Updated Sept. 4, 2016 8:15 a.m. ET
Pope Francis proclaimed Mother Teresa a saint on Sunday, bestowing the Catholic Church’s highest honor on one of the most widely admired public figures in recent history.
The pope celebrated the new saint’s legacy for Catholics in unifying terms that would appeal to both sides of an often fractious divide within the church.
Amid longstanding tensions between Catholics who champion the church’s traditional moral teachings and those more focused on social justice concerns, Pope Francis recalled Mother Teresa’s outspoken opposition to abortion and her dedication to the poor as different facets of a single mission.
The canonization ceremony took place under sunny skies before a crowd of 120,000 in St. Peter’s Square, according to Vatican estimates. Behind the pope, on the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica, hung a banner-sized portrait of Mother Teresa, one of the late 20th century’s most recognizable faces even beyond the ranks of Catholics.
Born to an ethnic Albanian family in what is now Macedonia, the diminutive Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 with 12 followers in Kolkata, India. The order now runs hospices, homeless shelters and other services for the destitute in 139 countries.
In his homily, Pope Francis highlighted the new saint’s outspoken opposition to abortion.
“Mother Teresa, in all aspects of her life, was a generous dispenser of divine mercy, making herself available for everyone through her welcome and defense of human life, those unborn and those abandoned and discarded,” he said. “She was committed to defending life, ceaselessly proclaiming that ‘the unborn are the weakest, the smallest, the most vulnerable.”
But he also recalled that “she made her voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crime of poverty they created.”
Mother Teresa was widely hailed as a saint even during her lifetime and won many worldly accolades, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Only 18 months after her death in 1997, St. John Paul II cut short the usual five-year waiting period to start the canonization process. He beatified her, bestowing the church’s highest honor short of sainthood, in 2003.
Her proclamation as a saint occurred one day before the 19th anniversary of her death. That anniversary, Sept. 5, will now be her feast day in the calendar of the Catholic Church around the world.
In an off-the-cuff addition to his homily, Pope Francis said it would be hard to start calling her St. Teresa: “Her holiness is so near to us, so tender and fertile, that spontaneously we will continue to call her Mother Teresa.”
For the church, saints are exemplars of “heroic virtue” whose divine salvation is an article of faith, and Catholics are encouraged to pray to them to intercede on their behalf with God.
After the pope proclaimed Mother Teresa a saint, two nuns of her order presented one of her relics: some of her blood in a cross-shaped reliquary. The reliquary was made largely of wood from various sources, including the kneeler of a confessional, to symbolize the importance that Mother Teresa placed on repentance and divine forgiveness.
The congregation included 20 official foreign delegations, including those led by Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Queen Sofía of Spain.
There were also 1,500 residents of homeless shelters run by the Missionaries of Charity in various Italian cities, who had been transported to the event overnight by bus. The Vatican said the pope would be treating them to pizza for lunch in the papal audience hall following the Mass.
Fernando Fazio, 56 years old, said had traveled to Rome with his son and sister from Madrid, where he regularly volunteers for Missionaries of Charity, distributing food to needy families.
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“Mother Teresa and her extreme generosity to the whole world and to the neediest is the perfect example of the mercy of God, which all of us should follow if we are Christian,” Mr. Fazio said. “I am only sorry I never met her in person.”
Ronnie Felderhoff, 61, of Muenster, Texas, said witnessing was the canonization was “very spiritual, very fulfilling. It helps you with your faith to see the life she lived out. It’s just phenomenal how she gave herself to God. It humbles me.”
In Kolkata, at the Missionaries of Charity’s Mother House, or global headquarters, nuns and pilgrims wedged together on simple wood benches watched the live ceremony on a borrowed television screen.
Ancy Rodrigues had traveled 2½ days by train from Goa to be there. “One of my prayers at night was always for her to become a saint,” said Ms. Rodrigues. “Now it’s happening, I am so happy.”
Joining the pilgrims praying and laying floral wreathes were local politicians, including the urban development minister of West Bengal State, Firhad Hakim. “It’s a matter of pride for us that Mother Teresa used to walk on these streets,” Mr. Hakim said.
Raju King, 45, a chef who also grew up near the Mother House and now works in Dubai, said his mother used to receive handouts of milk, cooking oil and wheat from the nuns at the charity, which she sold to nearby tea stalls and corner shops for money to support her family.
“As soon as Mother was declared a saint my entire childhood flashed before my eyes,” Mr. King said, his voice shaking and eyes weeping. “Whatever I have achieved today is because of Mother Teresa.”
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