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Mother Teresa’s Canonization and Related Events in the Western Balkans

September 18, 2016


By Blerina Mecule

On 4 September 2016, in a festive atmosphere in Vatican City, Pope Francis proclaimed Mother Teresa a saint, under the name of Saint Teresa of Kolkata. Her legacy as a humanitarian figure is known to the world; more tangibly, according to Vatican News, her missionary work has had clear results. Today there are 5,160 Missionaries of Charity in 139 countries (758 of them working between homes and institutions), while there are 397 priests of the “Brothers of Charity”, who work in 69 houses located in 21 countries around the world.

Pre-Canonization Events in India

The itinerary of ceremonies leading up to the canonization kicked off in August with many celebrations and commemoration events. Starting from India, the tribute-events included a special celebration in the Diocese of Miao, situated in the extreme northeast corner of India, during which Bishop George Pallipparambil SDB of Miao Diocese announced the inauguration of a Hospital dedicated to Mother Teresa, with a statue in her honor to be placed in its entrance.

“Mother Teresa and Mercy go hand in hand,” stated the Bishop. According to him, there was already public demand for a hospital there, as the nearest hospital is 120 km away in Assam’s Tinsukia. While in Vasai, Archbishop Felix Machado inaugurated a church dedicated to Saint Teresa of Calcutta and praised the late nun, calling her “the bridge between India and the people of Europe”.

The Indian government, for the first time, invited a Catholic bishop to be part of the official delegation in Rome for the canonization. This was appreciated and praised by the church as an important step towards working together with people of all religions.

The Indian Bishop’s Conference on the canonization day called Mother Teresa a “fully Indian saint”, though she was born in Skopje in 1910 (when Macedonia was still under the Ottoman Empire). Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, the General Secretary of the Indian Bishops’ Conference, said in a press conference that Mother Teresa is truly an Indian saint because “she made India her country, in her heart, she is a true Indian saint.” According to the bishop, even Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said what many Indians think: that Mother Teresa is ‘our’ saint.

Events Surrounding the September 4 Canonization in Rome

During the historic canonization, several national flags fluttered in Saint Peter’s Square, which gathered many people coming from different countries. The flags displayed were mainly from her region of origin, the Balkans. These included flags of Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo, but also India, where she spent most of her life’s mission.

Among different celebrations put on by Balkan-related groups, famous artists from Kosovo and Albania organized a special concert, dedicated to Mother Teresa, with a special Anthem as a tribute to her. In a show of pride about her ethnic Albanian origin, high-level delegations came from Kosovo and Albania to attend the concert. The day after, the official delegation arrived also from the Republic of Macedonia for the mass celebration at Saint Peter’s Square.

Other important events were held worldwide. The US Embassy in the Holy See curated an online tribute to Mother Teresa, while a statue of her was inaugurated in Manhattan. A special Mass celebration was held by the Albanian Diaspora in Canada and Moscow, and a special concert was held in Spain. Meanwhile in Turin, Italy, the name of Mother Teresa was given to a green natural park.

Focus on the Balkans- Presences at the Canonization and Events Surrounding It

Kosovo: The high-level official delegation coming to the event was constituted by President Hashim Thaci, Prime Minister Isa Mustafa, Speaker of Parliament Kadri Veseli, and the Archbishop of Kosovo, Mons. Dode Gjergji.

President Thaci declared that “we are lucky to live during the best times for Albanians,” while Prime Minister Mustafa stated that “we are lucky to have given to the world the Mother of Peace and Love.”

The celebrations held in Kosovo before and after the canonization day included exhibition events on Mother Teresa. On the day after the canonization, in all the schools in Kosovo, the first hour was dedicated to her.

Albania: the high-level official delegation was represented by President Bujar Nishani, Prime Minister Edi Rama and Speaker of Parliament Ilir Meta.

In an interview for Vatican Radio, President Nishani reiterated the importance of Mother Teresa as an inclusive symbol for the Albanians, which reflects the vision that all human beings are equal in front of God and that all should be united and pray for the fundamental values of the human being.

In a meeting with the Secretary of State of the Vatican, Cardinal Parolin, the Albanian president was praised for the contribution of the Albanian nation and the Albanians in the Balkans, and for promoting the general human aspect of the saint. He described Mother Teresa as the Saint Mother, an Albanian and ‘universal genius.’ A week after the canonization, celebrations were held in northern Albania, the center of Albanian Catholicism.

Of particular importance was the mass celebrated by the members of the Albanian Bishop’s Conference. President Nishani attended the mass and in his speech he reiterated his view of Mother Teresa as a unique Albanian, the ‘most precious gift’ of the Albanian nation to all humanity. “She does not belong only to the Catholic church but to all humanity,” stated President Nishani.

More broadly, he also praised all the efforts of the Albanians to protect the national identity through the worldwide celebrations, as a tribute to Mother Teresa. The late nun was deemed “our precious Saint and symbol to preserve our national identity and the cultural heritage of the Albanians,” said President Nishani.

The week of celebrations included also the inauguration of Mother Teresa’s memorial slab in Tirana, an exhibition of paintings and photos in Durres, while the Albanian media generally reported the worldwide positive impact of the canonization on Albania’s nation brand, which promoted the peaceful coexistence of the country’s three religions.

Macedonia: The high-level delegation for the canonization was led by President Gjorge Ivanov, Prime Minister Emil Dimitriev, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Culture, Nikola Poposki and Elizabeta Kanceska Milevska, the leaders of VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM, Nikola Gruevsi and Zoran Zaev, as well as the representatives of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and members of the family of Mother Teresa.

This large delegation could have been larger still. President Ivanov had invited the four major party leaders: along with Gruevski and Zaev, these included the ethnic Albanian leaders of DUI and DPA, Ali Ahmeti and Menduh Thaci. The president had invited the four leaders – who have been assembled together in all internationally-brokered negotiation during Macedonia’s political crisis – to join him in Rome, to show that they could put aside their differences for one day.

While Zaev and Gruevski accepted the president’s offer, the ethnic Albanian leaders did not. Local media reported that Ahmeti’s spokesman claimed that the Vatican had personally and privately invited him, and that he was communicating with the Italian Embassy in Skopje. This comment made some Macedonians angry as to why Ahmeti should have such ‘special treatment’ and not follow the state delegation.

In terms of media coverage, the canonization was broadcast live by Macedonian National Television, with commentary in the Macedonian language; however, the Albanian-language MNT channel (as well as the privately owned Albanian-language channels) did not choose to broadcast the event at all. There was no discussion of the reasons for this, but possibly the largely Muslim composition of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia indicated relatively less interest than in Kosovo or Albania.

The canonization protocol also caused some controversy for Macedonians, regarding the strange error in the English version of the official booklet that the Vatican distributed during the celebration in Saint Peter’s Square. According to some media, in the English version it was written that Mother Teresa was born in Skopje, Albania. The error was noted also by the official Macedonian delegation, which complained to the diplomatic authority of the Vatican. According to what the local media reported, the Vatican agreed that an error had occurred, and the booklet was modified accordingly in the online version, while the printed version was withdrawn from circulation.

Mother Teresa’s canonization was followed in Macedonia by other events. A mass was held at the much-visited Memorial House of Mother Teresa, which chronicles her life and works. Another mass was held on 11 September by the special envoy of Pope Francis, Cardinal Vinko Puljić, Archbishop of Sarajevo.

During the Pontifical Mass, President Ivanov said that the only way to show respect to Mother Teresa is to live together in peace despite any religious, ethnic and ideological differences.

“Instead of exhausting ourselves with political battles in proving her origin and adoption of her name, Mother Teresa would tell us to follow her example,” stated the president, taking a philosophical approach.

“Seeing how easily we turn the cross and the crescent, the church and the mosque into fortresses for repelling of virtual territories, she would remind us that faith is love in action… She would encourage us to keep the most valuable asset we have- the Macedonian model of coexistence, respect, and acceptance of diversity.”

Vatican Goals and the Symbolism of Mother Teresa

As the Macedonian president hinted, the whole canonization phenomenon has highlighted different claims at national and cultural ‘ownership’ of Mother Teresa’s legacy. For the Vatican, however, one key goal in this respect is to emphasize unity-through-diversity. As the visit of Pope Francis to Albania attested in 2014, the church sees the harmonious coexistence between the three religions in Albania (and its further promotion within the Balkans) as strategically important. It is a tangible element of dialogue between Islam and Christianity, between East and West, based on the culture of reciprocity, rather than on the monologue of theology and religiosity.

In this sense, promoting the myth and symbol of Saint Mother Teresa’s figure is important for the Vatican. The church has sought to promote her as an Indian citizen born in Macedonia, with ethnic Albanian roots, a Nobel Prize-winner who promoted the joy of love, the worth of dignity and respect, and as a saint of the Catholic Church, who undertook important and enduring missionary work.

By extension, this inclusive approach indicates Vatican goals of promoting dialogue and understanding between Muslims and Christians, between East and West, and between the different peoples in the Western Balkans. While the region (and of course the world) are chronically divided along religious, ethnic, social and other lines, the canonization of such a ‘multi-national’ personage as was Mother Teresa has given the Vatican a unique opportunity to express its ecumenical message. As such, even if some in the Balkans might see it as a regional issue, the canonization of Mother Teresa has a global significance for the Vatican.


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