Is Mother Teresa a saint?
|REF# © 1986 Túrelio (via Wikimedia-Commons), 1986 /|
This simple question has been a topic of heated discussions in our office cafeteria since she received her sainthood. I am sure other offices in India would be no different. The simple answer to that question would be ‘no’.
The long answer to the debate is probably more complicated than a simple ‘no’.
The long answer to the debate is probably more complicated than a simple ‘no’.
Let us first take a look at how she became what she is today.
Teresa was born in an ordinary family of Skopje, the capital and largest city of the Republic of Macedonia, on 26th August 1910. Her real name was Agnes (Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu). From her childhood, she had been a religious person. The idea of serving the poor of Bengal for Christ was implanted in her mind very early. In her teens, she got fascinated by the stories of missionaries serving in Bengal. Once she was 18 years old, there was nothing that could stop her from achieving her dream. Teresa left her home and went to Ireland not only to learn English, the language of missionaries in India, but also to start her journey of serving Christ by joining Sisters of Loreto. She arrived in India in 1929 and began her training in the foothills of Himalayas of Bengal in the sleepy city of Darjeeling. In India, she took the name of Teresa - the patron saint of missionaries.
It was only in mid 20th century when Teresa became Mother Teresa. The World War II had deadly repercussion in Bengal. The famine of 1943 left over 3 million dead and those left behind barely survived. Few years later, before the wounds of famine could heal, Bengal suffered the second deadly blow - the Hindu-Muslim riots. Kolkata was lucky to have both Mother and Mahatma (Gandhi) with them during such trying times. Teresa was saddened by the desperate condition of the poor in Bengal and she experienced "the call within the call" to help the poor. She decided to leave the comfort of her missionary and serve the poor while living among them. Since then she has served the poor and took care of "the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.”
With permission from Vatican, she opened the missionaries of charity in 1950. Since then she had opened numerous orphanages, AIDS hospices and charity centres worldwide. In 1952 she opened the home for dying in Kalighat and named in ‘Nirmal Hriday’ (Pure Heart). It was meant for those who lived their life like “animals” but could now “die like angels—loved and wanted.” Her efforts made an adherent atheist like Mr Jyoti Basu, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, say “She makes me a bad Marxist since she makes me believe in godliness”.
Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her humanitarian work. As humble as always she said, “I am not worth it”. Her humbleness could also be found in her card that did not bear her name or number, but just had the words “Happiness is the natural fruit of duty” typed in it. While she tried to make others happy, it took a toll on her mind. Behind her smiling face, she suffered the “tortures of hell”. She wrote a letter in 1959 to the then archbishop of Kolkata, “There is so much contradiction in my soul. Such deep longing for God, so deep that it is painful, a suffering continual, and yet not wanted by God, repulsed, empty, no faith, no love no zeal. Souls hold no attraction. Heaven means nothing, to me it looks like an empty place. The thought of it means nothing to me and yet this torturing longing for God. Pray for me please that I keep smiling at him in spite of everything.”
She died on 5th September 1997. I was 16 years old when she died. You could see sad faces everywhere in Kolkata, irrespective of which religion people belonged to. She lay in repose for one week in St Thomas church, Kolkata. Being a student of St. Thomas School (Kidderpore), her death had affected me too. I still remember writing a poem for her when she died:
I will remember your blessings mother,
Till my last days sun shall set.
With which you have blessed the poor,
Gave them shelter and bread.
I will remember your smile mother,
With which you won million hearts,
With which you revived people in misery,
Made them one amongst the world.
I will remember your words mother,
Which you taught and prayed.
With which you showed path to salvation,
To the millions, sinful and afraid.
Your frail silhouette in blue and white sari
Is a symbol of hope and peace.
In a mind full of distress and pain
It feels like eternal bliss.
I am not a poet…..nor was she a saint.
To understand why we have to answer two questions:
1] Sainthood requires two miracles. Are the miracles real?
2] Was her humanitarian work selfless?
The first miracle she performed was recognised in 2002 when an Indian woman named Monica Besra claimed that she was cured of a cancerous tumour in her abdomen after a beam of light emanated from a locket she had containing Mother Teresa’s picture. Her doctor and her husband rejected the miracle as a hoax. According to them the tumour was non-cancerous and was cured by conventional medical treatment. The second miracle was recognised by Pope Francis in 2015 who claimed that Mother Teresa was involved in healing a Brazilian man with multiple tumours. Another lie. Thus, the two boxes were ticked and Mother became a saint. Sainthood would have been the last thing she wanted. The only thing she craved for was God. After her canonisation on 4 September 2016, she would probably have said, “I am not worth it”. Sainthood on the basis of lies would have made her feel even more so. To me, it is an insult to her soul. Faith heals. Placebo medicines are proof of that. Science has proven that yoga and happy, positive attitude boosts health. But there is so much placebo and stress relieve can achieve, and curing tumour is not one of them. I wonder why her supporters are celebrating such an insult!
The answer to the second question is more complex. Teresa was a believer and whatever she did, she did for Jesus. She believed in Christianity as the only saving grace. Teresa was against abortion, contraception, divorce and remarriage. She has also been responsible for many secret conversions. According to a video recording from 1992, she has boasted of converting over 29,000 people to Christianity on their deathbed in Nirmal Hriday. But she converted those who got only suffering from their own religion. Though not selfless, it does not make her a Satan. She did it only because she cared. How many people would be happy to attend a person on the roadside dying of leprosy? One may doubt her reason, but not her commitment.
There were many charity organisations and individuals who has been serving the poor in Kolkata and other places in India. She was not the only one and her organisation was not even the largest charity organisation in Kolkata. She, however, received more media coverage than anyone else. One of the reason for her popularity was her right political alliance. Being close to Congress she even supported the Emergence declared by the then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1975. She said "people are happier. There are more jobs. There are no strikes."
The question most of her critics ask is whether she did enough to eradicate poverty from Kolkata. Is the City of Joy (and poverty) any different because of her. Though debatable, the answer to that is probably no. She cared for the poor but did nothing to stop poverty. Some of her critics compared it to caring for rape victims rather than trying to stop the horrendous crime of rape. Her treatments were also not up to the mark. The sisters were not skilled enough to treat the diseased. The motto was not to cure but provide a ‘beautiful’ death. In a way, the ‘Saint of the Gutters’ was very much like the ‘Half-naked Fakir’ Gandhi. They glorified poverty and suffering which, they believed, were the path to god.
Her most vociferous critic has been Christopher Hitchens and Aroup Chatterjee. According to Hitchens, “many more people are poor and sick because of the life of Mother Teresa: Even more will be poor and sick if her example is followed. She was a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud, and a church that officially protects those who violate the innocent has given us another clear sign of where it truly stands on moral and ethical questions.” They have questioned her dubious political contacts, how she managed the huge amount of money she received, and her main mission of conversion through which she wanted to come closer to god. Are they right? Are they wrong? Truth, like always, follow the middle path.
Neither did Teresa perform miracles, nor was her act of kindness selfless. Whatever she did, had only one purpose - getting closer to god. Thus, she in not a saint. But, she is not a satan either. Coming from an ordinary family, fatherless at just nine, growing up in a religious environment, one cannot blame her for her blind faith. She lived a life she believed in. She did save many lives that others ignored, whatever may be her reason to do so. Despite all her flaws she was a human being, and a good one. Let us remember her for what she was…nothing less, nothing more. The world needs more mothers and less saints.