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A message on Mother Teresa

In event, O'Malley sees affirmation

VATICAN CITY -- The beatification of Mother Teresa is a reminder to the world, and to the people of Boston, that the Catholic Church is bigger than the sexual abuse crisis that has roiled the American church, Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley of Boston said yesterday.

"In Boston, we see up close how things can go wrong in the church," he said. "But Mother Teresa is a success story. She is what the Gospel is about."

O'Malley, who knew Mother Teresa and traveled to Rome to attend yesterday's beatification Mass, said in an interview with reporters for Boston newspapers that he views the focus on her, as well as on Pope John Paul II's 25th anniversary as pontiff, as an antidote to the bad news that has plagued the church for the last two years.

"If we become so absorbed just in what goes wrong in the church because of people's sinfulness or weakness or mistakes, we lose sight of what can also go right in the church," he said over a cappuccino, the drink that supposedly gets its name from O'Malley's religious order, the Capuchins, because the color of the coffee resembles that of the friars' robes.

"The purpose of the church is to bring people to God," O'Malley said. "Obviously, God can work through people's lives when they are open to his grace and faithful to his call, and certainly in the life of Mother Teresa we have someone who was totally open to God's work in her life, and that's why she was able to accomplish so much."

The interview yesterday was O'Malley's first with reporters from secular newspapers since he was named archbishop of Boston July 1. He has held three news conferences, but sharply limited the area of questions at two of them, and he has granted interviews to several Catholic publications. O'Malley was clearly moved by the beatification ceremony, for which an estimated 300,000 people packed St. Peter's Square and filled the boulevard, Via della Conciliazione, that stretches from the church to the Tiber River. O'Malley twice choked up, and his eyes moistened, as he told stories about how he first learned about Mother Teresa's work with the poor and how she had accepted his request to send nuns to work in two previous dioceses he had headed, in the Virgin Islands and in Fall River.

Mother Teresa, who will now officially be known as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, was beatified as a step in the process of canonization, by which the Catholic Church designates saints. People who are beatified can be venerated by their local church and their religious orders; people who are saints can be venerated by the universal church.

During the elaborate, sun-drenched, three-hour ceremony, Pope John Paul II, who is 83 and ailing, looked more tired than he had all week. He was unable to read any part of his homily, and his voice was weak at the few moments when he did speak.

But after the Mass, he rode through the crowd in an open-air vehicle, waving weakly to the throngs of adoring worshipers as the bells of St. Peter's rang out.

"With particular emotion we remember today Mother Teresa, a great servant of the poor, of the Church, and of the whole world," the pope said in his homily, which was read in Italian and English by two aides. "Her life was a radical living and a bold proclamation of the Gospel."

O'Malley said that the pope's heavy schedule this month, which includes multiple events to mark the anniversary of his pontificate as well as yesterday's lengthy beatification ceremony and the naming of cardinals this week, is "a strain," but that the pontiff "witnesses to us the importance of life at all of its stages."

"When he was young and vigorous he projected the vitality of preaching the Gospel," O'Malley said of the pope. "Now he projects the cross, and the suffering that comes into everyone's life with illness and old age, and he does this with faith and still with that strong sense of mission that I find very inspiring."

The rapt crowd was packed with people from around the world, some of them wearing bandannas of blue and white, the colors of the habit of the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order founded by Mother Teresa. The Mass was preceded by a reading of some of her writings, and Indian music and dancing were featured during the service, highlighting the Albanian-born nun's decision to make India her home. A relic -- her blood preserved on pieces of cotton -- was presented to the pope and will be briefly exhibited for public veneration at St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome.

"I am amazed by the love she displayed -- a drastic kind of love that we need in the world right now," said Wilfred N. Harper, 53, of San Fernando, Trinidad. "I feel in a very special kind of way that that's the kind of love I'm being asked to give, and I don't think we've had a better example in recent years."

Anamaria Skanjeti, 20, of Shkoder, Albania, carried a large Albanian flag through the crowd to demonstrate her pride. Mother Teresa's nationality has been a source of dispute, however; she was born to Albanian parents, but in what was then the Ottoman Empire in Skopje, which is now the capital of Macedonia.

"She was a little woman physically, but a great person," Skanjeti said. "She is an example for the young people."

Mother Teresa, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, died in 1997 at the age of 87. The pope, who considered her a friend, moved quickly to beatify her after the Vatican ruled that she had miraculously healed a woman. She can now be considered for canonization if another miracle is attributed to her.

O'Malley, who has three times been asked by the Vatican to take over dioceses reeling from sexual abuse scandals, said he saw the nun as a positive example for Catholics whose faith has been challenged by the abusive behavior of priests. In Fall River, he took charge after a former priest, James R. Porter, was accused of molesting dozens of minors; in Palm Beach he took over after two bishops admitted abusing boys; and in Boston he took over after Cardinal Bernard F. Law resigned over criticism for failing to remove from ministry sexually abusive priests.

"The Porter case had just broken before I went up there [to Fall River] so I called Mother Teresa, and I explained to her what had happened, and I remember I said, `It would be so good if you sisters would come here -- it would be such a consolation for the Catholic people' -- and then a couple weeks or so later, she sent some sisters," O'Malley said.

"There was such pain among our people, and I wanted them to be consoled by the presence of sisters who were doing what is right in the church," O'Malley continued. "They had seen a priest who had been unfaithful to his commitment, and I thought it was important that they also be consoled by seeing the holiness in the minds of these sisters."

O'Malley himself, as a Capuchin friar, has devoted much of his life to working with the poor, and said he hopes to continue that emphasis as archbishop of Boston. He pointed to his decision to appoint as head of Catholic Charities of Boston the highly regarded Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, who is a former head of Harvard Divinity School and the current president of Catholic Charities USA.

O'Malley said that he also hopes to get more Capuchin friars to work with Cape Verdeans in Boston, and that "the presence of Mother Teresa's sisters [the Missionaries of Charity in Dorchester] and others who are working directly with the poor is something I'm very interested in seeing us support and perhaps expand."

"I hope that we will be able to carry on . . . a wonderful tradition of service to the poor and disenfranchised in Boston," he said.

O'Malley is staying in Rome until Thursday for the installation of 30 new cardinals.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

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