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October 9, 2016

Like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa – now Saint Teresa – was deeply religious and yet beyond religion: Derek O’Brien

Like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa – now Saint Teresa – was deeply religious and yet beyond religion: Derek O’Brien

Of the hundreds of Catholic orders across the world, only one has an office in the Vatican itself: the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa in Kolkata. Of the thousands of saints recognised by the Catholic church, a formal induction ceremony, as part of the canonisation process, has been reserved for only about 800. On September 4 Mother Teresa joined them. She will became the 10th St Teresa, St Teresa of Calcutta/Kolkata, and like the others distinguished by the city she is most identified with.

This background is important to understand why the canonisation of Mother Teresa is a special event even within the narrow space of the Catholic church’s conferring of sainthood on its most revered. Some have been so honoured centuries after death. Joan of Arc was murdered in the early 15th century and canonised in the early 20th century.
Mother Teresa is being canonised merely 20 years after her passing. She is recognised as special, both within the Catholic church and outside. She is recognised as somebody who always introduced herself as an Indian, and yet rose above national boundaries to become a global icon.

This is reflected in how her canonization became a truly a truly event. From Bengal we were lead by our Didi. There were other delegations too from across the world (including one lead by the External Affairs Minister and another by the Chief Minister of Delhi ) but it must be said the warmth and love showered on Mamata Di by the Missionaries of Charity was very, very special. In an unprecedented gesture, Sr Prema walked down 150 meters from the main altar, took Didi gently by the hand and walked up the aisle as pilgrims applauded spontaneously. What a moment! Throughout the two and a half hour service, the Chief Minister of Bengal was seated between Sr Prema, the successor to Mother Teresa and another senior sister from the Missionaries of Charity.

Mamata Banerjee first met Mother Teresa in the early 1990s in the context of disquieting religious violence in Kolkata. A few months ago – shortly after the assembly election results in Bengal – Sister Prema, worldwide head of the Missionaries of Charity, visited the chief minister and invited her to the ceremony. The offer was gratefully accepted. I was fortunate enough to be asked to accompany Mamata Banerjee. In my 13 years with Trinamool, it was one of the most emotional journeys I have made with Didi.

Others made the journey to the Vatican as well. Some 150 pilgrims from Kolkata, and 15 inmates (i prefer the word “residents”) of the homes for the poor that the Missionaries of Charity run in the city, and several others touched by Mother’s life and by the 5,000 nuns and brothers of her order, across 130 countries, either came to Rome or watched on television.

Not all of them are Catholic or even Christian. Like Gandhi, Mother Teresa was deeply religious – and yet beyond religion. When she picked up the sick and the indigent, literally off the street, cleaned and tended to them with her own hands and took them “home”, she didn’t stop to first ask for the religious identity of the person. “Yes, I convert,” Mother once said, “I convert Hindus to become good Hindus, I convert Muslims to become good Muslims, I convert Christians to become good Christians.” While remaining true to the tenets of her faith, she was enlightened enough to appreciate the pluralism of our society.

My association with Mother Teresa began in the early 1970s, in class VIII. Father Bouche, a Belgian priest who taught us in school, encouraged us boys to make paper packets (thongas, as we call them in Kolkata) for use at Shishu Bhawan, the children’s home the Missionaries of Charity ran.

Those of us not adept at making packets (like me) were asked to collect newspapers at home and from neighbours. The experience left an impression on us; we felt we were being useful. In college and as a working person, i volunteered at Shishu Bhawan and was lucky to meet Mother often. Those are fulfilling memories i still cherish.
We can all disagree with some aspect or the other of Mother’s life. She would not be happy with my views on abortion or divorce. The criticism that the Missionaries of Charity did not consider psychological issues of the sick and the infirm or provide for palliative care – a specialised area now – for the terminally ill has been addressed only in recent years.

Nevertheless, when we assess her life, the good she did far, far outweighs the minor quibbles. Let’s not get engrossed in those quibbles. Let’s celebrate our Mother and her moment.