The World

What you didn’t know about Mother Teresa’s sainthood

In times like these, one might say "Nobody's a saint," but then again, what do we do when even our idols turn out to be imperfect?

This Labor Day weekend during a service at the Vatican, Pope Francis declared Mother Teresa a Saint. Thousands of people, poor and wealthy alike, gathered on Sunday September 4th to witness as the “saint of the gutters” became a saint of the Catholic church.

Mother Teresa has long been known for aiding the poor and dying in the slums of Kolkata. Yet, many critics have been raising questions about her legacy as she ascends to Sainthood. We took a look at Mother Teresa’s life and rounded up different perspectives on her work.

From Teacher, to Nurse, to Humanitarian

Mother-Teresa
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Born in 1910 as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhi, Mother Teresa was raised in Macedonia. Though ethnically Albanian, Mother Teresa was better known for the decades she spent living and working in India. She moved to India at the young age of 19 as a nun and teacher. There, she taught and dedicated herself to universal education for 17 years before deciding to refocus her path towards caring for the poor and sick.

While riding on a train in 1949, Mother Teresa had a divine vision that encouraged her to care for India’s poorest citizens. So, in 1950 she established the Missionaries of Charity, an order of nuns committed to serving the poor and ill in Kolkata’s slums. With her order, Mother Teresa founded centers for the blind, aged, and disabled, a hospice, and a leper colony.

Throughout her lifetime, Mother Teresa received numerous awards and recognition for her service–none quite as prestigious as sainthood but many close (she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979).

After fighting her own declining health for many years, Mother Teresa passed away in Kolkatta at the age of 87. Though it has been 19 years since her death, Mother Teresa’s legacy carries on in many ways, but perhaps none so profound as her recent canonization.

Becoming a Saint

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The Catholic Church is well-known for taking its time in naming saints, but many knew Mother Teresa would be one as early as 2002.

That year, Pope John Paul II approved of Mother Teresa’s first miracle when a 30-year-old Calcutta woman was cured of her stomach tumor after praying to Mother Teresa.  Six years later, the church witnessed another miracle as a Brazilian man with multiple brain tumors was healed as his loved ones prayed to Mother Teresa. Noting this second miracle, Pope Francis began the process of Mother Teresa’s canonization and just this week declared her a saint.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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Though Mother Teresa spent her lifetime working to aid India’s poor, many question the nature of her help. Criticisms range from minor questioning of her nuns’ medical training to systemic debates about the role of religion in social work.

Before beginning her work in the slums of Kolkata, Mother Teresa received basic medical training so that she could best help the poor and sick. However, many of her critics pointed to medical mistakes made by the Missionaries of Charity (like reusing needles among patients).

Others turned to the Missionaries of Charity’s finances and noted questionable practices. For example, doctor Aroup Chatterjee argued that Mother Teresa’s order misused the funds they received and could have put the millions of dollars in donations to better use. Similarly, some critique the Missionaries for accepting donations from nearly any source–including dictatorships and corrupt governments.

Yet, the largest criticism of Mother Teresa’s work has undoubtedly been about the role of religion. Though she spent decades of her life working on behalf of the poor and sick, many emphasize that she was above all a nun, not a nurse.

Christopher Hitchens, Mother Teresa’s harshest critic, argued in his book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice that Mother Teresa and her order glorified poverty and provided a justification for the causes of poverty.

That is to say, Mother Teresa was a staunch opponent of contraception and abortion–two practices that many social workers and development scholars believe prevent poverty. Yet, when she received her Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa repeatedly stated, “I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion.”

Chatterjee, as well as Kolkata’s former mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, also critiqued Mother Teresa’s “cult of suffering.” That is to say, they believed that Mother Teresa valued suffering as a Christ-like way of life, and perpetuated it rather than ending it. There’s a story goes that Mother Teresa once comforted a man by saying, “You are suffering, that means Jesus is kissing you” to which the man shouted, “Then tell your Jesus to stop kissing me.”

In times like these, one might say “Nobody’s a saint,” but then again, what do we do when even our idols turn out to be imperfect?

  • Cecilia Nowell

    Cecilia Nowell is a freelance journalist and recent graduate of Wellesley College. She writes about politics and art, and gets excited about graphic novels, mythology, and art therapy. In her free time, she runs a cat blog, drinks too much tea, and enjoys hiking.