Putting Mother Teresa under a microscope
An Albanian sociologist examines some of the controversies over her canonisation
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Mother Teresa of Calcutta is to be canonised in Rome on September 4. Although her name is a byword for generous service to humanity, the Albanian-born nun has attracted some criticism. Gëzim Alpion, also Albanian, a sociologist at the University of Birmingham, has become an expert on her life, writings and reputation. His book Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity? was published in 2007 and another book is on the way. MercatorNet asked him why he is so interested in Mother Teresa.
MercatorNet: You have described yourself as a "rationalist", but you have been campaigning for Mother Teresa to be declared a saint. Why have you become so interested in her?
Gëzim Alpion: I refer to myself as a “spiritual-rationalist” in my 2007 monograph “Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity?”. I do not follow any religion, as this phrase is understood in a conventional sense; never have and never will. And yet I am not an atheist. This, however, should not disqualify someone like me from contributing to a debate that humans have been engaged in since developing a sense of self-awareness as a species.
My interest in Mother Teresa is part of my own ongoing quest as an individual to make sense of who we are. Notwithstanding her religious devotion, Mother Teresa does not have all the answers to the meaning of life or the hereafter, if there is such a thing.
Which is just as well. In fact, Mother Teresa is of interest to me not because she was enlightened more than others on matters spiritual. On the contrary, my continued interest in her is explained particularly because she herself was in the dark all her life. Not many religious “professionals” would admit this “deficiency” as Mother Teresa did in her talks and writings to her spiritual directors. Honesty and integrity separate her from theological hypocrisy often manifested at institutional level.
MercatorNet: Mother Teresa worked for many years in relative obscurity until she was "discovered" by Malcolm Muggeridge. Then she won the Nobel Prize in 1979 and became a household word. Saints are supposed to be humble -- how could Mother Teresa be both a saint and a celebrity? Did she cultivate her image, like Madonna or Lady Gaga?
Gëzim Alpion: Mother Teresa devoted her life from the late 1940s onwards to “human debris”. This is one of the reasons why she broke up with the Loreto order formally in 1948 to set up her order of the Missionaries of Charity on September, 10, 1950.
Mother Teresa has never worked in relative obscurity, though. The first article on her work as an independent nun was published as early as 29 December 1949 in The Statesman, Kolkata’s leading English language daily established in 1875. My good friend C. M. Paul, founder of Mass Communication Department at Assam Don Bosco University, is currently carrying out pioneering research on representation of Mother Teresa in the Kolkata press between 1948 and 1962.
In view of this, we should perhaps reassess the claim about Malcolm Muggeridge’s “discovery” of Mother Teresa in 1968. By the time Muggeridge accidentally, and arguably rather reluctantly, ended up conducting the first interview with the Albanian-born nun, she had already been discovered throughout India and South East Asia and beyond. Mother Teresa had received national (Padma Shri) and international (Magsaysay) awards in recognition for her work at least six years prior to the chance encounter with Muggeridge.
As such, one could argue that Muggeridge “discovered” Mother Teresa only as far as the Western audience was concerned and that this “discovery” is yet another reflection of the ingrained arrogance we in the West are guilty of, albeit at times unwittingly. Implied in the statement that Muggeridge “discovered” Mother Teresa is the truism that one does not exist unless one is “discovered” by and “appreciated” in the West.
We should also mention at this point that Mother Teresa “benefited” from Muggeridge as much as he did from her. While Mother Teresa did not put Muggeridge on the map as such, the fact of the matter is that he is now remembered mainly for his two works about her: the 1969 film “Something Beautiful for God”, he and a BBC team shot on location in Kolkata, and the book by the same title that came out in 1971. That Mother Teresa had a lasting impact on Muggeridge is seen by his admission that she was the main reason for his conversion to Catholicism towards the end of his life.
I would prefer not to compare Mother Teresa to mass culture figures, no matter how iconic they are. Having said that, as I explain at length in my 2007 monograph on Mother Teresa, she did cultivate her image as much as any other celebrity, Madonna and Lady Gaga included. Mother Teresa displayed a sophisticated awareness of how the media operates and of its importance like few celebrities in modern times.
MercatorNet: Despite her fame as a friend of the poor, she attracted some astonishingly venomous criticism from some quarters, like the late Christopher Hitchens. Is there something in criticism of her for bad medical treatment, forced conversions, accepting money from corrupt dictators, and so on?
Gëzim Alpion: I am not surprised that Mother Teresa had her own fair share of opponents. It would be odd if everyone was full of praise for this nun in spite of the fact that she was hailed as a “saint” in her lifetime. “Dirt-clean” heroes, to paraphrase what Thomas Carlyle wrote in mid-19th century, in our time can be found only in North Korea.
What I find puzzling about Mother Teresa’s vitriolic critics is their failure to notice what is abundantly obvious. Like every religious order, Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity, had their own “charism”, or reason for being, which in their case, is not living in solitude and comfort behind closed walls, running a chain of schools often for children from privileged backgrounds, or offering medical assistance. Mother Teresa made it very clear from the first that she, her sisters and her brothers would care for the poorest of the poor, that they would depend exclusively on charity for their own survival, and that they would never engaged in, nor would they approve of, fundraising events on their behalf.
Mother Teresa’s diehard critics, including some learned detractors like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Germaine Greer, seem to forget that Mother Teresa was a nun. Catholic missionaries, by definition, are first and foremost devout servants of the Vatican. The three above mentioned critics find Mother Teresa’s Catholic orthodoxy problematic because it is incompatible with their equally orthodox atheism.
Mother Teresa was a good friend of the poor as much as of the rich, an issue which I have addressed in a number of publications both from a sociological as well as a public theology perspective. Mother Teresa believed that both the poor and the rich are in need of help although not of the same nature. Of course, there were some rich and powerful individuals who tried to uses Mother Teresa for their own purposes; some still do. Yet, this nun was not offering to anyone absolutions in exchange for “favours”. Only those who do not or are reluctant to see this, fail to admit that, notwithstanding their chequered past, religious personalities should be actively mediating with those in power in the hope that this would benefit the less fortunate. Although not a revolutionary herself, Mother Teresa apparently believed in the goodness of the human heart with a revolutionary drive.
For as long as this unique aspect of Mother Teresa’s personality and work is not understood properly, it is inevitable that some of the biased criticism mounted against her will be seen for what is it not. One can argue that Hitchens, for instance, scribbled in 1995 a vulgarly titled malicious booklet apparently for sensationalist purposes. Twenty years later, some unthinking journalists still consider his rant and second-hand research as gospel truth. As an old saying goes, “Adam ate the apple and our teeth still ache”.
In an article published in the Hindustan Times I have written that Hitchens will always be an important footnote in Mother Teresa scholarship. The issue is that some footnotes leave a bad odour long after the ink has dried. One wonders if David Hume would have liked to been remembered also for the infamous footnote in his 1748 essay “Of National Characters”.
MercatorNet: How about stories of forced conversions of dying Hindus and Muslims in India?
Gëzim Alpion: Any claims of this nature need to be taken seriously and investigated properly. In my research, I write about stories I am able to corroborate myself and always refer to or quote only from trustworthy sources. This is the reason why it takes me very long to complete research articles or monographs.
I have visited in Kolkata the Headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity, and the Kalighat Home for the Dying Destitutes. In all the order’s homes, centres and soup kitchens I have been to in Asia, Africa, Europe and Australia, I have seen Mother Teresa’s sisters, brothers and volunteers serving the needy devotedly. From what I have observed myself during such visits and from the interviews I have conducted with members of the order and those who benefit from their assistance, I have reasons to conclude that the help is offered with no preconditions.
This does not mean that I know everything about this order. I can speak only on what I have observed. As mentioned earlier, any claims that members of the Missionaries of Charity, or any of other religious order for that matter, are in the business of forced conversion should be treated very seriously and in accordance with the rule of law.
MercatorNet: The Missionaries of Charity, the order she founded, has grown enormously. What explains her appeal to young people, leading them to dedicate their lives to the poor?
Gëzim Alpion: Mother Teresa would often flag up in interviews statistics about her work. This is something that has rubbed off on the members of her religious community who are always keen to refer to figures on the size of the membership of the order, the number of countries they hail from, how many homes, centres and soup kitchens they ran, and the number of people that have apparently benefited from their charity work.
In view of so much information from so many sources, I have never been able to find reliable statistics about the order. This, however, is not one of my aims. I am not a Mother Teresa biographer; nor am I a Missionaries of Charity historian.
Another reason why in my research I rarely, if at all, refer to statistics is because, in my view, the importance of Mother Teresa’s work and legacy is not about figures. One cannot quantity Mother Teresa’s positive impact on Kolkata, India and South East Asia or around the world for that matter for two main reasons. Firstly, the problems of Kolkata and the world are too many and daunting to expect anyone person or religious order, including a dedicated missionary of Mother Teresa’s calibre or the members of her ubiquitous order, to make a real difference. Secondly and more importantly, the value of what this nun did and what her followers are doing on a vocational or voluntary basis is first and foremost symbolic.
Mother Teresa believed in the sanctity of human dignity. This is a message that very few people in the second half of the twentieth century have been able to send out as sincerely, convincingly and effectively as Mother Teresa did for almost fifty hears at the helm of her order. The main reasons why Mother Teresa succeeded where others have failed partially or completely is because she was a preacher who always led by example.
That young people of various ethnicities, nationalities, and creeds across the world, are keen to follow in her footsteps is another test of the contemporaneity of her appeal. Long may this continue.
MercatorNet: Why have both John Paul II and Francis fast-tracked her journey to being officially declared a saint?
Gëzim Alpion: We tend to hear quite often that John Paul II was Mother Teresa’s closest ally. Which is true. Equally true is the fact that Albanian born Mother Teresa was also one of the pillars of Polish-born Karol Wojtyła’s papacy. As I have mentioned in one of my recent studies, this formidable duo worked closely and efficiently together to achieve two main aims: liberating Christianity from, what James Haire calls, the “Latin Captivity”, and undermining Communism.
We should bear in mind that Mother Teresa emerged as a religious visionary much earlier than John Paul II. In this respect one could argue she was even ahead of the two popes who convened the Second Vatican Council in both understanding the role of the media and implementing it to promote Christianity in the post-colonial world that was emerging immediately after the Second World War. By the time “Inter Mirifica”, an encyclical calling for an effective use of the media, was issued on 4 December 1963, for instance, Mother Teresa had already been doing this very effectively in Kolkata, across India and beyond, very efficiently as early as 1949.
Moreover, Mother Teresa and John Paul II were both devoted to their common mission “ad gentes”. The difference between them in this regard is that Mother Teresa was some 30 years ahead of John Paul II by the time he made this mission the main point of his papacy.
For these and other reasons which we cannot cover in this interview it is understandable that John Paul II was grateful to the services Mother Teresa had devotedly rendered both to his papacy and the Vatican. This explains why this pontiff needed no prompting to authorise the start of the beatification process shortly after her death. Had he not been advised in 1999 of the “seriousness” and the “implications” of Mother Teresa’s spiritual darkness apparent in her private writings discovered at the start of the diocesan stage of the beatification, John Paul II would have most certainly declared her a saint before he passed away.
Pope Francis is showing some encouraging signs that the Vatican is on a modernising path. Notwithstanding his good will, we have to wait and see what this “cool” pontiff will eventually be able to achieve. One should never underestimate the power and determination of those within and outside the Vatican who are prone to resisting change, though.
Mother Teresa emerged in the last 1940s as a visionary missionary who understood that Christianity had to be innovative to survive and have an impact not only in post-independence India but also across the developing and developed world. This unassuming nun became a moral compass for the Holy See when this institution was in need of some soul-searching for the behaviour and the role of the Church at large from the start of the modern colonial era in the 16th century.
This was one of the reasons why Mother Teresa set up her order and why from its inception she prioritised the poor, the marginalised, the discriminated against, the stigmatised, and the powerless. Mother Teresa’s canonisation is undoubtedly an acknowledgment by the Holy See of her dedicated service and impressive and far-reaching achievements. One could also argue though that Mother Teresa is a brand like no other that the Vatican cannot afford to ignore.
Pope Francis told Mother Teresa’s countrymen during his visit to Albania’s capital Tirana in September 2014 that he is an admirer of their national icon and what she stood for. This explains why this pope chose to conclude the Year of Mercy with the canonization of a church asset like Mother Teresa.
MercatorNet: What appeals to you about Mother Teresa? Why do you think that she should be honoured?
Gëzim Alpion: Mother Teresa is one of the most written about famous people of our time. And yet the ever growing literature on her has still to be elevated to serious scholarship. One could argue that more biographies have been written about Mother Teresa than on any other celebrity – religious or otherwise – of her generation. Some of these biographies claim to be “authorised” and “complete”. I find these epithets amusing misnomers. So far, there is not any publication about Mother Teresa that justifies being called “a complete” biography. Perhaps such a biography will never been written.
The main reason for this is because Mother Teresa herself maintained a curious and enigmatic reticence about her personal life, her roots and her family. This explains, to some extent, why even some of the biographers who claim to have been close to her have failed either unwittingly or on purpose to throw light upon and address some important aspects of her life, especially the formative years in her native city Shkup (Albanian for Skopje) from 1910-1928.
In view of the information I have found in recent years about her early life, I am confident that finally we will be able to identify and explore at length the main circumstances that contributed in making Agnes Gonxhe Bojxhiu embark on a lifetime journey to India in 1928 in the first place.
In “Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity?” I only scratched the surface regarding the importance of the nun’s early years. In my forthcoming book, provisionally titled “Rooting Mother Teresa: The Saint and Her People”, I contend for the first time that the key to understanding the private woman behind the public nun is to explore, what I call, Mother Teresa’s spiritual DNA. This I trace in her Albanian roots.
I do not approve wholesale of everything Mother Teresa said or did, however, especially regarding her views on abortion, contraception, and role of nuns in the church. These controversial views aside, Mother Teresa presents us with quite a challenge. At times she resembles an Egyptian Sphinx that is unwilling to part with secrets. Not for much longer, though. We now know about her far more than what we did when she was alive or in the first ten years following her death.
Mother Teresa’s hagiographers and friendly biographers should not be afraid that she could become less appealing if we know more about her. On the country, the more we uncover about her as an individual, the more her personality and legacy as a missionary would appeal to Catholics, followers of other faith, as well as those who profess no religion.
What appeals me the most about Mother Teresa is her determination to remain a nun in spite of the unique spiritual aridity that I have reasons to believe most probably gnawed at her constantly from an early stage up until the final dying moments. This, as well as her exemplary devotion to the poor, will ensure that this missionary will remain both an intriguing spiritual figure and an inspirational humanitarian icon for a long time to come.
Gëzim Alpion is a sociologist at the University of Birmingham, in the UK. He is the author of Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity?
Mother Teresa of Calcutta is to be canonised in Rome on September 4. Although her name is a byword for generous service to humanity, the Albanian-born nun has attracted some criticism. Gëzim Alpion, also Albanian, a sociologist at the University of Birmingham, has become an expert on her life, writings and reputation. His bookMother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity? was published in 2007 and another book is on the way. Michael Cook asked him why he is so interested in Mother Teresa, and his answers are intriguing.
Alpion does not follow any religion but describes himself as a “spiritual-rationalist”. He says he is interested in Mother Teresa not because she was particualrly enlightened, rather, because "she was in the dark all her life" -- a reference to her experience of spiritual desolation. He concludes:
Mother Teresa’s hagiographers and friendly biographers should not be afraid that she could become less appealing if we know more about her. On the contrary, the more we uncover about her as an individual, the more her personality and legacy as a missionary would appeal to Catholics, followers of other faith, as well as those who profess no religion.
That must surely be the case.
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