News that Pope Francis has cleared the path for Mother Teresa to be elevated to sainthood will come as a Christmas present for the Missionaries of Charity order that the nun founded, and for her devoted followers around the world. Her appeal was not limited to Catholics. Born in the Ottoman Empire, she made the Indian city of Kolkata her home, where she died in 1997 after a lifetime of service to the poor, the sick and the dying. The Nobel laureate remains a global figure of indefatigable compassion, dignified by the deepest humility. Whether her impending canonisation takes place in Rome or in India, it will celebrate the universal spirit of motherhood that turns the living of all nations into a single human family.
The greatest of religious figures hold humanity up to the highest standards. Those include compassion for the poor and the marginalised, nameless and dismissed citizens of the global gutters. Mother Teresa demonstrated the crucial importance of material labour in the spiritual service of humans. The beatified nun, whose tomb has become a pilgrimage site, would have grasped instinctively the wry relationship between the spiritual and the material evoked by this piece of advice to visitors from the Mother Teresa Centre in Kolkata: "Although Mother's Tomb is a sacred place, you do not need to remove your footwear. We are concerned about the loss of shoes and the distress caused thereafter."
Key features of her work remain central to the unfolding of the human enterprise, whether religious or secular. More than shoes would be at stake in a general outbreak of global disorder. The work of those motivated by a nurturing care for humanity exemplifies the overshadowed role of religion as a unifying force for peace. In an era when the sustaining centre of spirituality has moved to the right for many, extremes threaten to redefine the norm of moderation and tolerance that makes life worthwhile on earth. The problem does not lie with any single religion but in the way in which timeless truths are twisted to serve the pursuit of temporal political ends. The danger is posed, not by a clash of civilisations, but by wars unleashed in the name of religion by the warriors of an insurgent fringe who first overrun the pacifist mainstreams of their own faiths. In times such as these, the lives of those who thought, believed and acted otherwise - whatever their religion - are cause for solemn reflection. Their mission seeks to protect humans from the worst into which they can descend, through genocidal warfare, ethnic cleansing or ideological bloodletting. The work of peace is never done.
On Christmas Day, as on auspicious occasions for other religions, those driven by their faith in human destiny and by their belief in the inclusive power of peace are abiding symbols of the better times which coming days and years could bring.