India still coming to terms with Mother Teresa

Mr. Martínez-Brocal,  director of Rome Reports,

On a typical day, several decades ago, Mother Teresa was helping clean maggots out of a dying man’s flesh on a Kolkata street. A journalist noticed and remarked, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” Mother Teresa replied, “Neither would I.”

Following a lifetime of these moments, Mother Teresa of Kolkata is about to become Saint Teresa of Kolkata. The Holy See expects more than a quarter million people to turn out on Sunday for her canonization ceremony in St. Peter’s Square, which Pope Francis will lead. Nearly 20 years after the nun’s death, the celebration is expected to draw more pilgrims to the Vatican than any other event this year.

An ethnic Albanian born in 1910 in present-day Macedonia, Mother Teresa had a dedication to the destitute that made her one of the most influential Catholics of the 20th century. She left behind an organization with thousands of people in dozens of countries carrying out her work. But her life also serves as proof that religious minorities and women can thrive where no one expects.

Throughout her life, and since her death, Indian nationalists have questioned the diminutive nun’s motives, suggesting that she was concerned only with Christianizing the country. A leader of Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu nationalist organization, said recently that her canonization should be “an alarm bell,” because “now there would be more conversions in India and more funds for conversions would be routed to India.”

Yet at the highest echelons of government, the soon-to-be saint remains respected despite potential political backlash. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that “it is quite natural for we Indians to feel proud” of the canonization. This is no small gesture, given Mr. Modi’s close links to the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an organization whose leaders have needled the nun in the past. Mr. Modi has dispatched Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj to the canonization.

In 1950 the Holy See gave Mother Teresa permission to start a religious order dedicated to caring for the poor, the Missionaries of Charity. Two years later, she opened her first house in Kolkata to attend to the dying. Operating as a religious minority, she quickly embraced pluralism.

Indian authorities donated a small shack next to a temple dedicated to the goddess Kali, who is often associated with death. The shack that once housed Hindu pilgrims became a place for the Catholic missionaries to tend to some of the sickest and poorest people in the country. At first, the influx of ailing people didn’t go over well with the temple’s priests. But they changed their minds when they witnessed Mother Teresa cleaning the wounds of the dying. When one of the temple’s priests was near death, she personally cared for him, and he died according to the rituals of his faith.

This marked the beginning of a long tradition of working with, and serving, Indians of all religious faiths. Her commitment to pluralism extended into even mundane parts of her life: While her white and blue uniform is now iconic, Mother Teresa first dressed this way simply to identify with the people she served.

More than six decades after its founding, Missionaries of Charity now has more than 5,500 members following Mother Teresa’s credo in 133 countries. They work at leper colonies, hospices, orphanages, drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities. Hundreds of thousands of lay volunteers also contribute.

For her commitment to pluralism, as well as “the spirit that has inspired her activities,” she was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. After receiving the award, the already-famous nun achieved levels of popularity and influence second only to the pope, John Paul II. This in a church that supposedly oppresses women.

Mother Teresa’s ascension challenged the narrative that women couldn’t become significant players in the Catholic Church. In some ways, she was more powerful than the cardinals who select the pope, not all of whom had the personal relationship with John Paul II that Mother Teresa had.

During the 1987 Rimini meeting, an annual gathering of social organizations’ leaders, Mother Teresa planned to deliver a speech. However, because of a last-minute change, the only time she could speak was during a slot already reserved for a cardinal. Informed of this during his speech, the prince of the church broke protocol and immediately offered his remaining time to her—no small gesture in the hierarchical church.

On Sunday Pope Francis will make official what millions of people have thought to be true since Mother Teresa died on Sept. 5, 1997: She is a saint. A large tapestry of her face will hang from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. From there, she will look at the thousands of people who have gathered, smiling. Despite all the suffering she witnessed, it seems Mother Teresa would have plenty to be happy about.


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