In order to be made a saint in the Catholic Church, you first have to be dead and then you have to perform two miracles. The first posthumous miracle the Vatican says Mother Teresa performed was the healing of an Indian woman named Monica Besra, whose abdominal tumour disappeared after a locket containing a picture of the nun was pressed to her stomach. The tumour was caused by tuberculosis, one of the diseases Mother Teresa had spent her life providing care for. The Vatican rushed to confirm the miracle, but Besra’s family and doctors were sceptical: ‘She took medications for nine months to a year,’ Besra’s doctor told the New York Times. Other hospital staff said that they felt pressure from Catholic authorities to say that the recovery was miraculous.

The anecdote is characteristic of Mother Teresa’s hasty canonisation: the Vatican began beatification less than two years after her death in 1997; Pope Francis pronounced her a saint earlier this month (the second miracles was healing a Brazilian man with brain tumours in 2008). For decades, Mother Teresa was the world’s most high-profile Catholic figure, more popular even than the pope. The religious order she founded in 1950, the Missionaries of Charity, has ministries in more than 100 countries. The sisters vow to give ‘wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor’. The moral content of Mother Teresa’s work was sufficiently anodyne, and the media infatuation with her sufficiently pervasive, that she became an international symbol of a friendlier Catholicism; lovable, acceptable and admirable to middle-class people in Europe and America, even those who did not attend church or believe in God.

What may be most telling about Mother Teresa is how often she ended up in front of the cameras. In pictures, she is either shaking the hand of someone powerful, glamorous or ruthless – Ronald Reagan, Princess Diana, François Duvalier – or leaning over someone too weak to stand. (It’s impossible to imagine her young.) Amit Chaudhuri, reviewing Christopher Hitchens’s broadside The Missionary Position, argued that images of Mother Teresa, who was white (she was born in Macedonia in 1910), caring for destitute Indian people were reminiscent of India before independence:

Instead of speaking, the poor in the photographs look up at her silently, touch her hand, are fed by a spoon. The ‘black hole’ of Calcutta, figuring as it does an open, silent mouth … refers to the unsayable that lay, and still often lies, at the heart of the colonial encounter.

As her ministry expanded outside Bengal, she made high-profile moral interventions: she brokered a ceasefire between Israeli and Palestinian forces in 1982 to secure the safe evacuation of children from a Beirut hospital; she visited Armenia following an earthquake in 1988; she went to meet radiation victims after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986. Her attention was generally given to victims of diseases whose devastations were highly visible: tuberculosis, leprosy, Aids. Everywhere, she made efforts to help those who were suffering, to lend them dignity, compassion or material help. And everywhere, her ease with the media was evident. ‘We must sell love,’ she said in Something Beautiful for God, the 1969 documentary that made her a celebrity in the West. Mother Teresa was profoundly in touch with her time: she considered herself a saleswoman.

It’s impossible to ignore what Mother Teresa did for the poor. Hundreds of weeping devoted came to her canonisation in St Peter’s Square, many of them from India, where she remains largely popular despite periodic challenges from both Hindu nationalists and the Marxist Bengali government. She said she wanted the poor who died in her care to ‘die like angels – loved and wanted’. But she also accepted money from the truly awful, and was complicit in the propagation of her fame – which helped her cause, but hurt others. As Chaudhuri put it:

In the flood of publicity and photo-opportunities that have followed Mother Teresa’s celebrity, in which various world leaders have basked in the reflected light of her virtue (and her gratitude), it would seem that only the people of Calcutta and the West Bengal government have missed out, even been blanked out, to be represented only by the solitary destitute at the Mother’s hand.

It’s impossible to say whether she was motivated more by compassion or by moral vanity. It made no difference to the people she helped, but it’s part of what’s so unnerving about Mother Teresa, and about the whole idea of sainthood; her failures are the failures of many kinds of charity. To look at Mother Teresa is to see a bleak and complicating reality: that it is very difficult to pity someone and to respect them at the same time.

Read more in the London Review of Books

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Barbara Newman: Why can the dead do such great things? · 7 May 2015

Amit Chaudhuri: Mother Teresa · 4 January 1996