Mother Teresa may deserve to be made a saint. But why now?

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Source: The Guardian

By Paul Valley

Mother Teresa once went to a cash-and-carry-in London. She filled a huge trolley with food for her hostel for homeless men in Waterloo. At the till she was told the total was more than £500. “It’s for the poor,” she said. “Very admirable,” said the store’s owner, repeating the total. “No, you don’t understand,” she said. “It’s for the poor.”

The shopkeeper told the nun that it was she who did not understand: she still had to pay. To the embarrassment of the English volunteer who had driven her to the shop, a standoff ensued, with the nun and the owner reiterating their positions over and over. Eventually the customer waiting behind with his own trolley told the shopkeeper: “It’s all right, I’ll pay for hers.” “See?” the wily nun said to the volunteer as they loaded his boot, “I told you God would provide.”

Next week, on the 19th anniversary of her death, the Vatican will declare Mother Teresa to be Saint Teresa of Kolkata. It is a controversial canonisation.

To her admirers, the fruits of her holiness are evident, in her legacy of homes for the dying, homeless hostels, soup kitchens, leprosy clinics, HIV/Aids hospices, orphanages, schools, mobile dispensaries, mother and baby clinics, and centres for drug addicts and alcoholics in 133 countries. They are run by the 4,500 sisters in the Missionaries of Charity order, which she founded in 1950 to help those she called “the poorest of the poor”. Her work for the disadvantaged won her the Nobel peace prize. Malcolm Muggeridge, the man whose 1969 film set the Albanian nun on the road to becoming an international household name, called what she did, in the title of his 1971 book, Something Beautiful for God.

It is a far from universally accepted verdict. The most formidable of her critics was another British journalist, Christopher Hitchens, who in 1994 made a film called Hell’s Angel. It claimed that Mother Teresa treated the symptoms of poverty while ignoring the causes. She took money from distasteful political figures and rich fraudsters, and didn’t publish any accounts. Her Catholic opposition to abortion and contraception made her a religious fundamentalist. Her Kolkata home for the dying had poor medical standards. It all constituted, Hitchens railed, a “cult of death and suffering”.

Should all that disqualify her from being a saint? Hitchens’s critique is polemical – his 1995 book on her is framed with attacks on religion in general – but it airs concerns raised by an Indian doctor, Aroup Chatterjee. It has interviews with volunteers from the Kolkata Home for the Dying Destitutes, who spoke of needles reused without sterilising them, too few drips, and little pain control beyond aspirin. The Lancet visited in 1994, and said the home failed to distinguishbetween dying patients and those who could be cured.

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