Saint or celebrity? Cult of Mother Teresa faces tough questions

Phil Reeves reports from Calcutta on a controversial beatification

Two cities, both former imperial capitals, will today usher the late Mother Teresa along a step on the path to sainthood. One, the headquarters of the Roman Catholic church, will do so with unabashed enthusiasm. The other, her home for 68 years – and the chief beneficiary of her charitable work – will be strangely patchy in its applause.

The beatification of the Albanian nun is the fastest in the Vatican’s history. The convents of Rome are packed with pilgrims eager to witness the great event, none of whom doubt the “miracle” that triggered the process.

But Calcutta – or Kolkata, as India’s great eastern city is officially known – is different. Questions have arisen about the miracle and there is a certain ambivalence towards the woman known only as Mother. In this poverty-hardened society – inured in the fatalism of Hinduism – she was not seen as especially saintly.

No Calcuttans dispute that she is one of their biggest celebrities. On her death in 1997, she was given a state funeral. A boulevard will soon be named after her, and she is to have a statue. Indians speak admiringly of her as a strong, good person.

That is where consensus ends. The Bengali intelligentsia, immersed in a long tradition of pragmatic Marxism – communists have run West Bengal state for 25 years – fret over the position that history should accord her.

They say that TV pictures focusing on her work with the dying and desperately poor were bad for Calcutta. They point out that other charitable organisations – such as the Ram Krishna Mission, a reformist Hindu organisation that runs a large hospital and several schools in Calcutta – do more effective work but have gone unacknowledged. And they echo the view of left-wing commentators in the West, who say that Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity, cops out of tackling the root causes of poverty, preferring merely to treat the wounds of its victims.

Professor Saugata Roy, an opposition state politician, stresses the esteem in which Mother is held. However, he adds a big “but”. “Did she ever open a single good school in Calcutta, or a first-rate hospital? Did she ever work to help the victims of drought or floods in West Bengal? … The Jesuits [who run schools in Calcutta] have done more.”

On Friday, a few score members of India’s pro-Marxist Science and Rationalists’ Association held a demonstration to protest against the beatification. They brandished banners praising Mother Teresa, but denouncing the miracle that set her on the path to sainthood. Their point was simple. India’s mass of uneducated poor are fatally superstitious and will resort to harmful bogus cures – going to witch doctors for snake bites, for instance. How do you stop this, they ask, if credence is given to miracles by the Vatican?

They say they have investigated in detail the miracle that set Mother Teresa on the path to sainthood – a village woman who was allegedly cured of a tumour by holding a medal of Mother Teresa on her stomach. “It turned out to be nonsense,” said Sumitra Padmanabhan, who edits The Rationalist magazine. “She was cured by the medicines given to her by doctors.”

None of this seemed to matter to the nuns yesterday in the simple four-storey whitewashed building known as “Mother’s House”. “Jesus was criticised,” said Sister Christie, as we sat in a room close to Mother Teresa’s simple white marble tomb. “Mother didn’t address political issues. She wasn’t out to do big things.”

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