IN THE first wave of the AIDS epidemic, Mother Teresa set up an AIDS hospice in Greenwich Village, in New York. Local residents vehemently opposed her. It was 1985, and the world was prey to all kinds of misconceptions about the shocking new disease. In downtown Manhattan, people were declaring that they might catch AIDS if a used Kleenex fell from the rubbish of the “gay plague” hostel. Mother Teresa’s response was to say: “We are not here to sit in judgement on these people, to decide blame or guilt. Our mission is to help them, to make the dying days more tolerable.”
It can be the place of a Christian to be a sign of contradiction. Mother Teresa was certainly unafraid to be that. Six years earlier, when she had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, she insisted that the prize-giving banquet be cancelled, and the money be used to provide meals for the poor. Applause all round. Then she stood up to give her Nobel lecture.
She said: “The greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a direct war, a direct killing — direct murder by the mother herself. . . Because if a mother can kill her own child — what is left for me to kill you and you kill me — there is nothing between” — nothing in between.
This coming Sunday, Mother Teresa of Calcutta will become St Teresa. Hers is the latest case in the current Vatican craze for fast-track canonisation. Gone is the old tradition of allowing the judgement of the years to decide whether or not someone should be declared a saint. Pope John Paul II — now himself officially a saint — dispensed with that, and promoted high-speed canonisations. “Santo subito” chanted the crowd at his funeral, and his two successors have continued his practice of precipitate canonisation.
The trouble is that this makes for controversial canonisations. There are those alive who remember the flaws and failings in someone such as Mother Teresa. Time has not allowed them to fade into insignificance alongside her towering heroic virtue.
For all those who recall her as a beacon of compassion in a self-centred world, there are also those who see her as the quintessential colonial white woman working to save the dark bodies from their temptations and failures. For all those who see her as a pioneer of interfaith practice — caring for Christians, Muslims, and Hindus alike — there are those who accuse her of surreptitiously baptising non-Christians under the guise of cooling their brows with water. For all those who see her as a champion of the human rights of the weakest members of humanity — the unborn — there are those who accuse her of forcing sex slaves in war to bear the offspring of hate.
And yet for all those who see her as a bastion of self-righteousness, certainly there are those — particularly since the revelation of her letters, a decade after her death — who see her as a Christian who was undeterred by years of struggle with darkness, dryness, and a sense of the absence of God.
God make me pure . . . but not yet, St Augustine famously said. Perhaps the “not yet” should have been applied to Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s canonisation.
Paul Vallely’s book Pope Francis: The struggle for the soul of Catholicism is published by Bloomsbury. www.paulvallely.com