It’s tricky, even in this day and age, to go after a figure so universally revered and wholly worshiped as the newly sainted Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
So beatific is she in the eyes of guilty colonialists of any age and generation (the perfect salve for patrician guilt, as she wanders the corridors of the diaspora in her spiffily designed white and blue signature robes allowable only to herself and the members of her astonishingly well-funded order) that many would consider any position questioning her commitment and integrity to be well out of order. But, in much the same way that Mahatma Gandhi denied his wife penicillin because she should “trust God” and not some newfangled Western antibiotic (the man had no trouble, when he was later stricken with malaria, sucking down vast quantities of that evil colonialist potion himself) Saint Teresa was a sturdy supporter of legitimate suffering in the poor.
It was a fact that, while the self-styled “Mother” had hundreds of missions in over 100 countries at the time of her death, there was little, if any, actual medical care to be had for the unlucky destitute who found himself there. Teresa and her coterie of little Sisters preferred to make a point about the Catholic way: that the ravaged masses would do better to die in agonizing pain so as to bring themselves into a more Christlike place, because Christ himself had not bothered with painkillers.
Never mind that the only painkiller on hand during the Bronze Age might have been a vinegar soaked sponge; to the stoically devout, such specificities have not meant much when weighed against the Holy Mysteries. Not only has the Church tacitly supported such vulgar behaviors in bringing the late Ms. Anjeze Bojaxhiu (her real name, you might have changed it, too) toward sainthood, but they have managed to cite even more macabre scenarios as the reason for her beatification. One of her purported “miracles” — a requirement for sanctification — was that a beam of light emerged from an image of Teresa on the wall of a Bengali woman, “curing” the poor creature of cancer. Never mind that her physician, one Ranjan Mustafi, confirmed that she never had cancer to begin with, and that her illness could have been easily cured with a series of medical treatments. Better to rely on the machinations of a talking painting than on the advice of a medical professional.
Beyond such fantastical allusions to the miraculous, Teresa behaved rather badly here in the valley of the real, taking healthy amounts of money from anyone who would give it, including piles of misappropriated cash from the hideously corrupt Duvalier family in Haiti. The irony, of course, was that this money was taken straight from the coffers of state, and as such was quite literally stolen from the Haitian poor. Apparently, for Mother Teresa, charity begins where she is best positioned to administer it, and taking cash from one group of desperate people to serve another is merely a matter of logistics.
There are other stories to be told, but I have insufficient column inches to mount a full inquiry. There is one clear point to be made, however. More people continued to die and suffer under her brand of “mercy” than otherwise might have had the river of donations to her order been diverted into the coffers of more secular charities such as the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders. We should acknowledge that much of her reputation has come at the hands of Westerners who for some long years sent guilt money to the wrong activist, bolstered by a lazy media who preferred the legend to the truth.
At the very least, an overtly dogmatic fantasist deserves to be lauded less, and scrutinized more, than she has been to date. Is the Boston Globe still available for such inquiries?
— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.