As the great river of articles and commentary now gushing forth on Mother Teresa in advance of her canonization Sunday shows, perhaps no one in the modern age — with the exception of recent popes — has managed to communicate so much holiness through the window of the television and film screen.
She fast became a legend in her own times — unusual in combining sanctity and celebrity while still alive – in large part because hers was a great media story.
The Associated Press reporter who first made her work known to a western audience knew he had a story after being told by a Calcutta newspaper editor about a “funny little nun who goes around collecting dying people.” Joe McGowan’s March 1966 report on Mother Teresa and the cramped and primitive Home for the Dying Destitutes she had run since 1952 was the first international story about her, to be followed by many others.
Her fame really took off when the TV cameras arrived — not least for Malcolm Muggeridge’s famous 1969 TV documentary, ‘Something Beautiful for God.’ When the cantankerous British pundit first met her he was awestruck by her luminosity, describing her as having as ‘‘a shining quality.’’
Another documentary maker, Ann Petrie, whose acclaimed 1986 ‘Mother Teresa – the legacy’ was narrated by Richard Attenborough, was similarly impacted: “I never met anyone more memorable,” she later said. The AP reporter, Joe McGowan, although not a believer, has no doubt she is a saint.
What struck McGowan, Muggeridge and Petrie among so many others was that Mother Teresa did not debate the question of poverty and development but acted on the truth – obvious to her — that God was within each person (she would tell her nuns that the dying, broken body of the terminally ill people in their arms was Jesus). They saw the effect of that truth both on the people her nuns helped, as well as on the rapid growth and spread of her work.
Their stories went in search of that something –the magic elixir that drove her and her mission. In the great gulf between an elite western debate about poverty and the little Albanian nun’s response they found a hold-the-front-page story — one that could be told with drama and moving images.
“Rather than regarding the poor as a problem, she saw every human being, no matter how wretched, as an opportunity to do something for Jesus,” Petrie later said.
Mother Teresa regarded the global fame that accompanied her media stardom as divine providence – a means for her to evangelize and to enable her to fulfill her mission of helping the very poorest. The purity of that focus was disconcerting– and again, irresistible to journalists.
Combining a total trust that she was doing God’s bidding with a peasant pragmatism, she turned encounters with powerful and wealthy people into opportunities to secure favors that would better enable her expanding order to respond to human need.
Some of the best stories about her are of the little nun badgering a cardinal, or dictator, or president, until she secured what she required – whatever would give greatest freedom to her Missionaries of Charity to pursue their goals.
There is the time, for example, that she held up a supermarket queue in London with a trolley full of £500 worth of goods, telling the cashier they were for the poor and waiting for someone to offer to pay (eventually someone did.) Or there was the time the Indian government gave her a free rail pass; she then asked them for the same privileges on its airline, gamely offering to work off her passage as a flight attendant.
This counter-cultural brazenness was documentary pure gold. She lived among the poor, dressed in a simple sari, sat rock-like in her chapel until late at night, and whenever the microphone was passed to her spoke freely and frankly; yet she moved millions of dollars, received awards and honours from universities and presidents, and spent time with Princess Diana.
The world loves a saint; but loves her even more when she moves through the world with a big smile, indifferent to wealth and celebrity, ruthlessly bargaining on behalf of the poorest of the poor.
And like all radicals, she was fearless. “When you get to heaven, you will find it is full of the street people of Calcutta,” she once told a group at the Gregorian University in Rome. “And all the people you expected to find there, won’t be there.”
But perhaps the greatest paradox was that she was not, by any world standards, a handsome woman, yet remained a massive media celebrity. When he was cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio referred to this irony in a 2002 speech on church communication, noting how despite the frivolity and narcissism of the media it could sometimes open a window on the beauty of holiness.
“In Jesus broken on the Cross, who has neither appearance nor presence in the eyes of the world and the TV cameras, there shines the beauty of the love of God who gives His life for us. It’s the beauty of holiness, of the saints. When we think of someone like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, our heart is filled with a beauty that does not come from this woman’s physical characteristics or stature, but from the gorgeous splendour of her love for the poor and disinherited which goes everywhere with her.”
Of course, not all were captivated. The ‘cult of Teresa of Calcutta’ produced scorn and derision in rationalist crusaders, most famously Christopher Hitchens, with his documentary, ‘Hell’s Angel,’ and follow-up 1995 book, The Missionary Position. Hitchens lambasted Muggeridge’s documentary as “a profane marriage between tawdry media and medieval superstition” and went on to line up rationalists, communists and middle-class sceptics in an attempt to rubbish the Mother Teresa phenomenon.
Yet he managed only to highlight his own prejudices. Visiting her home for the dying in 1980, he was deeply shocked when she told him that “this is how we fight abortion and contraception in Calcutta,” and was appalled at her famous remarks at her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: “The greatest destroyer of peace today is the cry of the innocent unborn child.”
Far from being a nice little holy nun, Hitchens alleged, Mother Teresa was part of what he called John Paul II’s “fundamentalist brigade,” an ally of the status quo, who exhibited “fatalistic, submissive attitudes.” Yet it would be a strange Catholicism that cared for the leprous dying and was indifferent to the slaying of the unborn. And, of course, nice little nuns don’t build worldwide missions of mercy – only radicals on fire with love of Christ.
Ultimately, the weakness in the objection of Hitchens and the Calcutta middle-class sceptics he lined up to denounce her was that she was religious, and not a bien-pensant do-gooder. He simply didn’t understand holiness, and what drives a saint; that she had founded a religious order, not an NGO; and that she was not a politician who feared being tainted by the company of corrupt millionaires.
Hitchens was red meat to sceptics and rationalists, but he missed the point that was captured by the Muggeridge and Petrie documentaries. Far from being merely worldly, it was Mother Teresa’s other-worldliness that allowed her to be so thoroughly immersed in the world.
Hitchens, who died two years before Pope Francis was elected, would have found it harder to mount the same critique of the canonization of Teresa by a pope from the Third World who spent his Saturdays in the slums.
Francis and Teresa met only once, in 1994, during the synod of bishops (“She said what she wanted to say,” he later reported. “If she had been my superior, I would have been scared!”)
Yet there is so much that binds one to the other: her embodiment of practical mercy, her struggle against the throwaway culture, her missionary energy and zeal, her focus on the peripheries, her seeing the suffering of the poor as the wounds of Christ – and a shared love of St Francis of Assisi.
When Francis kissed the face of a disfigured man in Saint Peter’s Square, that too captured the world’s imagination — and recalled the words of Mother Teresa that when she she washes the leper’s wounds, she is nursing the Lord himself.
Cardinal Bergoglio used to say the same in Buenos Aires of his contact with those who were poor and suffering — that he saw in their wounds those of Christ.
But maybe one of the most striking things the pope and the saint share is that they were media-shy mystics who became global media phenomena.
Mother Teresa was lauded by presidents and famous people, was endlessly filmed and interviewed, yet it never corrupted her. She hated the attention, because she was shy; yet she accepted it as part of what God was asking of her.
And all the time — as was later revealed — she was in spiritual darkness, not experiencing the consolation of God close to her. Fame did not feed her ego, but left her even more hungry for Christ.
“All that acclaim and adulation doesn’t touch me,” she once wrote, “because I want Him, and I don’t have Him.”