Mother Teresa -- The Boss Less Than Saintly
Mother Teresa has died. As I sat there watching television on Friday night, I saw once again the objectification of someone on whom the title of "saint" has already been bestowed.It was then that I decided that maybe I had something to add as one who worked with her closely in the 60's -- a time when she was not popular in the West and had yet to win any humanitarian awards.I was born and grew up a Catholic in Calcutta. In the early 60s, I was a young, "impressionable" man looking for purpose and a way to help the poor. I thought I had found it when, along with members of a Catholic university students' group, I met Mother Teresa and visited her home for the dying, Nirmal Hirday.I was to spend the next five years working very closely with her -- so closely that she gave me the honour of being asked to start a community of brothers to work alongside her community of sisters. For a while, I concentrated solely on working with her and her sisters, the Missionaries of Charity.But I began to see that we would eventually follow separate paths. Paths that would become more divergent and would distance me enough that, when I last saw her two years ago, I was not in the crowds who wanted to get her autograph or her blessing.Mother Teresa was a truly remarkable and gifted person. I have never met anyone who was able to focus her compassion and attention so completely on another. It didn't matter whether you were a princess or a rotting body in a garbage heap -- when she came face to face with you, you were special. I saw her many times stop and pick up a dying or diseased person off the street.She was a pioneer. I remember when we walked into bustees (slums) in the midst of Hindu-Muslim riots. She walked in unafraid, demanding peace.Mother Teresa and her sisters lived like the poor, ate food that was from the same food rations that they were given. They owned nothing more than an extra sari. For me, her life of example was heroic.But as I changed and grew, questions and contradictions emerged.Mother Teresa would tell you very clearly that her work was for god -- specifically for Jesus, the Jesus of the Roman Catholic Church. Her work was to bring the "poorest of the poor" to Jesus, and this was not just by loving one's neighbour. She was a true missionary of the Catholic Church.Once we drove into a village full of smallpox in the middle of famine-stricken Bihar. I was there as an aid worker. As we approached the village, I wanted to discuss a strategy but she began to instruct the sisters sitting behind her in my jeep that on arrival they should first baptize all the children so they could go to heaven. What was more important? That they live, or that they die baptized? She was not happy when I asked, "What have these innocent children done that their creator would reject them?" Or when I raised the issue of consent. After all, this was a Hindu village.Mother Teresa was a fundamentalist Catholic. In her world, there was only one way to god. Can you call this unconditional love?As a fundamentalist Roman Catholic, Mother Teresa was used by the present pope to quash dissent within the church. She was not one who questioned the patriarchy of the Catholic Church, and her opposition to birth control and abortion is well known. As a gay man, I know she would never have accepted me. "Unconditional" love?In her work, Mother Teresa provided service -- ministering to the "poorest of the poor." Time and again, anyone who questioned whether her work really "helped people to help themselves" went away frustrated. For her, it was giving a person a fish rather than teaching a person to fish. For Mother Teresa, "The poor will always be with you" and they were there so you could do "something beautiful for god." They were and had to be passive recipients of charity.It was this service to the "poorest of the poor" that would move her up the ladder to "sainthood." She never used her powerful status as a world leader to challenge or question the system that brought about poverty and despair. In fact, I often heard her say that poverty and despair bring you closer to god.Mother Teresa believed that she had a direct line to the holy spirit. One never questioned her. To do so was to raise her ire and be seen as unwilling "to do what god wants."She kept complete control of the order, and it was a standing joke among the Jesuits I worked with that "You couldn't get a safety pin from the sisters without their getting Mother's permission."It was not surprising to hear that she continued to be the head of her order till a couple of years ago. Was this humility, or pride?My last image of her is of an 85-year-old woman who was caught up in her own sainthood. It was the 25th-anniversary celebration of the founding of a social service organization for university students that I had begun. She was the guest of honour. I was in Calcutta and was being honoured for my work.I watched as she shuffled up to the stage, surrounded by admirers. She seemed unsure of where she was and why she was there. (This is perhaps not surprising now that she was the big "catch" and was everywhere opening shopping malls, attending banquets for top industrialists, going wherever influential people needed her blessing and she could get money for the poor.)Her speech was the same one I had heard years before and many times over. "I found this man on the street covered with sores ... " and how we had to "bring Jesus to the poorest of the poor." She gave me my medal. I thanked her. She didn't remember me. I didn't remind her.