How Mother Teresa became a saint – Christopher Hitchens

Narendra Modi

Christopher Hitchens“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. … She was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti and from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan. Where did that money, and all the other donations, go?” – Christopher Hitchens

Mother Teresa of CalcuttaI think it was Macaulay who said that the Roman Catholic Church deserved great credit for, and owed its longevity to, its ability to handle and contain fanaticism. This rather oblique compliment belongs to a more serious age. What is so striking about the “beatification” of the woman who styled herself “Mother” Teresa is the abject surrender, on the part of the Church [and Govt of India–Ed], to the forces of showbiz, superstition, and populism.

It’s the sheer tawdriness that strikes the eye first of all. It used to be that a person could not even be nominated for “beatification,” the first step to “sainthood,” until five years after his or her death. This was to guard against local or popular enthusiasm in the promotion of dubious characters. The pope nominated MT a year after her death in 1997. It also used to be that an apparatus of inquiry was set in train, including the scrutiny of an advocatus diaboli or “devil’s advocate,” to test any extraordinary claims. The pope has abolished this office and has created more instant saints than all his predecessors combined as far back as the 16th century.

As for the “miracle” that had to be attested, what can one say? Surely any respectable Catholic cringes with shame at the obviousness of the fakery. A Bengali woman named Monica Besra claims that a beam of light emerged from a picture of MT, which she happened to have in her home, and relieved her of a cancerous tumor. Her physician, Dr. Ranjan Mustafi, says that she didn’t have a cancerous tumor in the first place and that the tubercular cyst she did have was cured by a course of prescription medicine. Was he interviewed by the Vatican’s investigators? No. (As it happens, I myself was interviewed by them but only in the most perfunctory way. The procedure still does demand a show of consultation with doubters, and a show of consultation was what, in this case, it got.)

According to an uncontradicted report in the Italian paper L’Eco di Bergamo, the Vatican’s secretary of state sent a letter to senior cardinals in June, asking on behalf of the pope whether they favoured making MT a saint right away. The pope’s clear intention has been to speed the process up in order to perform the ceremony in his own lifetime. The response was in the negative, according to Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the Canadian priest who has acted as postulator or advocate for the “canonization.” But the damage, to such integrity as the process possesses, has already been done.

Mother Teresa & Pope John Paul IIDuring the deliberations over the Second Vatican Council, under the stewardship of Pope John XXIII, MT was to the fore in opposing all suggestions of reform. What was needed, she maintained, was more work and more faith, not doctrinal revision. Her position was ultra-reactionary and fundamentalist even in orthodox Catholic terms. Believers are indeed enjoined to abhor and eschew abortion, but they are not required to affirm that abortion is “the greatest destroyer of peace,” as MT fantastically asserted to a dumbfounded audience when receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Believers are likewise enjoined to abhor and eschew divorce, but they are not required to insist that a ban on divorce and remarriage be a part of the state constitution, as MT demanded in a referendum in Ireland (which her side narrowly lost) in 1996. Later in that same year, she told Ladies Home Journal that she was pleased by the divorce of her friend Princess Diana, because the marriage had so obviously been an unhappy one …

This returns us to the medieval corruption of the Church, which sold indulgences to the rich while preaching hellfire and continence to the poor. MT 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. Where did that money, and all the other donations, go? The primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down 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 a hundred countries, all bearing the name of her own order. Excuse me, but this is modesty and humility?

George OrwellThe rich world has a poor conscience, and many people liked to alleviate their own unease by sending money to a woman who seemed like an activist for “the poorest of the poor.” People do not like to admit that they have been gulled or conned, so a vested interest in the myth was permitted to arise, and a lazy media never bothered to ask any follow-up questions. Many volunteers who went to Calcutta came back abruptly disillusioned by the stern ideology and poverty-loving practice of the “Missionaries of Charity,” but they had no audience for their story. George Orwell’s admonition in his essay on Gandhi—that saints should always be presumed guilty until proved innocent—was drowned in a Niagara of soft-hearted, soft-headed, and uninquiring propaganda.

One of the curses of India, as of other poor countries, is the quack medicine man, who fleeces the sufferer by promises of miraculous healing. Sunday was a great day for these parasites, who saw their crummy methods endorsed by his holiness and given a more or less free ride in the international press. Forgotten were the elementary rules of logic, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and that what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence. More than that, we witnessed the elevation and consecration of extreme dogmatism, blinkered faith, and the cult of a mediocre human personality. Many more people are poor and sick because of the life of MT: Even more will be poor and sick if her example is followed. She was a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud, and a Church that officially protects those who violate the innocent has given us another clear sign of where it truly stands on moral and ethical questions. – Slate, 20 October 2003

» Christopher Hitchens, now deceased, was a columnist for Vanity Fair and author of the book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.

Christopher Hitchens

2 Responses

  1. Mr PM Narendra Modi, please do not talk for me. I do not care for this event, nor am i proud for this!!!


  2. Mother Teresa

    Mother Teresa to become saint amid criticism over miracles and missionaries – Harriet Sherwood – The Guardian – London – 2 September 2016

    Critics challenge her approach to suffering, views on abortion, and ‘superstitious, black magic’ canonisation

    Half a million people are expected to attend the canonisation of Mother Teresa at the Vatican on Sunday, in a ceremony transmitted live to her adopted home of Kolkata and Catholic audiences worldwide.

    The two-hour mass in St Peter’s Square, led by Pope Francis almost 19 years after she died, will transform the diminutive nun who became a global icon for her work with the poor into Saint Teresa of Kolkata. But it will also reignite deep criticism of the order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity, which according to detractors focused on the elevation, rather than the relief, of suffering.

    Pilgrims will venerate her relics and have the opportunity to buy 1.5m commemorative 95c postage stamps, released on Friday, that celebrate her “great strength, simplicity and extraordinary humility … [and] tireless dedication”, according to an accompanying brochure.

    In the lead-up to Sunday’s mass, images of Mother Teresa have been publicly displayed in and around the Vatican. A series of seminars, feasts, musical events and prayer sessions held for visiting pilgrims have emphasised the parallels between her life’s work and Pope Francis’s central message of social justice and humility. British pop star Rita Ora is due to perform at the Vatican ahead of the canonisation ceremony.

    In Kolkata, three months of commemorations are planned, including book launches, art shows, a stadium mass and the installation last week of a lifesize bronze statue of the nun.

    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”.

    Critics however have protested against Modi’s decision to send a 100-strong delegation, led by foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, to Sunday’s mass. An online petition said: “It boggles the mind that the foreign minister of a country whose constitution exhorts its citizens to have scientific temper would approve of a canonisation based on ‘miracles’.”

    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, grew up in Kolkata and now works in the UK. He is one of Mother Teresa’s most vocal critics. “Many rogues have become Catholic saints,” he said. “What bothers me is that the world makes such a song and dance about a superstitious, black magic ceremony.”

    He added: “It’s obvious that people are duped, they have a herd mentality. But the media has a responsibility not to collude with it.”

    He has described Mother Teresa as “a medieval creature of darkness” and a “bogus and fantastic figure” who went unchallenged by the world’s media.

    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.

    Similar criticisms were made by the late writer Christopher Hitchens in his book, The Missionary Position. Mother Teresa was, he wrote, a “religious fundamentalist, a political operative, a primitive sermoniser, and an accomplice of worldly secular powers”.

    The focus of the nun’s work, he said, was “not the honest relief of suffering but the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjection”.

    Among those cited by Hitchens was Susan Shields, a former worker with the Missionaries of Charity, who claimed that vast sums of money accrued in bank accounts but very little was spent on medical expertise or making the lives of the sick and dying more comfortable.

    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.

    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 … abortion, contraception and divorce.”

    Mother Teresa was born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in 1910 in what is now Macedonia. She became a nun at the age of 18, and in 1946 received what she described as a “call within a call” to work and live among the poor. Two years later she moved to Kolkata where she was based for the rest of her life.

    In 1950, she established the Missionaries of Charity with 12 followers. Today, the order has 5,600 members, and hundreds of thousands of lay volunteers, and runs orphanages, schools, homes for the sick and dying, shelters for the homeless, health clinics and other services in 139 countries.

    In 1979, Mother Teresa – by then a globally recognised figure – was awarded the Nobel peace prize. She said she did not deserve the award but accepted it “in the name of the hungry, the naked, the homeless, of the crippled, of the blind, of the lepers, of all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society.”

    In her acceptance speech, she focused on abortion, a trademark theme. “Peace is threatened by abortion,” she said. “Today, abortion is the worst evil and the greatest enemy of peace … because if a mother can kill her own child, what will prevent us from killing ourselves, or one another? Nothing.”

    After several years of ill health, Mother Teresa died on 5 September 1997 aged 87, and was given a state funeral by the Indian government. Demands for her canonisation began almost immediately.

    Two years after her death, the Vatican began the process of beatification, the first stage of becoming a saint. In 2002, the Vatican recognised the “miracle cure” of an Indian woman who had prayed to Mother Teresa about her cancer, though the woman’s husband and doctors said the cancer had been treated with drugs.

    Last year, Pope Francis recognised a second miracle attributed to Mother Teresa, clearing the way for her canonisation.

    Michael Safi in Delhi contributed to this report

    Five steps to sainthood

    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.

    1. The process of becoming a saint cannot usually begin until five years after the person’s death. Historically, saints have been canonised many years after their death – St Bede had to wait 1,164 years – but recently the process has accelerated. This condition was waived for Mother Teresa.

    2. Next, evidence and witness testimony on the person’s life and deeds is gathered by their bishop. If there is sufficient evidence, the bishop asks the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints to open a case. The candidate may now be called a “Servant of God”.

    3. If, after scrutiny, the Congregation approves the case, it is passed to the pope who may declare the candidate to have lived a life of “heroic virtue”. The candidate may then be called “Venerable”.

    4. A miracle is required to be recognised to pave the way for beatification. It must have taken place after the candidate has died, showing they are in heaven and have the power of intercession. Only martyrs – those who have died for their faith – can skip this stage. The candidate becomes “Blessed”.

    5. For canonisation, a second miracle must be recognised. After a special mass, the pope chants a prayer in Latin that declares the person a saint.


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