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Suffering For Jesus

The Great Mother Teresa Myth

By James Donahue

In my years of dealing with the impact of the Roman Catholic Church on humanity I always thought the work of the late Mother Teresa was among the few redeeming qualities produced by that institution.

By the time of her death in 1997, Mother Teresa had opened 517 missions in 133 countries under the name Missions of Charity. Serving in these missions were over 4,500 sisters who ran hospices and homes for the poor and sick, plus soup kitchens, children’s and family counseling services, orphanages and schools.

After being awarded numerous honors including the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, the church quickly began steps toward sainthood. Having declared one "healing" of a woman in India that suffered from an ovarian cyst and tuberculosis as a miracle, the church beatified her. In 1999 a poll of Americans ranked Mother Teresa first in a list of the most widely admired people of the Twentieth Century.

Alas, a new paper being published in this month’s issue of the journal Studies in Religion/Sciences religieuses, published by a team of Canadian researchers, reveals that the hallowed image we all remember of this figure of altruism and generosity was not all that it was cracked up to be. It was the result of an elaborate media campaign designed to elevate Mother Theresa to something more than she was in real life.

The researchers, Serge Lavivee and Genevieve Chenard of the University of Montreal and Carole Senechal of the University of Ottawa, found that Mother Teresa was generous with her prayers but "miserly with her foundation’s millions when it came to humanity’s suffering."

The team described the missions "homes for the dying" and said doctors "observed a significant lack of hygiene, even unfit conditions, as well as a shortage of actual care, inadequate food and no painkillers." Yet the foundation Mother Teresa created was raising hundreds of millions of dollars from all over the world. What happened to the money? Was it sucked up by the Vatican?

Journalist Christopher Hitchens once quoted the woman’s response to the above criticisms. "There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion," she allegedly said. Yet when Mother Teresa was on her death bed, she received care in a modern American hospital.

In its rush to beautify Mother Teresa, the Canadian authors say the Vatican failed to take into account "her rather dubious way of caring for the sick, her questionable political contacts, her suspicious management of the enormous sums of money she received, and her overly dogmatic views regarding, in particular, abortion, contraception and divorce."

The myth behind Mother Teresa was created, the researchers say, by a BBC journalist, Malcom Muggeridge, who shared her right-wing Catholic values. In addition to the stories, Muggeridge produced a eulogistic film that credited her with the "first photographic miracle" which was, in itself, a lie. The effect was created by a new film stock just being marketed by Kodak.