Mother Teresa: Honouring the one who didn’t seek it

Indians appear to revere Mother Teresa for all the good work she did. But the Missionaries of Charity founder herself refused to be called a social worker. The scramble to honour her (especially by visiting Rome for the canonisation) could, therefore, be inspired by an element of self-interest. Indians love foreign travel and global attention but the BJP isn’t alone in nursing political reservations about the ethnic Albanian nun who will become an official saint in the Roman Catholic hierarchy on Sunday.

It’s an anomalous relationship. Lay people were justified in seeing Mother Teresa as a selfless social worker. In 2012 her Missionaries of Charity consisted of more than 4,500 sisters and was active in 133 countries. They ran (and still run) hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis; soup kitchens; dispensaries and mobile clinics; children’s and family counselling programmes; orphanages; and schools.

If Indians do not look for clay feet, they also love the popular excitement of a sensation. Everybody wants to be in on it.

Yet, Mother Teresa’s own views about her vocation did not include social service as such. She told me herself that the beneficial effects of her labours were of little concern to her. She worked for the destitute because “Our Lord” had said that serving the poor was the way to salvation. There was an outcry when I wrote this in Calcutta. A storm broke out again when I repeated her words in my newspaper column in Singapore. The view projected in her own words was so far removed from the image the multitude entertained that many readers thought I was running down a living saint whose greatness even foreigners — white Europeans at that! — had acknowledged.

There was a simple reason for this confusion. Hindus and Muslims, whether in India or Singapore, were baffled by the Christian concept of salvation. Being materialistic in practice, no matter what Hindu or Muslim theology might ordain in theory, they could not conceive of so much unending labour by the Missionaries of Charity being tailored to such an intangible end as salvation. Ordinary non-Christians saw social service as the highest good and as an end in itself. They therefore forced Mother Teresa into a strait-jacket forged out of their own limited imagination.

Agnes Gonxha Bojaxha was born in Skopje in Kosovo on 26 August 1910. She left Macedonia at the age of 18 for Ireland, headquarters of the Loreto nuns whom she joined, and came to India where she died in Calcutta on 5 September 1997. The Vatican allowed her to leave Loreto Convent and found the Missionaries of Charity whose sandalled nuns are unmistakable in their blue-bordered white cotton sarees drawn over their heads. Members must adhere to the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. The fourth vow — to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor” – reflects the quest for personal salvation that always guided Mother Teresa that many Indians could not appreciate.

Given this gap in understanding, I cannot help but wonder how much the people who are now so anxious to honour Mother Teresa appreciate her true purpose in life and the unyielding strength of her Christian faith.

There were unfavourable comments in the West about her willingness to accept donations from unsavoury dictators, her approach to an American judge to influence the course of justice, and allegations of proselytization. In 1994, two British journalists, Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ali, produced a critical television documentary about her and her sisters titled Hell’s Angel.  Hitchens’ own book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, repeated many of the accusations the following year. So did Aroup Chatterjee’s The Final Verdict in 2003. Mother Teresa’s comment “People are happier. There are more jobs. There are no strikes” when Indira Gandhi declared her Emergency in 1975 provoked criticism even among Catholics abroad.

Indians not being given to scrutinising their heroes (and heroines) too closely, these allegations have not resonated in this country. Mamata Banerjee’s reaction when the September 4 canonisation in Rome was announced — “It’s a historic moment for all of us”— captured the national mood. If Indians do not look for clay feet, they also love the popular excitement of a sensation. Everybody wants to be in on it.  Lee Kuan Yew held that the thousands of people who flocked to listen to Jawaharlal Nehru’s public speeches didn’t understand what he said “but thought to be in his presence was to have been blessed.”

It’s the same with Mother Teresa. All those who are taking part in commemorative quizzes, symposiums, art exhibitions, film shows and statue unveilings may not be aware that sainthood is a five-stage climb. Few know the difference between “Venerable” and “Blessed”. Fewer still that while candidates for sainthood must have at least two miracles to their credit (Mother Teresa is believed to have cured a Bengali woman of an abdominal tumour, and a Brazilian man of several brain tumours, the second miracle being posthumous), a martyr can get away with just one.

Ignorance need not inhibit adulation in a land where godmen flourish on human credulity. Or the desire to benefit from a global spectacle. Ms Banerjee claims almost a proprietary right to be in Rome. She announced she would not attend the ceremony as part of India’s official delegation but as a guest of the Missionaries of Charity and would sit with them. Presumably this also meant dressing like them. Actually, she is no stranger to political showmanship. She sports a hijab on occasion and has been known to pepper her conversation with “khuda hafiz” and “salaam aleikum”.

She unveiled Mother Teresa’s statue last week wearing a blue-bordered saree like the Missionaries of Charity’s habit. It prompted Father Rodney Borneo of the Archdiocese of Calcutta to remark, “Didi, if you go to Rome wearing this sari, they will think you are from the Missionaries of Charity and you will surely get a front seat!”

I suppose as External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, has a right to lead the official delegation and bask in the glory of a naturalised Indian being honoured. But why is Arvind Kejriwal going? Even more surprising, Delhi’s Home Minister, Satyendar Kumar Jain, made an issue of the Lieutenant Governor, Najeeb Jung, delaying permission for him to accompany his boss. The Roman Catholics in the party (priests, nuns and Goan politicians) are more understandable inclusions.

But anomalies persist. When he was Governor of Arunachal Pradesh, J. J. Singh was awarded the Mother Teresa Lifetime Achievement Award for “Social work and Service to the Nation” despite her contrary views on social work. It’s not generally known that she was refused permission to visit Arunachal Pradesh during the protests against the 1978 Freedom of Religion Act. Suspicion dies hard. Only recently Gorakhpur’s BJP MP Yogi Adityanand thundered that Mother Teresa “was part of a conspiracy for Christianisation of India” and blamed her for separatist movements in Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland.

No one should be surprised if the saffron brigade one day attacks Kejriwal and Jain for courting the Vatican.

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