Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born on August 26th, 1910- yet almost no trace remains of this young woman. She would later regard her true birthday to be the day of her baptism, and adopted the name she had chosen through a process of religious vowing: Teresa, after Thérèse de Lisieux, the patron saint of Missionaries. In fact, we barely recognise her in childhood, before her self-reinvention- we know her entirely as a maternal nurturer, whom we admire for her faultless charity and pious compassion: Mother Teresa- now a canonised saint.
I’d prefer not to refer to her by that title, considering the connotations above.
Serving as a novice nun and schoolteacher in Calcutta and Darjeeling, she received the ‘call within the call’, as she termed it, to ‘help the poor while living among them. To fail would be to break faith’. She founded a school, trained in medicine and nursing, and developed a network of orphanages, hospices, refuges and charity centres. But whilst Bojaxhiu’s intentions were rooted in her own faith and ethos, parts of her practice appear single-minded and disrespectful.
Susan Shields, a former member of the missionaries of charity, records how ‘sisters were to ask each person in danger of death if he wanted a ‘ticket to heaven’. An affirmative reply was to mean consent to baptism. The sister was then to pretend that she was just cooling the patient’s head with a wet cloth, while in fact, she was baptising him, saying quietly the necessary words. Secrecy was important so that it would not come to be known that Mother Teresa’s sisters were baptising Hindus and Muslims.’
Researcher Aroup Chatterjee, author of ‘Mother Theresa: the untold story’ asserts that charity premises were chronically empty: in fact, according to Chatterjee the eight missionaries of charity institutions in Papua New Guinea housed no residents, functioning solely as headquarters for the organisations aims to convert locals to Catholicism. This allegation is underpinned by other accusations of unprofessionalism and subpar medical practice: The facilities’ shortage of doctors left untrained volunteers (usually nuns) to make perilous medical blunders, such as rinsing needles in warm water, which is not adequate sterilisation; or leaving contagious patients like tuberculosis sufferers non-isolated. This certainly implies that the charity’s priorities were somewhat skewed, and that staff had not been engaged with medical competence at the forefront of the employers’ minds.
The other condemnation of Bojaxhiu’s religious standing is harder to attest empirically: what exactly was her motivation? There is no denying that she felt she was improving people’s lives in accordance with Christianity: her charity was valuable, providing meals and shelter to the vulnerable, even if conditions and medical integrity were dubious. But many people have cast their doubts on her supposed goal of eradicating poverty after hearing her statement at a 1981 press conference, responding to ‘do you teach the poor to endure their lot?’. Her reply was ‘I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.’ This certainly suggests a corruption of her charitable actions.
Bojaxhiu has also been criticised on her position on several controversial topics of debate. She held anti-abortion, anti-contraception and anti-divorce beliefs that many believe are now antiquated and restrictive to women’s rights. Her statements regarding Indira Gandhi’s suspension of civil liberties are simplistic and approving: ‘people are happier. There are more jobs. There are no strikes’ to the extent that she was criticised even by Catholic media. Some of her shortcomings can be ascribed o her age and her upbringing, but some are symptomatic of timelessly immoral religious intolerance.
Her legacy as a compassionate philanthropist does have some justification. She improved people’s lives in many ways. And I believe she was truly convinced that her extreme evangelism was an act of kindness- she presumably viewed Christianity as an integral part of a happy life, and baptism as the ultimate blessing, granting eternal life. But conviction is not always correct. Almost all of the unwitting converts would have held Hindu or Muslim beliefs that provided the same wellbeing and feeling of security regarding life after death as Catholicism instilled in Bojaxhiu. God, if she/he/they/it exists, is unknowable. Yes, there is some evidence, for example in the Bible, that a Christian God exists- evidence which I personally believe. But there is equal weight to the legitimacy of other religions: for example, the similarities between the Qur’an and the Bible means that they validate each other as veritable historical records. Neither Bojaxhiu, nor those of other faiths whom she ‘converted’, nor I could tell you which religion is ‘right’, if indeed one is at all. The imposition of a Eurocentric religion on followers of different faiths, especially in non-Caucasian areas, purely on the basis that the Christian missionaries apparently have superior knowledge and a more correct spirituality has a dangerous undertone of the White Saviour.