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On Mother Teresa

By: Ana Palacios

Mother Teresa, born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in Skopje or present-day Northern Macedonia was a Roman Catholic nun and missionary. At the age of 18, she left her home to join the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish missionary order, taking the name of Sister Mary Teresa. She is known most for her humanitarian work, for which she received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1979; the Vatican even recognized her as a saint in 2016. As of late, various sources seem to have damning information about Mother Teresa’s practices which show her as less of the ‘saint,’ the Vatican claims her to be.


Mother Teresa’s example:


In 1929, Mother Teresa travelled to India to work as a teacher in a girls' school in Calcutta (now Kolkata). She spent almost two decades there, serving as the school's principal and experiencing what she described as a "call within a call" to care for the sick and the poor. In 1946, she received a "divine inspiration" to leave the convent and live among the poor to serve them wholeheartedly.


In 1950, Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity, a religious congregation dedicated to providing "wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor." The congregation's mission was to care for "the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone." The Missionaries of Charity soon expanded beyond India, reaching out to help the needy in various parts of the world. Mother Teresa and her fellow sisters lived in poverty themselves, relying on donations and the work of volunteers to sustain their efforts. They opened homes for the dying, centres for those affected by leprosy, orphanages, and schools for underprivileged children. The Missionaries of Charity also offered humanitarian aid during natural disasters and various crises. Even after her passing, the Missionaries of Charity, the organisation she founded, continues to carry on her work, operating numerous centres worldwide and sustaining her legacy of service.


Sainthood.


Mother Teresa is revered and regarded for her humanitarian work, her selflessness, and dedication to alleviating human suffering. It is unsurprising that most of us are familiar with her; her name is symbolic of a type of sanctimonious sacrifice in the name of humanity. Mother Teresa is exemplary of an unrelenting compromise to alleviate human suffering. Still, her recent canonization has sparked controversy, both within and outside religious circles.

The controversy is based on the material realities of those who she claimed to serve, citing inhumane conditions in her facilities and Mother Teresa’s frugal lifestyle with ulterior motives.


It is extremely challenging to welcome critiques in the case of a historic figure so revered and respected as is Mother Teresa, her image almost puritanical in nature; she has become symbolic of purity and service to others. Those who do critique her acknowledge the religious fanaticism that guided her in her service. It goes without saying that missionaries' main goal is to convert as many people as they can into the religion. Mohan Bhagwat, a Hindu activist said: “It’s good to work for a cause with selfless intentions. But Mother Teresa’s work had an ulterior motive, which was to convert the person who was being served to Christianity. In the name of service, religious conversions were made.”


Even still, it is impossible to ignore her dedication to humanitarian work, which indisputably improved the lives of many around her.


It is her gain of notoriety as a public figure which has led to the most ardent of critiques and even led to a British documentary Hell’s Angel, which brought attention to the lesser-known dubious side of Mother Teresa.


It is not only a puritanical morale that has upset people initially (like her strict stance against divorce or abortion). It is the people whom she fraternised with that concerned the public. Rubbing elbows with high society, Mother Teresa received large sums of money from Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier (who has since been charged with crimes against humanity for his regime over the Haitian people) and in turn, praised his regime. She has also been critiqued for her defense of Charles Keating, a man credited for the loans scandal of the 1980s in the United States; which not only cost American people billions of dollars but directly impacted people in poverty the most severely. Mother Teresa went as far as to write in Keating’s favour while his trial was pending. It was later revealed that Mother Teresa had received $1.25 million from Keating privy to his indictment.


Now, religious figures are no strangers to dubious money. If the recipients of the money were indeed those who Mother Teresa was helping, should we be so putative with our moral judgement? Well, some claim that the hospital's Mother Teresa operated did not see much of the profits of her lucrative negotiations with her acquaintances.


The documentary Hell’s Angel, reports unsanitary conditions which Indian journalists themselves called ‘deplorable.’ Volunteers at the humanitarian centre have their own unsavoury testimonies. For example, Hemley Gonzalez explained; “Workers washed needles under tap water and then reused them. Medicine and other vital items were stored for months on end, expiring and still applied sporadically to patients.” Thus, if the millionaire donations were not directly benefiting the charities run by Mother Teresa, who were they going to? It’s no surprise the charities’ finances have come under fire as much as the public figure who ran them.


Other than uncertain situations with money and questionable company, Mother Teresa’s philosophies themselves have been interrogated as part of the criticisms against her person. It seems that her religious fundamentalism was ingrained into her social work. Still, her adamant condemnation of abortion or contraceptives was easy to overlook in lieu of her humanitarian work when she was alive. Still, in her legacy remains her philosophy on pain and suffering; which may also explain the conditions in the charities she ran.


Mother Teresa is quoted saying about poverty, and especially about the people in Calcutta suffering under it: “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.” It does seem that her religious perspective positioned marginalised communities as martyrs of a higher being, not one they necessarily believed in. When it came to her own healthcare, however, Mother Teresa seemed to prefer the care of American hospitals rather than to the one she was able to provide herself. Thus was it marginalised communities’ continued suffering that propelled Mother Teresa into sainthood? Was it, instead of charity work, a toxic symbiosis?


Now, I would caution here on undergoing an assessment of morale when it comes to a canonised figure as Mother Teresa. Without the proper documentation and thorough analysis of the testimonies provided, we cannot be certain of the net impact of Mother Teresa. The perspectives we do have seem to be extremely polarised; one source calls her Hell’s Angel, and the Vatican, well a saint. Thus, we may choose a more centrist, objective path. All we can base our opinion of Mother Teresa on is her legacy. It seems insurmountable and burdensome to say to those interested in humanitarian work, for example, to be better than Mother Teresa, who for so long has been the pinnacle of service to others. The lesson that I would purport is one against the mystification of public figures as herself. Not to say service to others must be secular to be sincere: but by demystifying public figures we encourage transparency and healthy criticism which all people need to improve.


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