Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, better known by her stage name Mother Teresa, is to be sanctified by the Catholic Church next year. Bojaxhiu’s popularity even among non-Catholics makes this a highly political move. One that does not withstand scrutiny.
The museum dedicated to Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in her native town of Skopje, Macedonia, is looking torward to an extraordinary surge of tourists next year. To assume city officials are as well is a safe bet.
That it even exists bears testimony of how popular the Catholic nun and soon to be saint Bojaxhiu is in a country where Orthodoxy is the prevalent religion. And of course of expectations that her image of sainthood can be capitalized upon. Which is much closer to her real life than most people know or even care to know.
Moreover, she was Albanian, too. That makes it even more surprising that it was Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski who opened the museum in 2009. Macedonians often treat Albanians with hostility. Albanians often reciprocate.
Such is Bojaxhiu’s popularity that a strictly inner-Catholic affair such as a canonization can help bridge these differences.
Albanians Will be Particularly Proud
There is little doubt that that step will fuel the rather peculiar Albanian nationalism that – unlike most others on the Balkans – usually transcends religious boundaries.
There aren’t that many celebreties of Albanian origin who enjoy a worldwide reputation. This is largely due to there not being many Albanians in comparison in the first place.
During a visit to Albania, Bojaxhiu also championed the cause of Albanian nationalism, laying down a wreath at the monument of Mother Albania in Tirana in 1989.
„This will make my parents happy“, an ethnic Albanian commented a posting on Facebook announcing the soon to be expected canonization. „All that’s missing now is the news that God is Albanian“, he added sarcastically.
This Is a Political Act, Not A Religious One
Needless to say that the Holy See’s announcement of proclaiming Bojaxhiu a saint in September 2016 or so has stirred up a lot of attention from India where she was active to Ireland , the US, Austria and, perhaps most of all, Italy.
The decision has also been welcomed by non-Catholics. Millions see her not only as a rolemodel in terms of piety but also as a champion of charity for the poor.
Bojaxhiu’s worldwide popularity alone makes Jose Mario Bergoglio’s (stage name: Pope Francis I.) decision a political rather than a religious one.
It is political also in a sense as Bojaxhiu always openly promoted fundamentalist Catholic values and policies.
Throughout her life she campaigned against birth control of any kind, be it abortion or contraceptives.
Bojaxhiu also was an ardent proselytizer. She arguably spent more of her time trying to convert people to Catholicism than helping the poor – or doing whatever she thought was helping the poor.
Also, this seemingly unpolitical woman never ceased to support the Powers That Be.
This makes canonizing her an odd political choice in 2015. But then again, this being a Catholic affair it’s more about her public image than it is about facts.
To millions, even non-Catholics, there is no one more deserving of public reverence as she.
The „Divine Light“ That Was Not
This is more the product of a PR campaign than it is the result of her life and works, let alone the inevitable one. The campaign created a modern myth, rivalled perhaps only by Western reverence for the Dalai Lama, itself result of PR campaigns.
The myth around Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu started in 1969. That year, director Peter Chafer shot the BBC documentary „Something Beautiful for God“ with narrator Malcom Muggeridge at the hospice Bojaxhiu’s order runs in Calcutta.
Muggeridge was a born-again Christian who later converted to the Catholicism.
„Filming in Mother Teresa’s „house of the dying“ wasn’t easy, since the place was very dimly lit, making it very difficult to get a clear picture. „Fortunately“, Kodak had just developed a new type of film, which made the filming possible. Viewing the footage at the Eeling Studios and seeing the pristine pictures, Cameraman Ken Macmillan was just short of remarking, „three cheers to Kodak“, when Muggeridge blurred out „It’s divine light! It’s Mother Teresa!“, pointing out that for the very first time a miracle has been caught on camera. Hence the legend of a saintly little nun was born and, again thanks to Mudderidge, soon the media circled around this story like vultures“ imdb.com describes what happens next.
It took decades in order for the „divine light“ legend to be debunked. The film has since been forgotten. In 2010, the BBC refused to have the „documentary“ shown at a Mother Teresa film festival in India.
The 2010 Festival is a fine example of how the myth has been and is still being perpetuated. Christopher Hitchens‘ critical documentary on Bojaxhiu, „Hell’s Angel“, also produced for the BBC in 1994, wasn’t shown.
“We could have included certain controversial films such as ‘Hell’s Angel,‘ but decided against it, as it could have been perceived as offensive. You do not celebrate someone’s birthday by offending the person,”
Sunil Lucas, organizer of the 2010 Mother Teresa Film Festival
What Exactly Did Bojaxhiu Do For The Poor?
The PR campaign on behalf of Bojaxhiu always portrayed her as an „angel of the poor“. Although it could never convincingly make clear what exactly it was Bojaxhiu and her order, the Missionaries of Charity, exactly did for the poor.
Pretty much all it amounted to was running institutions that allowed the poor to die there. To die with next to medical treatment and next to no palliative care as numerous critics have pointed out.
These critics include Christopher Hitchens, a renown journalist and atheist activist, who tied his reputation to the documentary he produced together with British Pakistani journalist Tariq Ali:
The British medical Journal „The Lancet“, one of the leading journals of its kind, described the medical care at the hospice as „haphazard“.
Patients were denied painkillers and even regular medical examinations, numerous critics confirm, including former members of the „Missionaries of Charity“ and volunteers for the organization.
One of them is Hemley Gonzalez who worked at one of the homes in 2008 and now runs a blog dedicated to debunking the Bojaxhiu-myth. In one of the entries, he and Indian critic Aroup Chatterjee point out that while Bojaxhiu denied the dying basic medical care she wasn’t so modest about when it concerned herself.
Teresa’s warped mentally which promoted that “suffering is good” is primarily to blame. Ironically she suffered very little herself when ill, getting some of the best healthcare treatment money could buy.
Another critic is Donal Macintyre who worked undercover at an orphanage the order runs in Calcutta for the magazine „New Statesman“.
I winced at the rough handling by some of the full-time staff and Missionary sisters. I saw children with their mouths gagged open to be given medicine, their hands flaying in distress, visible testimony to the pain they were in. Tiny babies were bound with cloths at feeding time. Rough hands wrenched heads into position for feeding. Some of the children retched and coughed as rushed staff crammed food into their mouths. Boys and girls were abandoned on open toilets for up to 20 minutes at a time. Slumped, untended, some dribbling, some sleeping, they were a pathetic sight. Their treatment was an affront to their dignity, and dangerously unhygienic.
Among these critics also is a research team from the University of Montreal. In a recent study they confirmed that criticism against Bojaxhiu was substantiated.
Charity And Proselytisation? Same Thing.
Wherever the dozens of millions of Dollars Bojaxhiu raised for her order went to is a question still unanswered.
Much of the money seems to have been used to found no less than 300 branches of the order in more than 100 countries.
How that is supposed to help the poor, especially those of Calcutta, seems a rather obvious question many dare not ask.
Most of these missions are mainly preoccupied with proselytizing. Which, it should be said, is a highly charitable act in the eyes of the Catholic Church.
To be fair, that is a stance shared by all religions with just a handful of exceptions such as Judaism and the Sikhs. For the others, charity and proselytizing are inextricably linked.
This reflects in one of the few accusations Bojaxhiu ever commented upon. She denied secretly baptizing the dying at her hospice without their knowledge. The claims Susan Shields, a former member of the order, made seem substantiated enough to make them credible, though.
An Embodiment Of Phoniness And Bigotry
Another critic is German author Colin Goldner who is a Humanist and animal rights activist. He recalls interviewing her for the German Magazine FOCUS in the early 90’s. He had never met a person he so physically detested from the start as he did Bojaxhiu Goldner remarked on numerous lectures.
He calls her „the embodiment of phoniness and bigotry“
She was constantly fingering her rosary with one hand, holding a cane with the other which she used to hit the legs of another nun with that was bringing her some files during our conversation. I immediately aborted the interview as I couldn’t stand the presence of this vicious old woman any longer.
Goldner, it should be said, is known for his polemics.
Guarding The Churches Right Flank
Then there is the political issue.
In her supposed work for the poor Bojaxhiu never once criticized the conditions that created poverty and certainly did nothing to alter them.
She rather dwelled on the spiritual benefits poverty brought in her eyes.
I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.
There is an old saying: „If I help the poor they call me a saint. If I ask why they are poor they call me a communist.“
Bojaxhiu certainly couldn’t be accused of being a communist. She couldn’t exactly be called someone helping the poor either, for that matter.
Or, to put it in the words of Christopher Hitchens who referred to her ardent campaign against birth control:
MT was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.
Overall, Bojaxhiu was reactionary even by Catholic terms in her lifetime.
Keep This A Strictly Catholic Matter
Taking a critical look at the works of Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu certainly will not prevent her canonization which is a strictly inner-Catholic thing anyways.
It might however help keep it a strictly internal matter of the Catholic Church and its flock, helping not to make her a symbol of fighting poverty or even helping the poor.
That would be fraud.
Title Photo: (c) Dennis Jarvis, obtained under CC license CC BY-SA 2.0