Q. Mother Theresa was in the news last week after she was canonized as a saint. I know she was a model of kindness, generosity, and that she served the poor in India for many years. What differentiates a saint from someone who is just an admirable person? How do Lutherans and Episcopalians recognize and/or celebrate saints?
A. Thanks for your question! Like many things separating Lutherans/ Episcopalians from Roman Catholics, things have changed a lot over the past 50-100 years. Historically we were wary of too much of a focus on saints (there were concerns that such devotion could take away from our worship of God). Nowadays, however, Lutherans and Episcopalians talk a lot more about the Saints. The Lutheran and Episcopal churches generally recognize as “Saints” the Saints of Scripture (St. Matthew, St. John, etc.). We do also recognize certain individuals with “commemoration days” on the Church calendar. Recent additions include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and John Wesley, though we don’t call them “Saints.”
To put it crudely, declaring someone a Saint is essentially the Roman church’s guarantee that they are in heaven. That is why two miracles are normally required to declare someone a saint. If someone asks a particularly godly person to pray for them, and they experience a miracle, the logic is that they must be in heaven. Which is an important distinction, by the way. Many people think that “Catholics pray to saints.” Instead, intercessory prayer is asking a saint to intercede on your behalf before God. This would be similar to our prayer chain week to week. We ask one another to pray for us; this would be asking Mother Theresa to pray for you. Though, Lutherans and Episcopalians do not typically encourage this practice.
So, what are we (Lutherans and Episcopalians) to make of saints, and of Mother Theresa? The saints are principally a wonderful example for us of how to follow Jesus in the world. When we read the Gospels, we can find ourselves saying, “Ok, so Jesus did amazing things, but He is the Son of God! How can I be expected to measure up?” The saints are ordinary human beings, just like you and me. What an amazing example for us to aspire to!
And finally, with regards to Mother Theresa, she is a particularly powerful witness to the faith. The reason, for me, are the writings discovered after her death that showed she struggled with her faith for decades. This is amazing to me. Mother Theresa struggled with a feeling of absence from God – struggled with belief – and yet she still lived in incredibly difficult conditions and gave her life toward the service of others. Seeing her life, it would be easy to say, “Yeah, but she had such a strong faith, no wonder she could do that.” But Mother Theresa, just like us, had times of doubt and struggle. What an inspiration in our discipleship – particularly when it isn’t easy and we don’t have all the answers!