October 19, 2003 10:06:40

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Pope Beautifies Mother Teresa

VATICAN CITY, Oct. 19, 2003

A nun of the Missions of Charity, the order of Mother Teresa, bows to kiss the hand of the Pope during the beatification ceremony of the ethnic Albanian nun. (Photo: AP)

The most historic feature of this papacy may be the fact that Pope John Paul II hasn't just canonized more saints than any previous pope -- he's canonized more than all previous popes combined.

Pope John Paul II has declared more saints in the 25 years of his papacy than all 264 popes before him combined. (Photo: AP)

Tens of thousands of pilgrim crowded St. Peter's square and the surrounding area to attend the ceremony. (Photo: AP)

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(AP) Pope John Paul II, struggling to celebrate Mass but looking joyous, beatified Mother Teresa during a ceremony Sunday in St. Peter's Square — bestowing one of his church's highest honors on the nun who cared for society's downtrodden.

In a shaky and halting voice, John Paul managed to proclaim Mother Teresa blessed, the midway point on the path to sainthood. And the pope is doing this at record pace, only six years after her death.

It usually takes decades or even centuries. In fact, the most historic feature of this papacy may be the fact that Pope John Paul II hasn't just canonized more saints than any previous pope -- he's canonized more than all previous popes combined.

Mother Teresa won the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize for her charity work in India and elsewhere. She died in 1997.

Police and Vatican security officials estimated the crowd at 300,000, one of the Vatican's largest. After a night of rain, the sun was shining Sunday and thousands of tourists and Romans streamed toward the square even after the ceremony began.

John Paul, wheeled in an upholstered chair across the front steps of St. Peter's Basilica toward an altar sheltered by a canopy, seemed pleased by the jubilant crowd.

“Brothers and sisters, even in our days God inspires new models of sainthood,” John Paul told the crowd. “Some impose themselves for their radicalness, like that offered by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whom today we add to the ranks of the blessed.”

“In her, we perceive the urgency to put oneself in a state of service, especially for the poorest and most forgotten, the last of the last,” John Paul said, speaking in a slow and shaky voice.

After stumbling through several prayers, he let aides read all of his homily, including a tribute to “this courageous woman.”

Nuns from her order wiped away tears and the crowd clapped when he pronounced her blessed. A poster of her smiling, wrinkled face was unveiled to the crowd from the facade of the basilica.

Parkinson's disease has stiffened the pope's facial muscles, and he no longer stands or walks in public because of hip and knee ailments.

In his homily, read by Bombay Cardinal Ivan Dias and others, John Paul said he was “personally grateful to this courageous woman whom I have always felt at my side.”

Another cardinal substituted for the pope in saying some of the Mass prayers, further evidence of the pope's diminished stamina. After a week of several long ceremonies to mark 25 years in the papacy, John Paul faces another test of his strength Tuesday, when he is to lead a long ceremony to install 30 new cardinals.

Hundreds of nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, the order established by Mother Teresa in 1949 to tend to the destitute, sang hymns with gusto.

Front-row seats were reserved for VIPs, including Queen Fabiola of Belgium, royalty from Liechtenstein and Jordan, the presidents of Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo — in homage to Mother Teresa's roots in the Balkans — and about 2,000 of the poor from shelters run by Mother Teresa's followers, including one inside the Vatican's walls.

Also attending the ceremony were Muslim and Orthodox Christian delegations from Albania.

Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian, was born in what is now Skopje, Macedonia. She spent most of her life working in India and established convents and homes for the needy around the world.

The pope put her on the fast track toward sainthood; breaking with the church practice of waiting five years after a candidate's death before starting the often decades-long process of beatification, the last formal step before declaring someone a saint.

Last year he confirmed the required miracle for her beatification, the recovery of an Indian woman who was being treated for what doctors said was an incurable abdominal tumor. A second miracle is needed for elevation to sainthood.

In an interview with The Associated Press a few days before the beatification, the woman, Monica Besra, recounted how nuns from Mother Teresa's order tied a medal with her image around her waist and prayed. The day was exactly one year after Mother Teresa's death.

“That day I fell asleep and I had a deep sleep,” said Besra, who embraced Catholicism after her recovery. “When I woke up, I touched my stomach and I found that the tumor was no more. And I felt light.” John Paul has stressed the importance of fresh role models for his flock in the third millennium, and three of those he has propelled along the path to sainthood were active in the latter half of the 20th century. In addition to Mother Teresa, an Italian mystic monk, Padre Pio, and the Spanish priest who founded the conservative religious organization Opus Dei, Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, had huge followings among Catholics.

Mother Teresa “gave up a lot to do God's work,” said American visitor Dennis Hunt, pushing his infant son, Andrew in a stroller as he made his way to the square.

Hunt, a member of the U.S. Air Force who came from Ramstein Air Base in Germany along with wife, Annette, convinced his parents to come from Chippewa Falls, Wisc., to join him at the beatification.

©MMIII, The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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