was born in the Ottoman era.

There were also scores of representatives from India, whose nationality she took, and in whose chaotic slums in Calcutta she lived and worked.

There is more of this to come. The Pope has accelerated her passage to sainthood; breaking with the Catholic Church's practice of waiting five years after a candidate's death before starting the long process of beatification, the last formal step.

Last year he confirmed the required miracle for her beatification - the recovery of an Indian woman who was being treated for what doctors said was an incurable abdominal tumour. But his decision was controversial, because proof of a second miracle is needed before canonisation as a saint.

In Calcutta, her beatification was watched with some interest. There were prayers and celebrations in the homes which her order runs, where the usual ban on television was lifted in order to watch proceedings live from Rome.

But India's great eastern city - with its long Marxist tradition and post-independence Hindu majority - has never been entirely comfortable with the "saint of the gutters".

It knows that, for all her good works, the gutters remain as crowded as ever.