« Mother Teresa in Context » – F. Wilfred

« Faceless Poor Make a Saint. Mother Teresa in Context »

by: Felix Wilfred

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Canonization in the Roman Catholic Church is a great public event. So was the canonization of Mother Teresa that took place on 4 September, 2016. The high-flown sainthood now, and the global recognition she won while alive, should not make us forget thatthis was a woman whose life-breath was at the bottom; and she was shaped into what she became, thanks to the thousands of the poor whom she embraced and interacted within mutual love and respect. Love was not one-sided, but reciprocal. The love and simple generosity of the poor transformed her into what she became; they were the channels of divine grace for her. Mother Teresa will be the first one to recognize that.

1. A context of horror

Mother Teresa and her work are to be placed in context. She experienced the great Bengal famine of 1943 in which three million people perished due to hunger and malnutrition, and many more suffered from hunger-induced diseases and epidemics. There was then the “Great Calcutta Killing “of 1946 with so many communal and religious riots and brutal expressions of violence. Thousands died of this violence and were wounded and maimed. Again in 1947 when India got Independence the one India under British rule was partitioned into two nations – India and Pakistan. Part of the Bengal state – East Bengal with a large Muslim population became part of the new nation of Pakistan. This event caused migration of a couple of millions of people across the borders – the Hindus moving out of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and Muslims moving out of India. (Similar thing happened also in the Western part of India bordering Pakistan). It is supposed to be in recorded history the largest mass-migration of people. There was again so much of violence, religious animosity, hunger, poverty, death. It was a gruesome sight of human suffering in extreme. Then there was the widespread leprosy in Calcutta and around. The city of Calcutta was a picture of destitute who flocked from villages into the city and pushed to begging for sheer survival. The state could not cope up with the enormity of all these calamities hitting most the poorest of the poor. 

Mother Teresa cannot be understood without reference to this terrible human sufferingshe witnessed the experience of which sunk deep into her heart. The great thing about her is that she responded very sensitively to the historical context, by answering human suffering. I am reminded about a parable of Buddha. A man was passing through a forest and was hit by an arrow and he was lying profusely bleeding and at the point of death. Another man, while passing by noticed the victim lying in a pool of blood. What this man did was to speculate who could have possibly hit the man with the arrow. He takes out the arrow from the body of the wounded person and examines of whichmaterial it is made, measures its length etc. He did everything except answering the suffering man! This was a trenchant critique of Buddha on Brahmins of his time who were lost in speculation (not unlike many theologians of today!) and not answering human suffering. Buddha did not want to answer the question about God. It is the great silence of Buddha. What he knew was that suffering exists and it is real. His whole life-mission was to respond to suffering (dukkha). In that sense Mother Teresa reminds me of Buddha and his posture. The only difference is that Mother Teresa’s response to human suffering was an expression of her deep faith in God and her unshakable commitment to the life and teachings of Jesus. She was not a social scientist. She was a simple and very sensitive woman. Like Buddha, MotherTeresa came out with compassion (karuna) for the suffering, and especially the last and the least ones following Jesus her Guru who privileged them and who called the poor blessed. 

2. Leaving the trodden path

One of the widespread critique is that Mother Teresa did not answer the structural evil in the society, but rather was doing simply the work ofGood Samaritan without examining the root causes of poverty, injustice and deprivation. But if we situate her in her context, she did something revolutionary also in terms of structures in a different sense. I mean to say, to be able to answer the human suffering, she could not lead any more the kind of life she led in the elite Loreto convent. This life of seclusion in a traditional convent could not answer the pressing human issues she was confronted with. Hence she became bold to break loose of the structures that did not support the challenge of the poor and suffering. She did not have any means; she was penniless but had all the strength of love and compassion. With no material means, and yet courageously she got out of that world in which she was comfortable, and began her own path, which led to the founding of a new order dedicated to the poor and the marginalized. In this she was out of the ordinary; boldand innovative when she found the existing structures are not able to answer the human issues she was faced with. 

When she was continuously confronted with the critique that she was only answering the consequences of evil and not tackling the roots of the evil, her answer was humble. She admitted her work is limited one. She is supposed to have said that what others do she cannot do, and perhaps what she does, others cannot do. But she added that we can do together great things. Is it not better to teach a man or woman how to catch fish, rather than trying to feed them with supply of fish? This is an argument we often hear. She would answer saying that she is faced with a situation where the man or woman is not even able to stand! How can anyone teach him or her to fish? She believed that she was helping people to stand – a very limited work but an urgent work, as she admitted.  All this again get greater clarity in the light of the kind of experience of suffering which formed the historic background for the involvement of Mother Teresa. 

3. Beyond religions and conflicting ideologies

We will not understand Mother Teresa and her significance for humanityif we place her in an ideological scheme of debate ofstructural approach to injustice against approach of charity. To start with, what we characterize as charity, for her was a part of a historical process and a response to the negations and deprivations people suffered. Secondly, in her scheme of things charity was never an act of condescending or expression of a “bleeding heart” acting sporadically and intermittently. There was great consistency and perseverance in what she did and how she did, inspired by deep conviction about the dignity of every human life however disfigured, bruised and shattered it be. Hers was not an approach out of pity. She made the poor realize their dignity, brought to them respect and self-esteem. She made the poor realize their God-given rights as children of God.By so doing, she opened the eyes of many people, not only the Christians but all people of good will across religious boundaries. By her belief that every human person is a child of God to whose plight she responded with compassion and mercy, she opened the eyes of many people, across religious traditions. It is striking that the very first institutions of hers was not something that came from the religion or Church to which she belonged. Her unrelenting engagement with the poor spontaneously led other people from other religious traditions to support her. In fact, her very first institution was a home for the dying at the Kalighat in Calcutta which belonged to a Hindu temple and it was given to her to take care of the many destitutes dying on the streets of the city. Originally, it was a place of rest meant for the pilgrims of the temple. Similarly what would become later the mother-house of her congregation came to her from a Muslim. Her first home for the lepers was donated by the Indian railway. Her life-story is full of those people who were awakened to see the poor differently than what they used to do. All those people who believed in the dignity of human person and preciousness of human life became her collaborators. In fact there came about a large group of volunteers, later known as Volunteers of Missionaries of Charity, and these volunteers were people from different religious traditions, and they count a few millions today spread out in 139 countries.

4. The face of authentic religiosity 

What I have said above also shows the significance of Mother Teresa as someone who highlighted the human face of authentic religiosity. Her religious belonging as a Christian made her realize that the poor and love are the two eyes of Christianity. This is too evident in the Gospels she strove to follow closely. She was not a Christian chauvinist but found in love the binding force of humanity across differences and diversity that characterize it. To be religious is for her to be universally human with capacity for love. Today, we note that there is so much reluctance to speak of love for fear of offending secularism that has become the new creed! People in the West are ashamed, it would seem, to speak of love in public. To alleviate poverty it is not enough to think and plan strategically, but it is equally important to be inspired by something more than all that. A Christian or a truly religious person is not simply a social worker, but someone gripped by a vision, by a force and a conviction that goes beyond his or her plans and strategies to alleviate poverty. One cannot today engage oneself in the social realm without questioning oneself, confronting oneself. That is a starting point for self-transformation. A social activist needs to be a transformed person baptized, so to say, in the waters of the suffering of others. He or she becomes an enlightened person and is led to realize that by actively engaging oneself for social causes one receives more than what one gives. The poor become, to use a Christian idiom, evangelizers, and we begin to realize how much we need to receive from them to be liberated from our self-satisfied world and from our egoism and our many enslavements. The engagement for structural transformation and the struggle for justice in our world are a must. To bear fruit they need to be rooted in something much deeper. 

5. Mother Teresa – Symbol of Western charity and philanthropy?

There is a danger today that Mother Teresa be exploited! When some sections of people blow her out of proportion divorced from her context and project charity as thesolution to problems of the world without addressing the question of structures of evil, then we need to be suspicious. Here is an exploitation of Mother Teresa for ideological purpose. She as a white woman could become a symbol of Western charity for the poor in the world. The liberal capitalism a may want to use Mother Teresa as a means against critical questioning, resistance and protest against injustice. She could be used to lull the conscience of the world and distract it from responding to issues of exploitation, injustice, violence and violation of human rights. Capitalism and market are clever and they can don the mantle of Mother Teresa! That is a real danger I see. If Mother Teresa is used as a means to silence the voice, the cry of the poor, then I think, it isa complete misunderstanding of the significance of this great saint for our world today. She is not a soft saint.There is a radicality and spiritual power in her commitment to the poor, and she stands tall to beckon us tothis radicality in new ways and by new and appropriate meansin the present context. She is a counterweight to capitalism and market which wants us to leave the poor and the forgotten of the world to fend for themselves. It would be an irony if capitalism were to claim Mother Teresa for itself. She is not the fruit of the charity of capitalism, but the product of the poor who made her a true saint in life even before she was canonized. The poor who made her saint are faceless, but their names arewritten large in “the book of life” (Rev. 20:12).


Felix Wilfred is founder-director of the Asian Centre for Cross-Cultural Studies, Chennai. Earlier he was the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Chairman of the School of Philosophy and Religious Thought, at the State University of Madras, India.  Since 2007, Prof. Wilfred is the President of the International Theological Review Concilium. He was a member of the Vatican International Theological Commission, then chaired by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He was on deputation by the government of India as ICCR Professor of Indian Studies, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. Recently he edited a landmark volume: The Oxford Handbook of Christianity in Asia, published by Oxford University Press, New York. He is also the chief editor of the International Journal of Asian Christianity (IJAC 2017), published by Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands.

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