Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity: At the service of God and men
I was away from Delhi when news spread that the government had not renewed the authorization of the FCRA to the Missionaries of Charity, the organization which Mother Teresa founded in 1950. That was the year of the promulgation of our Constitution and she was among the first foreigners to become an Indian citizen.
Associated with Mother Teresa for the last 23 years of her life and the MC sisters for over four decades, the denial of FCRA clearance surprised me, but I thought that was the result, as it is often the case of accounting errors, which would be corrected. And it happened.
The sisters were able to explain the discrepancies to the relevant authorities and the authorization was renewed.
2022 woke up to the 25th year of Mother Teresa’s passing, in her beloved Kolkata. For me, it was also an opportunity to tell a little about my association with her. We know where it began, a solitary presence on the streets of Kolkata with no money, no help and no companion. At the time of her death, she had gradually created the presence of her Order in 123 countries. Together with his group of 4,000 sisters and brothers, theirs would remain a unique brand of faith and compassion, seeking to alleviate misery, loneliness, hunger and disease, bringing hope and relief to millions of abandoned outcasts, homeless, dying and lepers. , regardless of their country, religion or denomination.
Although she remained staunchly Catholic, her brand of religion was not exclusive. Convinced that everyone she served was the suffering Christ, she reached out to people of all faiths. This was not the hallmark of 19th century imperial evangelism. Unlike most Church members, she understood the environment in which she lived and worked. While writing my biography, I once asked Jyoti Basu, that indomitable chief minister of West Bengal, what he could, as a communist and atheist, have in common with Mother Teresa, for whom God was everything. With a smile, he replied, “We both share a love for the poor.
With such a long association and so many memories, I can at best present a few vignettes of an arduous but joyful life that was ordained to him. I vividly remember my first visit with her to a huge leper colony not far from Calcutta. It was a very moving experience to see her surrounded by hundreds of inmates, many of whom had no arms or legs, all reaching out to hug or touch her. “Ma”, as they called her, had made them feel needed by entrusting them with the important task of weaving the sarees worn by MC sisters around the world.
On her visits to Delhi, where she had “homes”, I helped guide her through our labyrinthine bureaucracy. Over time, I became familiar with the work of the MC. The Shishu Bhawans were crowded with abandoned children, dressed in cheerful clothes, sewn by the sisters or volunteers; the Majnu Ka Tila “house” for destitute abandoned elderly people; the home for handicapped children in South Delhi, many of whom suffer from Down syndrome and are cared for in their beds.
It was here that my daughters and I met Kusum, then a six-year-old child. Two things struck me at once. The first was that she couldn’t stand up, and the second was her contagious smile. Whenever I visited her, this little girl always greeted me with a smile. Since she could only crawl, the nuns, helpers, and volunteers fed her, bathed her, dressed her in clean clothes every day, and carried her to the bathroom whenever she needed to go. They changed her clothes every time she soiled them.
Painfully, she learned to say “hello” to me and one day, to my delight, added “uncle” to complete the little phrase. Kusum was found begging on a street. In the afternoon, the sisters found her, it was raining. The drenched child had an excruciating cough. Unable to find a parent or guardian, they usually reported the matter to the local police. After her condition stabilized in a nearby hospital, they took her to their “ashram” to join about 60 children suffering from physical and mental problems. Doctors had believed that his legs and arms had been broken, possibly deliberately. When I asked her once who had done this to her, she burst into tears. It was the only time she cried. The rest of the time, Kusum’s smile invariably reached his eyes. When she died aged 18, the sisters cremated her body at the nearby cremation ground.
When I asked Mother Teresa how she and her mission could care for hundreds of thousands of destitute people, and what made this possible, she explained to me simply but meaningfully. “You can, at best, take care of a few loved ones in your family. My sisters and I can take care of everyone, because for us they are all God”. Thus, the leper chained by his brothers in a hut, the infant left under a truck and rescued from prowling dogs just in time, the woman thrown on a heap of rubbish by her own son and left to die because he had now secured his property, were manifestations of his God in suffering.
Perhaps the most succinct summary of the life and work of Mother Teresa was made by the chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, John Sannes. In his speech at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo in 1979, he said: “The hallmark of his work has been respect for the individual, his worth and his dignity. The loneliest and most miserable, the destitute dying, the abandoned lepers were all received by her and her sisters with warm, uncondescending compassion, based on her reverence for Christ in man… This is the life of Mother Teresa and her sisters – a life of strict poverty and long days and nights of toil, a life that leaves little room for other joys than the most precious.
The writer is the former Chief Electoral Commissioner of India