Mother Teresa: The Measure of a Saint

Mother Teresa
Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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Mother Teresa was a helping hand during India’s poorest hour

WHAT MAKES FOR a saint? In the conception of the Catholic Church, which will anoint Mother Teresa as one on Sunday, 4 September, it is intimately tied to the ability to perform miracles. The Vatican did its best to hurry the process along, making it one of the swiftest in the Church’s history. Usually, there is a five-year period after a person’s death for due diligence, but in Mother Teresa’s case, it was thought that there really was no need for that since her credentials had been well established during her life itself. There was her charity work, of alleviating the suffering of the destitute and dying in a Kolkata that was the most abjectly miserable city in an India roiled by deprivation.

But two miracles were still needed. The first came in the form of a cancer patient in Kolkata named Monica Besra, who had taken sanctuary with the Missionaries of Charity. A medal touched by Mother Teresa was placed on her stomach on the first death anniversary and the next day the tumour had apparently vanished.

The second happened in faraway Brazil. A man suffering from brain infection and brain abscesses had been almost given up for dead. A priest suggested that he and his wife pray to Mother Teresa. The American publication National Christian Register writes, ‘Andrino, however, slipped into a coma as treatments failed, and while Rocha prayed, he was taken in for last-ditch surgery. When the surgeon entered the operating room, he found Andrino awake and asking him what was going on. Andrino made a full recovery, and the couple went on to have two children, even though it was deemed by doctors to be a near medical impossibility.’

Disbelievers would say that these are hardly the kind of miracles that can stand the scrutiny of science. Unexplained recoveries of terminal patients do happen often and it is a fair bet given the state of mind of such a patient and his or her family that they would be praying to someone. There have been other criticisms against Mother Teresa, by atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens. They point to her accepting a donation from a Haitian dictator with a serious human rights violation record. Or that her motive for charity was really to collect souls for her church and God, evident in a number of those ailing under her care converting their religion.

Is there a middle path between these two opposite perspectives? Perhaps, if you modify the definition of a ‘saint’, linking it to the end result of his or her work, and not motivations or associations. That millions benefited because of her is undeniable and, while a richer India might be replete with charity organisations now, her work came at a time when it was needed most.

The Catholic Church needs symbols like saints to remain relevant and appealing. But those who are not sold on religion can at least see that even now, almost 19 years after her death, she remains an inspiration for others to do good. Whether she now sits in heaven, let’s leave to faith.