“Not exactly Mother Teresa”

Mother Teresa, an elderly white woman wearing a white headscarf with blue stripes at the front, with an Indian woman wearing glasses and a white headscarf to her right.So, today the Pope led a ceremony in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican to canonise Mother Teresa, the nun who ran a chain of institutions for the sick, dying and destitute around the world, most famously in Kolkata, India, on the basis that two miraculous cures of sick people have been attributed to her intercession since her death in 1997. Teresa, born Agnese Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje, now in Macedonia but then part of the Ottoman Empire, had worked in India since 1929 when she joined the Irish-based Loreto order and was sent to teach in Darjeeling in northern Bengal (now West Bengal). She moved to Kolkata in 1946 and founded her Missionaries of Charity in 1950.

Growing up in the 80s, especially growing up Catholic, Mother Teresa was seen as the epitome of selflessness and charity. It was common to hear it said of someone — especially a man — that they “aren’t exactly Mother Teresa”, meaning their motives are partly or wholly selfish. I once heard someone in a TV sitcom remark that someone “made Noriega look like Mother Teresa”. There were, of course, tens if not hundreds of thousands of Catholic men and women teaching or nursing as part of religious orders at that time, although the number was in steep decline but Teresa’s order had a glamour that orders that ran Catholic schools in England did not. At that time, nobody seemed to be asking questions about the conditions in her institutions, or about the backstory about Kolkata being a wretched city full of slums, or about the idea that she worked with “untouchables” that nobody else would touch.

I remember mentioning this on a mailing list about a band I was into in the 90s, and this was after Christopher Hitchens exposed what was really going on in Teresa’s homes both in Kolkata and in New York. Someone responded, “when was the last time you healed an ‘untouchable’ in India?”. Well, I’ve never been to India and I’m not a doctor or a nurse (neither was he, or Teresa). But ‘untouchables’, despite the religious doctrines surrounding their status — that they are people who sinned in previous lives and so were punished with a lowly status in this life — are simply poor people who do dirty menial jobs, although members of these castes can nowadays be in high-paying jobs but are still treated as unclean by higher castes. There is no taboo in western countries about contact with bin men or toilet cleaners, be it shaking hands, sharing crockery or cutlery, caring for them or treating them when sick, and Mother Teresa would have had no such hang-ups, so it is difficult to see why this makes her more of a saint than any other Catholic religious who lived a life of service or for that matter any nurse or carer, religious or otherwise.

Teresa’s reactionary politics, which were shared with the pope she served under, have been adequately discussed elsewhere, but I was astonished that anyone defended her, and continued to propagate her reputation as a living saint in particular, when the conditions in her facilities were exposed. There is simply no excuse for an institution run by the Catholic church to lack basic hygiene and to be reusing syringes, or for a hospital for the dying run by an arm of a very wealthy organisation to fail to provide pain relief, and for this state of affairs to be carrying on for years. It is well-known that the Catholic church are quite capable of running schools, hospitals and care homes which observe good standards of hygiene, both in the developed and developing worlds, yet they allowed this mess to carry on for decades until it was exposed by outsiders.

Mother Teresa was not solely responsible for the sorry state of her homes in the mid-1990s and before. The Catholic church hierarchy, both in Europe and in India, were. So were the media who spread her fame without asking questions, accepting stereotypes about India and Indian people (especially in cities) being dirty, poor and caste-ridden so as to accept a clinic or ‘home’ for poor, “untouchable” Indians being dirty or lacking basic amenities. But it leaves her as the executive of a chain of inadequate if not abusive institutions — a bit like, say, Katrina Percy with added Christian piety and with ready access to the media for her opinions on things that had nothing to do with caring for the poor (who can forget her advice to the victims of the Bhopal chemical disaster — “forgive, forgive”?).

But the inescapable conclusion remains that Teresa was canonised today because she was famous, while others who did far better jobs in caring for poor or sick people or educating children, and who were far better ambassadors for their faith than Teresa (not that I share it) ended up being, remain unrecognised. The people who still venerate her, and who turn out to watch and cheer as Pope Francis makes the declaration, have chosen to ignore the facts and celebrate the myth of Mother Teresa.

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