Today Mother Teresa will become a member of what the Catholic Church down the ages has called the communion of saints. Who are these saints? They are Christians the Church presents to the world as models of behaviour and trustworthy guides for the spiritual life. Christians also pray to them to intercede with God on their behalf. A Goan priest once told me the saints had much in common with Hindu Gods. Hindus have their favourite Gods who intercede on their behalf with the ultimate being and Christians have their favourite saints who intercede with God.
Many Indian Christians will regard Mother Teresa’s concern for the poor and the personal sacrifices she made to identify with them, her piety and devotion to the Church, her courage and kindness, her achievements too and her pride in India as more than sufficient evidence that she is a saint. But no one is perfect, and in the world today we seem to take a particular delight in exposing peoples’ weaknesses and faults rather than rejoicing in their goodness. So inevitably there are those who have found fault with Mother Teresa.
Mary Loudon, one of the earlier volunteers who worked in Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying, had accused her of ignoring modern medicine and said “Mother Teresa may be almost universally admired for her courage and kindness but most see her as nothing more than a super social worker”. But Mother Teresa did train in a missionary hospital in Patna before she started her work in the slums of Kolkata.
When Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity arrived in Lima, Catholic priests told them they were not wanted because they served the poor but did nothing about eliminating poverty. The most famous attack on her came from the British journalist and literary critic Christopher Hitchens. In his study of Mother Teresa called The Missionary Position, he described her as “a religious fundamentalist, a political operative, a primitive sermonizer and an accomplice of worldly secular powers”. The ferocity of Hitchens’ criticism comes from his own fundamentalism, he was a fundamentalist atheist. I do not believe that it is valid to regard Mother Teresa as a religious fundamentalist. She was a devout Catholic but at the same time she said “some call him Ishwar, some call him Allah, some simply God but we all have to acknowledge it is He who made us for greater things, to love and be loved”.
Mother Teresa did from time to time keep questionable company. Her decision to accept an award from Jean Claude Duvalier, the murderous dictator of Haiti, was certainly highly questionable. I am a great admirer of Mother Teresa but in a book I wrote about her I did question her attitude to the poor. I quoted her as saying “[b]y their courage they truly represent the hope of the world. They have taught us a different way of loving God by making us do our utmost to help them”. I went on to say “[s]he seems to be saying that the poor are pawns in the hands of God provided to create love for him”.
To all those who suggested that Mother Teresa should have been more of a doctor or nurse, a sociologist, a welfare worker, or a political activist she had one answer, “I am a Catholic Nun. As to my calling I belong to the World. As to my heart I belong to the heart of Jesus.” The Belgian Jesuit priest and Islamic scholar, Father Van Exem, was Mother Teresa’s adviser. She had entrusted all her letters to him and he kept them in a tin trunk under his bed in St Xavier’s, Kolkata. Father Van Exem once said to me, “If you want to understand Mother Teresa you have to always bear in mind she is an orthodox Catholic.”
The simple white cotton sari with a blue band the Missionaries of Charity wear symbolises that they are members of an Indian order. Mother Teresa herself adopted Indian citizenship and received the highest Indian order. There will be Indians of all faiths who will rejoice in India’s new saint. Members of the VHP are not among them. They claim Mother Teresa was a fraud, that her motivation was not love of God and the poor but converting them to Catholicism. The Prime Minister has ignored them and in the Indian tradition of accepting there are many different names for God, Mother Teresa’s tradition too, he has sent external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to represent him at the canonisation.