Much of her life she was known as a “living saint,” but Mother Teresa remains a controversial figure 19 years after her death.
Pope Francis marked his 79th birthday last December by approving a decree recognizing that Mother Teresa had performed a second miracle, clearing the way for her to be elevated to sainthood this year.
The canonization ceremony has been scheduled for this Sunday to coincide with the anniversary of her death and as part of Pope Francis’ “Holy Year of Mercy.”
A Cause For Celebration?
Responding to Pope Francis’ decree, Thomas D’Souza, the Archbishop of Calcutta, told Sky News last December that: “We are very happy and overjoyed with this news, the city of Kolkata has been waiting for this day. We thank God of the great gift he bestowed on us with Mother Teresa.”
NDTV reported last year that Sunita Kumar, spokesperson for the Calcutta-based Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa, stated that: “We have now received an official confirmation from Vatican that the Mother would be given sainthood. We are very excited and happy about it.”
As The Guardian reports, “
The prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, paid tribute to Mother Teresa in a radio broadcast, saying “she devoted her whole life to the poor”. He added: “When such a person is conferred with sainthood, it is natural for Indians to feel proud.”
In a letter to the Vatican, Congress president Sonia Gandhi said every Indian, not just the country’s 20 million Catholics, took “immense pride and joy” in the canonisation of a “woman who was the very embodiment of boundless compassion, mercy and grace”.
Mother Teresa’s Sainthood Marred By Controversy
NBC News reports that although “the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s ascendance to ‘sanctified’ status may look as inevitable as it is justified,” to her steadfast admirers, “her canonization has been met with controversy.”
Much of the criticism of Mother Teresa has focused on how her practice of Catholic devotion collided with the real needs of the impoverished people she set out to help. In the eyes of some, particularly in India, she put fame and piety before her mission of aid.
Among other critiques, she has been accused of offering stingy or substandard medical care; of proselytizing to her patients; of claiming virtue in suffering rather than trying to alleviate it; cozying up to dictators; and of promoting her efforts to a global media eager for heroes.
The Guardian reports that “Hindu nationalists have claimed that Mother Teresa was a ‘soul harvester‘ who proselytised among the poor, and that she and her followers surreptitiously baptised the dying without their knowledge.”
Aroup Chatterjee, a doctor who grew up in Kolkata is one of Mother Teresa’s most vocal critics and has described her as “a medieval creature of darkness.” The Guardian reports that:
According to his 2003 book, Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict, based on the testimonies of scores of people who worked with the Missionaries of Charity, the medical care given to sick and dying people was negligible. Syringes were reused without sterilisation, pain relief was non-existent or inadequate, and conditions were unhygienic. Meanwhile, Mother Teresa spent much of her time travelling around the world in a private plane to meet political leaders.
The Guardian reports that: “Robin Fox, the editor of the Lancet, wrote in 1994 about the ‘haphazard’ approach to care by nuns and volunteers, and the lack of medically trained personnel in the order’s homes.”
NBC News reports that: “A 1994 study by the UK-based The Lancet medical journal reported that even the most basic, life-saving drugs were not administered to salvageable patients who should have been admitted to a hospital rather than Mother Teresa’s famous home for the dying.”
Controversy surrounding Mother Teresa’s approach to medical care was expounded upon by The Guardian, who wrote:
The investigative journalist Donal Macintyre spent a week working undercover in a Missionaries of Charity home for disabled children in Kolkata in 2005. In an article in the New Statesman, he described pitiful scenes. “For the most part, the care the children received was inept, unprofessional and, in some cases, rough and dangerous.”
Three years ago, a study by academics at the University of Montreal concluded that the Vatican had ignored Mother Teresa’s “rather dubious way of caring for the sick, her questionable political contacts, her suspicious management of the enormous sums of money she received, and her overly dogmatic views regarding, in particular, abortion, contraception and divorce.”
English journalist and literary critic Christopher Hitchens had harsh words for Mother Teresa, writing an extended essay in 1995 entitled The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice in which he called Mother Teresa a “religious fundamentalist, a political operative, a primitive sermoniser, and an accomplice of worldly secular powers.” He went on to write in a 2003 article for Slate that Mother Teresa “was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction. And she was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti (whose rule she praised in return) and from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan.”
And Then There’s Kolkata
NBC News writes that “Some of the most scalding criticism comes from the people of Kolkata — which was formerly known as Calcutta — the city Mother Teresa devoted her life to helping,” that “for some Kolkatans, Mother Teresa’s focus on the city’s impoverished amounted to something like urban character assassination.”
Writer Chitrita Banerji, , who now lives in Massachusetts, says that thanks to Mother Teresa “the name Kolkata became as tarnished as the so-called “saint of the gutters” [Mother Teresa] was celebrated.
Cities have identity. They have nuance. Because Mother Teresa became very famous and she won the Nobel Prize, Calcutta became very un-nuanced in the Western worlds’ minds. Intentionally or not, I feel that she robbed Calcutta of a certain part of its identity.
Aroup Chatterjee, a London-based doctor who was born in Kolkata, concurred. NBC News reports that: “After he took exception to what he called the repeated mis-characterization of Kolkata in the Western media, Chatterjee began his own, nearly lifelong investigation of Mother Teresa’s global operations.”
“I personally think that she did more harm than good,” said Chatterjee, who published a book-length critique of Mother Teresa in 2003 called “Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict.”
“She was very cruel in how she treated people at her home for the dying. I think she preached a very negative, very medieval, obscurantist ideology.”
Five Steps To Sainthood
As The Guardian reports, “Mother Teresa will be the 640th saint canonised since 1963, reflecting a huge increase in the number of saints created by modern popes. In the previous 375 years, only 218 saints were canonised.”
- First, the person’s local bishop investigates their life by gathering information from witnesses of their life and any writings they may have written. If the bishop finds them to be worthy of being a saint, then he submits the information that he gathered to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
- Second, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints can choose reject the application or accept it and begin their own investigation of the person’s life.
- Third, if the Congregation for the Causes of Saints approves of the candidate, they can choose to declare that the person lived a heroically virtuous life. This isn’t a declaration that the person is in heaven, but that they pursued holiness while here on earth.
- Fourth, to be recognized as someone in heaven requires that a miracle has taken place through the intercession of that person. The miracle is usually a healing. The healing has to be instantaneous, permanent, and complete while also being scientifically unexplainable. Miracles have to be first verified as scientifically unexplainable by a group of independent doctors, then the person is approved by a panel of theologians, and then the final approval lies with the pope. If this is the case, a person is declared a blessed.
- Fifth, a second miracle is needed in order to declare someone a saint. The confirmation of a second miracle goes through the same scrutiny as the first.
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