Monday, March 29, 2010


Mother Teresa once said: "No matter who says what, you should accept it with a smile and do your own work."
Though her devotion to humanitarian causes is undeniable, her work is not without controversy.

The late Roman Catholic nun and missionary, Mother Teresa, dubbed affectionately as the ‘Saint of the Gutters’ and the ‘Angel of Mercy’ died ten years ago this September, aged 87. Following her death she was beatified by Pope John Paul II and given the title, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.[2]

Born August 26, 1910 to Albanian parents, in Skopje (now in Macedonia) Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, she left home at the age of eighteen to join the community of the Sisters of Our Lady of Loreto in Ireland, known for their missionary work in India. She trained in Dublin at the motherhouse of the Loreto Sisters. When she took her vows, she adopted the name "Sister Teresa," after Saint Teresa of Lisieux, the patroness of missionaries. They sent her to their mission in Calcutta. She took up teaching at St. Mary’s high school, later on becoming its Principal, and remained there for 17 years.

In 1946, on her way to convalesce in Darjeeling, she claimed she had heard “the call within the call” to work in the slums “among the poorest of the poor.” Thus began a career spanning more than 45 years living and working among the rejected, the homeless, and in her own words, “unwanted, unloved and uncared for” of the society. In choosing such a life, this petite, sari-clad woman gave humanity a code of conduct transcending culture, class and religion.

The humanitarian work of Mother Teresa’s order, Missionaries of Charity, has received international acclaim acknowledging the efforts of devoted nuns and volunteers in orphanages and hospices worldwide. In 1952, she established a home for the homeless who were dying on the streets, the “Nirmal Hriday (‘Pure Heart’) Home for Dying Destitutes”. There, they were fed and taken care of and allowed to die with dignity. She founded such homes from Calcutta to New York to Albania. She also opened homes for AID’s victims. She believed in working tirelessly and said once: ‘Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” She traveled extensively to offer solace to the suffering. Her works of mercy knew no bounds.

Mother Teresa received many humanitarian awards in acknowledgement of her efforts towards social uplifting. She was given the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize and the Congressional Gold Medal. At the Nobel Peace prize ceremony – which she received in 1979 - she revolutionized the concept of the award ceremony by insisting the money be given for charity instead of spending on the ceremonial banquet, as she believed earthly awards to be any good only if they helped the world’s needy. She even used the money she received by auctioning the Lincoln Continental – the car that Pope Paul VI gifted her – for establishing a leper colony in East Bengal. She bathed and washed the lepers herself and is quoted to have said: “When I wash the leper’s wounds, I feel I am nursing the Lord Himself. Is it not a beautiful experience?”

She urged the world leaders to “choose the way of peace” and not cause suffering in their desire to gain supremacy over each other, and that, nothing could justify in the end the terrible loss of life and the pain and suffering they would’ve caused in pursuance of their desires. She was baffled by the motivation behind war and bloodshed, and once expressed her confusion about the Israeli and Palestinian conflict in the words: “I don’t understand it. They are all children of God. Why do they do it? I don’t understand.”

She strongly opposed abortion – a fact that earned her a lot of criticism. While accepting the Nobel Peace prize, in 1979, she had charged that abortion was the “biggest destroyer of peace.” Again in 1994, at the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development, she reaffirmed her stand by repeating the assertion that abortion was abhorrent and ,” If a woman can kill her own child, what is there to stop you and me from killing each other.” In the same statement she requested that "If there is a child that you don't want or can't feed or educate, give that child to me. I will not refuse any child. I will give a home, or find loving parents for him or for her. We are fighting abortion by adoption and have given thousands of children to caring families.”

Despite the great humanitarian works that Mother Teresa is recognized for, her person and deeds are surrounded by controversy. Her strong anti-divorce views did not endear her to many. She was accused of having double standards when upon hearing of her friend Diana’s divorce she had commented that she was pleased with the news as the marriage had obviously been an unhappy one. While previously, on several occasions, she had categorically advocated her anti-divorce stand. A few months prior to Diana’s divorce, she had demanded in a referendum in Ireland that a ban on divorce and remarriage be made part of the state constitution. In a message sent to the Fourth UN Women’s Conference at Beijing, also she wrote: “the family that prays together stays together, and if they stay together they will love one another as God has loved each one of them.”

Mother Teresa was also accused of promoting suffering as a gift of God – a thought considered opposed to the concepts of human rights and dignity. Susan Shields, who was a Missionaries of Charity sister for nine and a half years, played a key role in Mother Teresa's organization until she resigned in 1989. In an article published in the Free Inquiry magazine, she claims that many people who supported Mother Teresa with generous donations – one year there was roughly $50m in the bank account held by their New York office alone – were deluded into thinking they were helping the poor when “…most of the donations sit unused in her bank accounts” as “…her twisted premises strangle efforts to alleviate misery.” According to Susan Shields, Mother Teresa was keen that the sisters preserve their “spirit of poverty” because “suffering makes God very happy.” Many volunteers are reported to have returned from Calcutta disillusioned by the Order’s harsh ideology and unreasonable poverty-loving practices.

Christopher Hitchens, a strong critic of Mother Teresa, in 1995 in his book ‘The Missionary Position’ wrote, "Only the absence of scrutiny has allowed her to pass unchallenged as a force for pure goodness, and it is high time that this suspension of our critical faculties was itself suspended.” Pertinent questions have been raised as to where all the donation money went as it did not seem to reach the poor.

Donal MacIntyre, a reporter and documentary-maker for Channel 5 television in the UK, managed to gain secret access to the Daya Dan orphanage in Calcutta, in 2005. He has strongly criticized the degrading inhuman treatment of the vulnerable orphans, aged between six months and twelve years, in Mother Teresa’s care home in a first-hand account published in New Statesman. The Calcutta police and social welfare departments also verified the prevalence of horrifying conditions in the Daya Dan home when they carried out their own investigation after seeing MacIntyre’s footage.

Donal MacIntyre writes of a child he saw in that home with “his ankle tethered to his cot like a goat in a farmyard.” He further states: “I saw children with their mouths gagged open to be given medicine, their hands flying in distress, visible testimony to the pain they were in…some of the children retched and coughed as rushed staff crammed food into their mouths. Boys and girls were abandoned on open toilets for up to 20 minutes at a time. Slumped, untended, some dribbling, some sleeping, they were a pathetic sight. Their treatment was an affront to their dignity, and dangerously unhygienic… there were no nappies, and only cold water. Soap and disinfectant were in short supply. Workers washed down beds with dirty water and dirty cloths. Food was prepared on the floor in the corridor.” Clearly, something is amiss somewhere.

Mother Teresa is respected and loved by many but there are mysteries shrouding her life and works that make her legacy controversial. Though her services to humanity are indisputable, the Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta was probably not entirely without human failings.

Published in SouthAsia Magazine
Nov, 2007

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