On October 19, 2003, Pope John Paul II will celebrate the ancient ritual of the Catholic Church in St Peter's Square, Rome, to beatify Mother Teresa of Calcutta. What makes this occasion unique is that John Paul II knew Mother Teresa personally, and that she died only six years ago.
Mother Teresa was the most admired Catholic of the 20th Century, due to her heroic work on behalf of the poorest of the poor, a work which began when she began caring for the destitute and dying in the gutters of Calcutta over 50 years ago.
The religious order which she founded in 1948 has since spread throughout the world, has over 4,000 members, and has many centres to assist the poor, lepers, the elderly, the blind, and people living with AIDS. Mother Teresa also opened schools and homes for the poor and abandoned children.
She is regarded as a national treasure in India, the nation where she became a citizen, and in her home country, Albania, where some 70 per cent of the population are Muslim.
Normally, a period of five years must elapse after a person's death for the commencement of the process which leads to beatification; however, the Holy Father waived this, and the process began two years after Mother Teresa entered eternal life.
In October 2002, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints recognised as authentic a miracle attributed to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, thereby passing one of the conditions for beatification.
The miracle occurred on 5 September 1998, just a year after Mother Teresa's death. A 30 year old woman, Monica Besra, a non-Christian woman from Calcutta, was near death with a large abdominal tumour.
She visited the Missionaries of Charity, to pray for her life, for a miracle.
She told CNN, "As soon as I stepped into the church, there was a photograph of Mother Teresa, and there was a light from the photograph that came toward me and I was stunned. Later, the sisters prayed for me, and I went to sleep. When I got up at 1 in the morning, I found the big tumour had disappeared.''
The young woman had experienced a complete and immediate cure. Her doctor, Dr R.N. Bhattaccharya, also a non-Christian, said, "I did not find any reason that without an operation a tumor of such size would disappear overnight." He added, ""It is difficult to describe what I felt with this whole event. But this is one of the most wonderful experiences that I ever had in my medical career."
An exhaustive investigation by the Congregation, backed by expert medical and scientific testimony, confirmed the miracle.
What made Mother Teresa so widely admired, and loved, was that she saw Jesus in even the most distressing situations, and in her own life, fulfilled in the most radical way Jesus' teaching, "Whenever you do this to even the least of my brethren, you do it to me."
Her work became very widely known in the West, as a result of a book Something Beautiful for God, written by the well-known writer and commentator, Malcolm Muggeridge. Indeed, Muggeridge's own conversion to the Catholic faith was probably due to his contact with Mother Teresa.
Her heroic life was also lived in complete conformity to the teachings of the Catholic faith, and she gave a marvellous example of this fidelity on issues like contraception and abortion.
When bodies such as the UN were demanding that India implement draconian birth control policies to restrict India's population growth, Mother Teresa insisted that children were gifts from God, and should always be welcomed.
After East Bengal broke away from Pakistan to form Bangladesh, Pakistani troops invaded the country, in the course of which many thousands of young Bengali women were raped, making them outcasts.
Although international aid agencies offered free abortions, Mother Teresa began a unique program by offering complete care for the young women, describing them as heroes, and helping many to have their babies. It was necessary, she said, to "fight abortion with adoption."
Her love for the most distressed people was evident in the many moving accounts she gave of the people for whom she spent herself so tirelessly.
She said, "One evening we went out and we picked up four people from the street. And one of them was in a most terrible condition. I told the Sisters: 'You take care of the other three; I will take care of the one who looks worse.' So I did for her all that my love can do. I put her in bed, and there was such a beautiful smile on her face. She took hold of my hand, as she said one word only: 'Thank you', and she died."
Mother Teresa added, "I could not help but examine my conscience before her. And I asked: 'What would I say if I were in her place?' and my answer was very simple. I would have tried to draw a little attention to myself.
"I would have said: 'I am hungry, I am dying, I am cold, I am in pain,' or something. But she gave me much more - she gave me her grateful love. And she died with a smile on her face."
She described another situation in these words, "There was the man we picked up from the drain, half eaten by worms and, after we had brought him to the home, he only said, 'I have lived like an animal in the street, but I am going to die as an angel, loved and cared for.' Then, after we had removed all the worms from his body, all he said, with a big smile, was: 'Sister, I am going home to God' - and he died.
"It was so wonderful to see the greatness of that man who could speak like that without blaming anybody, without comparing anything, like an angel. This is the greatness of people who are spiritually rich even when they are materially poor."
Her beatification is a major step on the path to canonisation, when she is declared to be a saint. That happy event will occur when one further miracle, positively attributable to her intervention, is authenticated.