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A saint or sinner? The curious contradiction of Mother Teresa

After 15 years of investigation, the Catholic Church is poised to decide whether or not to canonise Mother Teresa of Calcutta. But is the late nun, born Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in Macedonia 106 years ago, deserving of the honour? Paul Hopkins reports

Published 26/04/2016

Mother Teresa of Calcutta with local children during a visit to the cross-community Corrymeela Centre in Ballycastle in 1981
Mother Teresa of Calcutta with local children during a visit to the cross-community Corrymeela Centre in Ballycastle in 1981
Mother Teresa was close to a number of questionable people

A chapter in the life of the woman about to be canonised a saint by the Vatican and long since lost in the annals of the Troubles finds Mother Teresa of Calcutta living and working in Ballymurphy in west Belfast back in 1971.

With the help of local people, she and four of her fellow Sisters of Charity set up a small mission at 123 Springhill Avenue. But, as quiet as her coming was to Northern Ireland, Mother Teresa's departure some 18 months later was equally so.

Perhaps because, back then, she had not quite achieved the notoriety that surrounds her today. But, 40-odd years on, her sudden exit from Northern Ireland is the subject of debate among those still around who remember the diminutive nun working amid the poverty and violence that marked much of Ulster in the early-1970s.

Mother Teresa had been invited to Ireland by Fr Des Wilson, who felt "something needed to be done" to help the people of west Belfast.

However, it is believed her arrival did not go down well with the late Canon Murphy and that the Catholic Church eventually forced her to leave, apparently without even saying goodbye to those she had worked among during her tenure.

If true - though Fr Wilson and fellow cleric Fr Edward Magee have always strongly contested this - it is ironic, given the Catholic Church may be about to bestow a sainthood on the woman born Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in Macedonia in August 1910 and who died in 1997.

Some might wonder why her call to sainthood has taken nearly 20 years - she was beatified (the prerequisite to sainthood) by Pope John Paul II in 2003 - for, after all, most Catholics have grown up with tales of her fight against poverty in India and her saintly demeanour of "goodness" and "humility".

It may well be the reason is that the Catholic Church thinks in centuries, not in years; the argument being that it is good for Rome to test the enthusiasm of the day, to wait awhile, to discern whether one seen as a saint today will stand the test of time.

One of her strongest advocates, Archbishop Henry D'Souza of Calcutta, says Mother Teresa's tomb "remains a shrine where people are praying and from which many are receiving grace and strength". But then even he said recently: "The Church must be sure that someone who is declared to be a saint is truly such."

The formal investigation, which began back in 2001, has scrutinised and documented details of Mother Teresa's life, elements of which may have gone unnoticed to the general Catholic congregation.

D'Souza, though, a longtime friend of Mother Teresa's, expressed little doubt that "God would provide the miracles" to prove her cause.

"Teresa's single-mindedness, her simplicity and consistency captured the world's imagination," he said. "We computer-dependent citizens of the 20th century long for simplicity; Mother Teresa of Calcutta lived it."

Increasingly, however, since the Vatican investigation began the woman-who-would-be-saint has garnered more detractors - not least the woman at the centre of one of her acclaimed miracles, such being one of the "qualifications" for sainthood. Monica Besra became an overnight celebrity in September 1998 when she reported that she had been cured of a tumour after praying to the by-then-dead Mother Teresa while pressing a medallion bearing the nun's image to her side.

The "miracle" was claimed as Mother Teresa's first posthumous act of healing and was cited at the ceremony in October 2003 in which the nun was beatified.

But Besra now says that she has since been abandoned by the nuns who escorted her to Rome in 2003 as living proof of their Mother Superior's healing powers.

Squatting on the floor of her thatched and mud house in the village of Dangram, 460 miles north east of Calcutta, she told reporters: "They made of lot of promises to me and assured me of financial help for my livelihood and my children's education. After that they forgot me. I have been living in penury since.

"My husband has been gravely ill. My children stopped going to school as I had no money. I have had to work in the fields to feed my husband and five children."

At Mother House, the global headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity that now has more than 750 homes for the destitute around the world, news of Besra's complaints was naturally greeted with concern. Her claim was being "looked at", a statement indicated.

Meanwhile, academics at the University of Montreal suggest things are not as they seem.

After analysing a "vast amount of papers" about the Macedonian nun, Serge Larivee and Genevieve Chenard concluded that Teresa was "anything but a saint", with "her 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, divorce, contraception and abortion."

Of the latter, she said: "If we can accept that a mother can kill her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?"

They are far from the first to criticise the saint-in-waiting's works.

The late, respected academic, historian and commentator Christopher Hitchens published The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory And Practice in 1995, two years before her death, and to say he held negative views about his subject is an understatement. Hitchens wrote: "She was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious 'Papa Doc' Duvalier family in Haiti (whose rule she praised in return) and from Charles Keating, of the American giant mortgage company Lincoln Savings and Loan (prevalent in the Eighties US Savings and Loans scandal).

"Where did that money - and all the other donations - go?

"The primitive hospice in Calcutta was as rundown when she died as it always had been - she preferred California clinics when she got sick herself - and her order always refused to publish any audit.

"But we have her own claim that she opened 500 convents in more than 100 countries, all bearing the name of her own order. Excuse me, but this is modesty and humility?"

Hitchens died in 2011 convinced the nun was more sinner than saint.

There are other, well-documented remarks attributed to her, such as her views on the poor she was living among. She said: "There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ's Passion. The world gains much from their suffering." Yet, when she required palliative care Mother Teresa received it in a modern American hospital.

The renowned Indian-born physician Aroup Chatterjee's book, Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict, also makes surprising reading for those who see the missionary as the epitome of goodness.

In it he explains that Mother Teresa's friendship with Indira Gandhi and the Congress Party was widely believed to have been behind such assertions as: "People are happier. There are more jobs. There are no strikes." These were made after the suspension of civil liberties in 1975.

He likewise asserts that Mother Teresa was generous with her prayers but rather miserly with her foundation's millions when it came to humanity's suffering.

"During numerous floods in India, or following the explosion of a pesticide plant in Bhopal, she offered numerous prayers and medallions of the Virgin Mary, but no direct or monetary aid," he said.

In an increasingly secular world - and a world where Roman Catholicism no longer holds sway as it once did - perhaps even Pope Francis, despite all the indicators that Teresa will be made a saint before the year is out, has reason for considering her "case for sainthood".

And he may well consider that, like us all, she too has sinned and is, perhaps, no saint after all.

Belfast Telegraph

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