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The European who refused to be a ‘Memsahib’

India was not her adopted country; it was Mother Teresa’s only country. This does not mean that she loved Albania less but that her heart was in India

columns Updated: Sep 04, 2016 11:10 IST
Congress leader Balram Jakhar (L) with Mother Teresa.
Congress leader Balram Jakhar (L) with Mother Teresa. (Virendra Prabhakar / HT Photo)

The Catholic Church is said to have over 10,000 saints and beati, so one would think that a new addition to this crowd would not be that newsworthy. Not when the saint-to-be is Mother Teresa, though. The canonisation is of particular importance especially for the Vatican, Albania and India.

Mother Teresa is perhaps the Holy See’s most recognisable personality of the media age, some would say even more well-known and charismatic than her closest friend, Polish-born Pope Saint John Paul II. Together, this formidable duo of Vatican ‘outsiders’ were a force of nature in their efforts to undermine communism and commitment to the mission ad gentes they shared even before they became close.

Mother Teresa was born to Albanian parents in Skopje only three years before her nation was dismembered by the European powers. To her fellow Albanians she has always been a figure of national pride. Irrespective of their religious adherence or lack of it, the Albanians in Albania proper, Kosova, Western Macedonia and worldwide, are looking forward to the proclamation of their newest saint. There are at least four other Catholic saints of Albanian origin. This is hardly surprising given Albania’s Christian roots extend to apostolic times like very few nations in Europe.

Pope John Paul II greets Mother Teresa at the start of a private audience at the Vatican. “She is perhaps the Holy See’s most recognisable personality of the media age, some would say even more well-known and charismatic than her closest friend, Polish-born Pope Saint John Paul II,” says Dr Gezem Alpion. (HT Photo)

Mother Teresa’s canonisation on September 4 is apparently big news also in her adopted country India where she lived and worked as a missionary for 69 years from 1929 until her death in 1997. It would be naive to think that everyone in India is overjoyed or really cares that Pope Francis will declare her a saint. And there are those who detest her, claiming she was essentially a proselytiser, devoted fund-raiser for the Vatican, and a major contributor in turning the image of Calcutta irreparably into hell on earth. I have met with some of Mother Teresa’s Indian critics when visiting Calcutta and New Delhi as well as overseas.

Just as well I have met Indians who think very highly of her. Irrespective of what her Indian detractors say, there are Indians from all walks of life who took Mother Teresa into their hearts from the moment she left the Loreto order in August 1948 because she did not agree with their type of missionary work.

Sishu Bhavan, Kolkata, a centre for malnourished children and orphans, looked after by the Missionaries of Charity. (Indranil Bhoumik / HT Photo )

Mother Teresa had many Indian friends but not many of them can pretend to know the private woman behind the public nun. This is hardly surprising. In many ways, she remained an enigma to the end also for her fellow sisters and brothers of the Missionaries of Charity who were close to her.

In my ongoing research, I contend that Mother Teresa started suffering from the dark night of the soul from the moment she lost her father unexpectedly and in mysterious circumstances when she was only nine years old. I also argue that her decision to go to India was motivated not so much simply by a desire to serve Jesus or the poorest of the poor, as a growing unthinking army of hagiographers keep on saying. A major reason why Mother Teresa apparently chose India as the destination of her calling had to do with her quest for her illusive God. In this respect, one could argue, the poor, just like the members of her religious community, were her ‘helpers’ in her efforts to find Jesus.

Read: Mother’s first miracle, how she cured Monica Besra

Notwithstanding Mother Teresa’s lifelong and complex spiritual aridity which, in my opinion, makes her a much more interesting figure than simply an epitome of charity, she is often portrayed as, the nun loved India to the end. India was not her adopted country; it was her only country. This does not mean that she loved Albania less but that her heart was in India. I can now reveal for the first time that I have found irrefutable evidence that, contrary to the words attributed to Mother Teresa, or what she indeed may have said in public not to annoy her Albanian expatriates about the place of her burial, the fact of the matter is that she did not want Albania to be her final resting place. When she was once asked by someone very dear to her where she wanted to be buried, Mother Teresa had replied with no hesitation whatsoever: ‘In India; in my country’. What makes this statement even more important is that it was made before she became world famous following the awarding of the 1979 Nobel Prize for Peace.

Why was India so dear to Mother Teresa? Having waited patiently for seventeen years for an opportunity to serve the poor and being convinced that the Loreto order was set in its way as an education provider to change, on 10 September 1946 Mother Teresa finally made up her mind to go it alone. One of the main reasons for this insubordination was that, as she once put it, she had not gone to India to teach the daughters of the rich. Her stuck-up Loreto nuns, who had looked down upon her from the start because, in their view, she was not ‘European enough’, turned vicious when she had the ‘temerity’ to tell them that she had the answer for the survival of Christianity in the new independent India.

Mother Teresa did herself no favours in 1947 describing not only Loreto superiors but also all Western nuns as ‘Mems’ who remain ‘foreigners for the people’, following rules ‘which do not allow them… to be one of the people’. More importantly, she was critical of them for expecting souls ‘to come to them or be brought’ to ‘their big schools and hospitals’.

One can say that Mother Teresa’s Indian detractors are correct to an extent when they take issue with the alleged contribution she rendered in eradicating the poverty and alleviating the sufferings of the poorest of the poor in India. The obsession for statistics, noticeable in Mother Teresa herself and members of her religious family, would inevitably increase the resentment towards her and her people. If quantified, Mother Teresa’s impact on Calcutta, India or worldwide is negligible. The value of Mother Teresa’s work and legacy are in their symbolism. This explains why religious figures of all creeds, Hindu nationalists, Bengali Communists and India’s federal leaders of all ranks were keen to support the European nun who, different from other missionaries, saw herself as an ordinary Indian, dressed like ordinary Indians and lived like ordinary Indians.

As a Catholic nun, it was inevitable that Mother Teresa’s devotion was first and foremost to the Vatican. Nonetheless, the Christianity she preached and practised was not a colonial faith. Nor was it another version of ‘adopted’ Indian Catholicism that directly or indirectly, one could argue, has applied caste discriminatory practises amongst its flock.

Mother Teresa, the Catholic nun, was a good friend of anyone who needed her help, irrespective of their creed or lack of it. This was one of the qualities that apparently endeared her also to her earliest followers, who were former Loreto students from a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds. This helps explain Mother Teresa’s enduring appeal worldwide.

India and Indians have every right to rejoice this Sunday not so much because the Vatican is making their adopted citizen a saint but that Mother Teresa’s work is being acknowledged once again.

Mother Teresa’s devotion to the poor, in spite of the fact that apparently she was never cured of her gnawing doubts about God’s existence, is in my view the greatest ‘miracle’ one could ever expect from any mortal, including a sainted woman like Mother Teresa who, thanks to the generosity, vision and open-mindedness of an ancient people like the Indians, was hailed as a saint in her lifetime.

Dr Gëzim Alpion teaches at The University of Birmingham, UK. he has written books on Mother Teresa

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