The following is a true story from my days as a student for the Catholic priesthood in the 1970s. It happened that two of my fellow students were driving across country and they had with them in the back of the car two young Polish students for the priesthood. At one point on the journey one of the British students said they should stop and say the rosary. Now this was church student code for “let’s stop and have a pee”. (I’m glad to say that we British church students always had a healthy habit of poking fun at religion.) When the car had stopped the British lads turned round and saw that the two Polish students had taken out their rosary beads and were trying to kneel down in the back of the car, to which the two British lads burst out laughing.
The Polish lads, bless them, were very devout and – when it came to religion – were very serious! I don’t think they appreciated the humour of the situation!
I tell this story because I hope it illustrates that people from different backgrounds and places can have very different attitudes, even on supposedly important matters and even when the people are all of a similar age.
Mother Theresa of Calcutta has in the recent past been both canonised by the Church and also vilified by many commentators. As such she is a figure who provokes strong reactions both for and against. There appears to be much evidence that her ‘inspirational’ ministry among the abandoned poor in the slums of Calcutta was in fact tainted by poor medical practices and some very old-fashioned spiritual practices, to the extent that many, even within the medical community, see her as a regressive and problematic figure who perhaps did more harm than good. They cite her theological and spiritual messages as indicative of someone who was both extremely traditional and other-worldly, and this is seen especially in her teachings on the place of suffering in human life. A case can be made against her that instead of doing everything possible to alleviate physical suffering she in fact almost celebrated such suffering as somehow a special path to God.
My story of the church students illustrates that, in any evaluation of someone like Mother Theresa, we need to understand them as being from a time and a place. Both Mother Theresa and her great friend and soulmate Pope John Paul II were from Eastern Europe and lived through two world wars and were hugely affected by the grim forces of totalitarianism and militarism. The Church in Eastern Europe had to fight to protect itself and its peoples’ cultural identity, and, metaphorically speaking, drew up the wagons into a corral against these secular threats. This caused the Church to embrace a fortress mentality and to have a dominantly defensive outlook. This inevitably engendered a Church that was tribal and reactionary, and that also emphasised uniformity of belief and strong devotional practice. As such both Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II were extremely traditional in their outlook – this has had huge consequences for the Church in my lifetime, and not always for the good.
What I’m saying here is that influential figures like Mother Theresa may have appeared as somehow superhuman but they were intensely human, and that as well as their undoubted charisms they had their failings. Mother Theresa’s mentality matters because it would have influenced her practical ministry. I have elsewhere written about the mystery of suffering – suffice it to say that many in the Church have accepted an outlook that suffering is sent by God and needs to be embraced rather than fought against. This to me is bad theology and bad practice. God never sends suffering – He hates to see us suffer but – and it is a big but – God can and does use our suffering.
Is there then a purpose to suffering? Richard Rohr OFM says:
“If suffering is “whenever we are not in control” (his definition), then we can understand why some form of suffering is absolutely necessary to teach us how to live beyond the illusion of control and to give that control back to God.”
What Richard Rohr is saying here is that suffering can have value, but that’s a long way from saying that we should embrace it willingly, fail to counteract it or see it as somehow God’s will for our life.
Did Mother Theresa see suffering as something to be accepted and possibly not fought against? Did that impact on the nature and the quality of the care she and her sisters gave to the poor? And if so, does that disqualify her from sainthood? You be the judge.
In His love,