ARTICLES ON MOTHER TERESA

"Saint of the dispossessed" published in The Hindu on August 26, 2004

Saint of the dispossessed

The miracle was Mother Teresa's life itself. She epitomised goodness and faith, reached out without being judgmental, sought no explanations, only tried to comfort and offer succour. A 94th birth anniversary tribute by her biographer.

Navin Chawla with Mother Teresa

LAST OCTOBER I attended the beatification ceremony of Mother Teresa in the Vatican. The Vatican is no stranger to ceremonial and the proceedings were conducted in the very shadow of St. Peter's Basilica. I was pleased that Mother Teresa was given the highest honour her Church could bestow, for this was the mandatory halfway mark to sainthood. I was happy, too, that the Sisters and Brothers of her Order were present in large numbers. However, the conviction that never left me was that she had been nominated a saint in her own lifetime by hundreds of millions of people, irrespective of their nationality or religion (and in many cases in the absence of any accepted faith), for she epitomised the essential goodness that is inherent in all human beings and that we strive, in smaller or larger measure, to attain.

Throughout the proceedings, my thoughts invariably strayed beyond the magnificence of our surroundings to the small soup kitchen less than a hundred metres away. Mother Teresa had, some years ago, been able to persuade Pope John Paul II, to carve out a space within the tiny confines of the Vatican, so that Rome's hungry and poor could get at least one hot meal a day. The Pope had readily agreed, although I suspect that his bureaucracy, like bureaucracies everywhere, might have been less enthused. But the will of the Pope and the determination of Mother Teresa prevailed. For they were fellow travellers in many senses and this was only one example of the sharing of their minds. The result is that today anyone can witness the long queue of the hungry that begins to form at about four every afternoon and snakes its way into St. Peter's Square itself. In the process, Mother Teresa had demystified centuries of layers of conservative tradition and opened the Vatican to her special constituency, the poorest of the poor. She would often joke that the only people who did not need to buy a ticket to visit St. Peter's were `her poor'!

While a proven miracle was necessary for Mother Teresa to be beatified, the real miracle, I believe, was Mother Teresa's life itself. It was extraordinary that the strand of divinity remained uneclipsed from her childhood to her death. Imagine a child of twelve telling her mother that she wanted to leave home to become a nun. Her mother told her that she was much too young to think of leaving home and her family, which was a close-knit and loving one. Six years later, now barely 18 but still a teenager, she told her mother that her life lay in a land that Dranafile Bojaxhiu would have been hard put to find in an atlas, for Albania was a world away from a province called Bengal in eastern India. In those days, missionaries seldom, if ever, returned home, and it was with a heavy heart that the mother bid her child farewell. Her parting advice to her daughter was to place her hands in God's and walk all the way with Him. When she kissed her child goodbye, geography and circumstance never permitted them to meet again.

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