In 1979, when Mother Teresa accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, she canceled a celebratory banquet for 135 people and had the $7,000 it would have cost sent to her mission in Calcutta. The money would feed 400 people there for a full year. This was not unexpected coming from a nun who accepted the prize “in the name of the hungry, naked, homeless, blind, lepers and all those who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society”. When Pope Francis canonised her yesterday, he honoured a soldier of his flock, whose life exemplified the stated credo of his papacy: “Dedication to the poorest of the poor”.
Today, Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order, has nearly 6,000 members and runs orphanages, hospices, homes for pregnant women and the mentally ill and other services in 139 countries. It would be misguided, however, to reduce the significance of Mother Teresa to her religious inspiration. The diminutive nun was a nurse and caregiver to the destitute and dying in the teeming streets of Calcutta where she found her calling after leaving the landscaped confines of the city’s Loreto Convent in 1948. For those she and her Missionaries of Charity cared for, Mother Teresa’s theological concerns did not matter. She gave them dignity in the face of disease and death. For many she was a humanitarian icon. Author Sandip Roy writes, “We looked away when the beggar without hands knocked on the car window with his stumps wrapped in grubby bandages. But Mother Teresa did not just look that beggar in the eye. She embraced him.”
Mother Teresa had her critics, who accused her of making spiritual capital of poverty and peoples’ miseries. Her answer was simple: She was looking after people whom nobody cared for. It’s a response that should disturb our collective conscience and raise questions about matters that the state — and society at large — seem to have ignored. Today, India is far more prosperous compared to the times when Mother began her work. But disease and morbidity still stalk the poor and people die uncared for in the streets of our cities. Less than 10 days before Mother Teresa’s canonisation, the media carried photographs of a man in Orissa who was forced to carry his dead wife on his shoulder for more than 12 km because he had no money to pay for an ambulance. Mother Teresa’s canonisation was attended by leaders from India. It is unlikely, however, that they would have made any connection between the event in Vatican City and the woman denied dignity in death some 7,500 km away.