She was called a “messenger of the love of Christ,” awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and beatified by the Holy See. But for most people, she is simply Mother Teresa, one of the most admired women of modern times.
Born as Agnes Bojaxhiu in Macedonia in 1910, Blessed Teresa came to public attention relatively late in life, but when she did, her impact was profound. In 1969, Malcolm Muggeridge hosted a BBC documentary on her, Something Beautiful for God, following it with his now-classic book of the same name. In it, he recounted the series of events that led a young Balkan girl to become a nun, found a new religious order, and become a heroic servant of the poor and dying—first in the streets of Calcutta, then all over the world. The documentary deeply moved people, and inspired a new generation of Christian activists; more than a few became Missionaries of Charity themselves.
As with all models of beauty in life, however, there are cynics who have tried to tar Mother Teresa. In the 1990s—after Muggeridge had died, but with Teresa still active—the late Christopher Hitchens launched an aggressive attack on Mother with a documentary and book aimed to inflame: Hell’s Angel and The Missionary Position. These polemics didn’t reflect the truth, but did manage to fool a number of people.
The remarkable thing about Hell’s Angel is that it purports to defend the poor against Mother Teresa’s supposed exploitation of them, while never actually interviewing any on screen. Not a single person cared for by the Missionaries speaks on camera. Was this because they had a far higher opinion of Blessed Teresa than Hitchens would permit in his film?
Avoiding the people at the heart of Teresa’s ministry, Hitchens posed for the camera and let roll a series of ad hominem attacks and unsubstantiated accusations, as uninformed as they were cruel. He called Muggeridge—one of the most acclaimed journalists of the twentieth century—an “old fraud and mountebank,” mocked his belief in the supernatural, and even referred to Mother Teresa as a “presumable virgin.”
She was denounced for meeting with unsavory politicians and businessmen, in order to assist the poor, but ironically, it is Hitchens who used the film to promote Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a notorious ex-priest whose record as Haiti’s President was symbolized by corruption and abuse. Of Teresa’s travels abroad, Hitchens declared: “She may or may not comfort the afflicted, but she has certainly never been known to afflict the comfortable”—but the documentary shows her doing exactly that, decrying abortion in front of affluent pro-choice audiences.
Hitchens expressed shock that Teresa encouraged victims to forgive those who harmed them, causing many to wonder whether he was aware of the basic tenets of Christianity.
The height of absurdity came when Hitchens assailed Mother Teresa for allegedly giving her heart to greater Albania, “a cause that was once smiled upon by Pope Pius IX and his friend Benito Mussolini.” It would have been hard for Pius IX to have been friends with Benito Mussolini, given that Pius died in 1878, and Mussolini was not born until 1883, but why should Hitchens be concerned about historical facts, when he was having such fun making them up?
Despite this effort to diminish Mother Teresa’s reputation, it stands as high as ever, fifteen years after her passing. Her order and affiliates continue to expand. By 2010, notes biographer Kathryn Spink, there were over five thousand Missionary of Charity sisters, serving in 766 houses in 137 countries, and another 377 active brothers serving in sixty-eight houses in twenty-one countries. The Lay Missionaries of Charity, now twenty-five years old, are also growing, operating in fifty countries.
The expansion of her order speaks volumes about its integrity and effectiveness, but the support and admiration it has received has proven too much for some. On March 1, three Canadian academics—Serge Larivee, Genevieve Chenard, and Carole Senechal—released a report on Mother Teresa, renewing the criticism. A press release, darkly entitled “Mother Teresa: Anything but a Saint,” read:
In their article, Serge Larivee and his colleagues . . . cite a number of problems not taken into account by the Vatican in Mother Teresa’s beatification process, such as her “rather dubious way of caring for the sick, her questionable political contacts, her suspicious management of the enormous sums of money she received, and her overly dogmatic views regarding, in particular, abortion, contraception and divorce.”
That was not all. The researchers accused Mother Teresa of running facilities with inadequate medical care while receiving quality medical care herself, said she was more in love with poverty than helping the poor, and implied she was psychologically unstable because she suffered through bouts of doubt. For good measure, they attacked the miracle that the Church has attributed to her intervention.
After studying their report—twenty-seven pages in French—I sought out people who had known Mother Teresa, or been involved with her cause to inquire about its charges. Every single one of them told me that the Mother Teresa presented by the Canadian researchers was unrecognizable from the one they encountered, and to prove it, provided point by point rebuttals to their accusations.
Fr. Peter Gumpel, an official at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, told me that far from overlooking criticism of Mother Teresa, the allegations were taken quite seriously, and answered:
There are mistakes made in even the most modern medical facilities, but whenever a correction was needed, Mother and the Missionaries showed themselves alert and open to constructive change and improvement. What many do not understand is the desperate conditions Mother Teresa constantly faced, and that her special charism was not to found or run hospitals—the Church has many who do that—but to rescue those who were given no chance of surviving, and otherwise would have died on the street.
But it is “absolutely false,” he stressed, to claim that she rejected or neglected available medical care for those still treatable, or good palliative care for the terminally ill. “Beware of anecdotal stories circulating from disgruntled people or those with an anti-Catholic agenda,” he warned.
Charges of financial impropriety are equally unfounded; in fact, Blessed Teresa helped raise, and spent, “enormous sums of money” on the poor, and she donated funds to the Holy See, which in turn distributed them to Catholic hospitals and other good works. Utterly bizarre was the researchers’ charge that the Vatican officials did not adequately consider her firm stands against abortion, contraception, and divorce: of course they did—and her orthodoxy was “one of the many assets in her favor.”
Commenting about the doubts Mother Teresa experienced, Gumpel asked, “Do not these researchers understand that periods of doubt, and even severe trials of faith, have affected some of the Church’s greatest saints—St. John of the Cross, Therese of Lisieux—and that persevering and overcoming them is considered one of the signs of sanctity?”
As for the miracle attributed to Blessed Teresa, “There are always skeptics who question every Vatican-approved miracle, and accuse the Church of manipulating the evidence, but the Congregation’s medical board has very vigorous examination procedures, and stands by its decisions.” Against the skeptics, no fewer than five doctors declared there was “no medical explanation” of the healing attributed to Mother Teresa.
Fr. Leo Maasburg, an Austrian priest who was Mother Teresa’s close personal friend and spiritual advisor and the author of a moving portrait of her, told me that the idea that Blessed Teresa loved poverty rather than poor people was “a diabolical twisting” of her actual beliefs, which were “to help the poor and suffering to the utmost.” Despite her travels (undertaken purely to spread her charitable activities), Blessed Teresa lived an extremely modest life in Calcutta, and Fr. Maasburg was emphatic that she never asked for special favors or medical care—a fact since confirmed by others close to her, including the physicians who treated her during her final illness.
Fr. Maasburg also stressed that Blessed Teresa was the first to acknowledge her imperfections, and would constantly teach those around her: “If someone criticizes you, first ask yourself, is it right? If he is right, apologize and change, and the issue is resolved. If he is not right, clarify and correct, but if that does not work, take up the unjust accusations with both hands and offer it to Jesus in union with his suffering, because he was slandered by all sides.”
The most powerful witness I spoke to was Susan Conroy, who worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta—traveling there as a twenty-one-year-old volunteer in 1986. She knew Mother for the last decade of her life, and wrote Mother Teresa’s Lessons of Love and Secrets of Sanctity. She speaks about Blessed Teresa often. She read the report by the Canadian academics in its original French, and reacted with sadness, offering this first-hand testimonial in response:
When I read the criticisms of how the patients were cared for in the Home for the Dying, I kept thinking back to my personal experiences there. . . . I know how tenderly and carefully we tended to each of the destitute patients there—how we bathed them, and washed their beds, and fed them and gave them medicine. I know how the entire shelter was thoroughly and regularly cleaned from top to bottom, and each patient was bathed as often as necessary, even if it was multiple times a day. . . .
They were considered “untouchables” of society, and yet there we were touching and caring for them as if they were royalty. We truly felt honored to serve them as best we could. Mother Teresa had taught us to care for each one with all the humility, respect, tenderness and love with which we would touch and serve Jesus Christ Himself—reminding us that “whatsoever we do to the least of our brothers,” we do unto Him.
After hearing from these supporters, I requested interviews with the researchers, and finally obtained one with Dr. Chenard. Her answers to my series of questions were both astonishing and revealing: She confirmed for me that her academic team did not speak to a single patient, medical analyst, associate, or worker of Mother Teresa’s before writing their paper against her; nor did they examine how all her finances were spent; nor did they speak with anyone at the Vatican involved with her sainthood cause, or consult the Vatican’s medical board which certified the miracle attributed to Blessed Teresa.The researchers had not even traveled to Calcutta, whereas even Hitchens, misguided as he was, at least did that.
As it turned out, this “research paper” was nothing but a “review of literature,” a repacking of what others had already written, with the academics putting their own negative spin on it. In other words, an indictment based upon no original research, and the author most frequently cited? Christopher Hitchens. Yet these “findings” made international headlines, and were repeated by many without objection.
Sanctity cannot be fabricated, and true holiness often invites worldly ridicule, as Our Lord foretold. But Blessed Mother Teresa’s radiant witness will survive as long as truth and tenderness survive in the human heart—which, God willing, will be until the end of time.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.