Yo, journalists: Mother Teresa would be quick to explain that she cannot perform miracles

Now it's on the calendar. The "saint of the gutters" will, on Sept. 4 -- the eve of the anniversary of her death in 1997 -- become a Catholic saint. The tiny nun who millions hailed as "a living saint" will officially become St. Mother Teresa.

Obviously, this announcement by the pope required journalists to describe the somewhat complicated process that led to this moment. Thus, this assignment -- trigger warning! -- required descriptions of complicated doctrinal concepts such as "prayers" and "miracles."

The key word you are looking for, as you scan the mainstream media coverage, is "intercede."

However, if you want to see a perfect example of HOW NOT to describe this process, note this passage from USA Today:

She was beatified in 2003 by Pope John Paul II after being attributed to a first miracle, answering an Indian woman's prayers to cure her brain tumor, according to the Vatican. One miracle is needed for beatification -- described by the Catholic Church as recognition of a person's entrance into heaven -- while sainthood requires two.
Francis officially cleared Mother Teresa for sainthood on Dec. 17, 2015, recognizing her "miraculous healing" of a Brazilian man with multiple brain abscesses, the Vatican said.

Note that we are dealing with paraphrased quotes. Did an official at the Vatican actually say that Mother Teresa, on her own, "healed" these two people? Or did the Vatican say that they were healed by God after believers asked Mother Teresa to pray for them, to "intercede" with God on their behalf?

Here is the key doctrinal fact that journalists need to grasp in order to get this story right: Saints pray. God heals.

Several years ago, I asked a Catholic apologist to answer this question: What does it mean to say believers ask saints to pray on their behalf?

Father Arne Panula has faced this kind of question many times, especially as director of the Catholic Information Center a few blocks from the White House.
 In press reports, this mystery is reduced to an equation that looks like this -- needy people pray to their chosen saints and then miracles happen. It's that simple. The problem, stressed Panula, is that this is an inadequate description of what Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and some other Christians believe.
"What must be stressed is that we pray for a saint to intercede for us with God. Actually, it's more accurate to say that we ask the saint to pray 'with' us, rather than to say that we pray 'to' a saint," he said. "You see, all grace comes from the Trinity, from the Godhead. These kinds of supernatural interventions always come from God. The saint plays a role, but God performs the miracle. That may sound like a trivial distinction to some people, but it is not."

Now, it's true that many Catholics, when describing this process in simple speech, may omit the doctrinal fine points. Still, if the goal is accuracy, journalists need to describe what the church actually teaches on this issue.

To my amazement, this short Associated Press report completely ignored the prayer and miracle issue. In other stories, reporters used an "attributed to" formula while trying to avoid the key doctrinal issue.

Sometimes, you can really see journalists wrestling with this. Take this summary passage from a BBC report, for example:

Five years after her death, Pope John Paul II accepted a first miracle attributed to Mother Teresa as authentic, clearing the way for her beatification in 2003. He judged that the curing of Bengali tribal woman Monica Besra from an abdominal tumour was the result of her supernatural intervention.
A Vatican commission found that her recovery had been a miracle after the Missionaries of Charity said that the woman had been cured by a photo of the nun being placed on her stomach. The finding was criticised as bogus by rationalist groups in Bengal.
In December 2015, Pope Francis recognised a second miracle, which involved the healing of a Brazilian man with several brain tumours in 2008. The man's identity was not disclosed but the man was said to have been cured unexpectedly after his priest prayed for Mother Teresa's intervention with God.

The "intervention with God" language is an improvement, but rather vague. It isn't wrong, but it's somewhat incomplete.

I also thought it was interesting to note what aspects of Mother Teresa's life journalists found controversial. Trust me, anyone who had the chance to interview this woman (click here for my "Eye to Eye with Mother Teresa column) knows that she had a steel backbone and could be very blunt.

The Reuters report (as run by The New York Times) noted that some people thought it was scandalous that the work of Mother Teresa may or may not have led some people -- gasp! -- to convert to Christianity.

In the time since her death, some have accused Mother Teresa and the order of having ulterior motives in helping the destitute, saying their aim was to convert them to Christianity.
The order rejects that, saying, for example, that most of those helped in the Kalighat Home for Dying Destitutes in Kolkata were non-Christians with just a few days left to live and noting that conversion is a lengthy process.

However, let me note that this same Reuters report did include the "intercede" detail, even if the "to perform" reference is a tad vague:

The church defines saints as those believed to have been holy enough during their lives to now be in Heaven and can intercede with God to perform miracles. She has been credited in the church with two miracles, both involving the healing of sick people.

In conclusion, I have not -- so far -- seen a mainstream report on this papal announcement that included what I think is one of the most poignant details of Mother Teresa's remarkable life. I am referring to the years in which, according to her private writings, she experienced a "dark night of the soul" and felt cut off from God.

Some people argued that this meant she was a hypocrite and a "secret atheist." This totally misses the point, in terms of how the church views this kind of trial. If anything, her faithfulness through these years is -- again, in the eyes of the church -- evidence of the strength of her faith and love for God.

Consider this prayer, taken from Mother Teresa's private writings (hat tip to Elizabeth "The Anchoress" Scalia):

Jesus, hear my prayer. If this pleases you, if my pain and suffering, my darkness and separation gives you a drop of consolation, my own Jesus do with me as you wish, as long as you wish, without a single glance at my feelings and pain. I am your own. Imprint on my soul and life the sufferings of your heart. Don’t mind my feelings; don’t mind even my pain, if my suffering separation from you brings others to you, and in their love and company you find joy and pleasure.

Do saints experience these kinds of "dark nights" and challenges in the faith?

By all means, yes! In some cases these spiritual attacks literally defined their lives. Believers would explain it this way: On a battlefield, the enemy goes out of its way to kill its opponent's strongest warriors.

Maybe this part of Mother Teresa's story will appear in coverage closer to the Sept. 4 rites at the Vatican.

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