Is Mother Theresa a Saint?

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,


A Tale of Two Lives

For the Christian, existence is a tale of two lives. This notion cannot be proved, and has to be accepted on faith, but that belief is rooted in a profound logic that resonates with the deepest needs of the human heart. As such, Christians are joyful because creation is both good and hope-filled: we know where we are going, and that all will be well.

In this life of limited years, with its joys and woes, we have to accept that God appears to be absent if not actually non-existent. It is easy to suppose that there is no god, and no afterlife. Many believe this and live their lives as best they can, often with great charity and self-giving. The truth for Christians is not that God is non-existent, but that He is profoundly constrained, to the point where He cannot practically intervene, and must therefore allow things to happen – even bad and terrible things. God is almighty but is limited in this world precisely because He loves us and totally respects our freedom. The paradox here is that it is the very fact of His love for us that necessitates His seeming absence.

In the life to come, the eternal life, things will be very different. Almighty God will no longer be constrained by human free will. God will be completely in control, to the extent that all bad things will be no more: no more sin, no more misunderstanding, no more death, no more separation or breakdowns in relationships. We humans will be fully redeemed – by His power – and that is a scenario that it is really impossible to imagine here and now. As scripture says: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man what good things God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2: 9)

In a real sense, if we accept Jesus’ message, there is no comparison between life now and life to come. The former is the briefest moment whereas the latter is unending, everlasting, eternal. And yet, this life now is hugely important: this is where we exercise a radical freedom and make choices both great and small. What we discern and do now really does matter for our eternal destiny: do we choose to give ourselves in love or do we choose to grab and grasp for ourselves regardless of our sisters and brothers?

And so as well as a tale of two lives, we have a tale of two destinies: eternal bliss with God or eternal emptiness without God? Heaven or Hell…

Traditional Christian teaching would see those who consistently choose selfishness and hate as ending up in Hell, whereas those who choose love – real self-giving love – will enter Heaven. We may state that God does not send someone to Hell – rather the individual effectively chooses Hell, by their life stances and choices.

I have elsewhere said that, while Hell exists as the logical apex of our freedom, I doubt very much that there is anyone in Hell. I know that this opinion departs from much traditional Christian teaching but it is based on a simple principle: God is love, and love will not tolerate anyone being lost! As such, in the final analysis, it will be God’s tremendous mercy that will see us all home to live with Him and each other in eternal bliss.

In truth, there is a great mystery here, but it is God’s issue and He will solve it! All I know is that He is the greatest lover, the tenderest father, and what parent would ever rest easy if their child was lost? And so I say, it is not our effort that will ‘win’ Heaven – it is entirely His mercy that will see us home.

Perhaps the real point of our choosing love in this life is precisely that we can somehow ‘bring’ Heaven on earth? In other words we can actually start living the resurrected life here and now, although it will only find its perfection in Heaven. I have met people who are living this life here and now, and they are truly inspiring.


Have You Read The Shack?

I’ve just finished reading The Shack by William Paul Young. This is a novel about a man whose young daughter is abducted and presumed killed. As a work of fiction, and without giving anything away, the plot is somewhat fantastical but the book seriously attempts to deal with that key question: how can we believe in a loving God when there is so much suffering, and especially when the innocent are brutalised and families torn apart? If God could speak, what would He/She say to us? As such the book is full of theological concepts and arguments, but they are presented within a fascinating story with lively dialogue that makes the whole read far from a dry and tedious textbook.

While I might be uneasy with some of Young’s theology, and that would be nit-picking, I can honestly say that I have never cried as much over a single book. It presents a triune God who is passionately in love with all creation, yet who must respect the independence and free will of humanity, even when that freedom entails sin and deviation from God’s plan. We become aware of God’s raw anguish and His/Her nearness and presence to all human suffering. We see a God who is not distant from human suffering – who in fact co-suffers with us and bears our scars. As such it echoes my own theme and poem of an: Unmighty God

The author rightly stresses the importance of relationship and the basis of that relationship as love. At the core of all existence is the eternal relationship of God as Trinity – utterly giving to each other and utterly self-sufficient in their love. From their overflowing love comes their creation of the human drama, where God seeks to include us completely in this everlasting bliss. For Young, relationship with God even comes before membership of a church and any institutional codes of conduct. Knowing God as loving Parent/Son/Spirit is the only real source of freedom. This correlates to the importance of a contemplative practice: we can never grasp God with our mind but we can experience something of His/Her love – if we give time and focus quietly on that inner realm.

I would join the many others who recommend the book. It is thought provoking and might just change our perception of God from a distant and troubling judge figure to an intimate, warm, passionate, involved, even humorous soul-mate. You can get more information if you go to

There is also a film version of The Shack which I have just ordered online. So while I haven’t yet seen the film, and I’m often wary that a film never quite captures the essence of a book, I’m looking forward to seeing it – with a box of tissues nearby.

In that supreme relationship of love,


The Regular Life

When I joined my religious order back in the 1970s, the first year was called the novitiate, and we eight young fellows were the ‘novices’. That first year was like no other year I have ever lived before or since, because we lived a monastic life. The years after the novitiate were different because the religious order I joined was termed ‘semi-contemplative’ which meant that the fully trained members, priests and brothers, spent time in the monastery but they also could spend time outside – not holidaying of course, but serving the people of God in a variety of different roles.

This year of novitiate was truly unique because we young men were living an entirely monastic life – what was called the ‘regular life’, as virtually every minute of our day was timetabled and accounted for. There was a set time for getting up (early!), and prayers, meals, even recreation and quiet time were scheduled. We even had a brief slot called ‘remission’ which was a kind of ‘at ease’ before we moved on to the next set task. And each and every day was largely the same, though again, during a typical week we had certain days for fasting and penance and another day for recreation, which included the possibility of a glass of beer! It also followed that I never saw my family for the full year, and managed one quick phone call home on a rare day out before my few coins ran out!

This strict and ordered life may seem somewhat like a prison camp, and for sure, we were dedicated to an ideal of service and self-denial, but – for someone like me who had never had much self-discipline – the experience of this monastic living was actually liberating. When discipline is imposed on you and – crucially – you accept it in the spirit in which it is lived, then this regular life gave you a powerful structure, a formal purpose, and removed much of the equivocation and procrastination that is all too common in daily life.

Obviously we were living as celibates and had no parental, family or outside responsibilities, so we could give ourselves to the pattern of this monastic life. The motto was “soli deus et studiis”, meaning “God alone and study”. This may actually sound like quite a selfish and insular way of life, and in some ways it was, but it was designed for a specific purpose, and within that parameter it provided a powerful dynamic that was wonderfully liberating.

It goes without saying that, for those of us who persevered through the novitiate and then went on to be students for the priesthood in a modern university setting, the regular life quickly ceased as we launched ourselves into the hubbub and excitement of student life. The regime in the ‘house of studies’ was much more relaxed and the support that the regular life had provided was promptly removed.

That year of novitiate was for me a taste of the full monastic life, and I think it gave me an appreciation of both the hard sacrifice and the amazing power of that ‘enclosed’ life that so many monks and nuns live. In their sacrifice and their liberation it would be a mistake to think that they had shrunk from a ‘normal’ life and were avoiding the ups and downs of family and societal living. Their dedication in prayer can actually make them more focussed on the joys and sufferings of others. From my vantage point of an older age and a family life I can see the immense beauty of such a life dedicated to God.

I suppose the challenge for us outside the monastery might be to find ways and structures that can, without being too restrictive, give us the kind of beneficial support that such a regular life can provide. What realistic time slots and schedules could I embrace that would counter a tendency to shilly-shally my way through each day? And what especially could I do to ensure that there is proper time for God in my day? A more structured and God-centred day would – I know – immensely improve my life, my loving and my whole being. I know the theory – can I do the practice?

In His love,


A Sense of God

In my poem The Family Rosary I try to express in poetic form of how, as a young child holidaying at my grandparents’ farm in Ireland in the 1960s, the nightly family rosary was an important event in my spiritual growth.

Like most children growing up, religious practice could be boring and meaningless, and enforced attendance could often lead to rows and resentment towards parents who were sincerely trying to do their best. This was especially true in those days before the renewals brought about by the Second Vatican Council, when the Sunday Mass was almost impossible for a child to follow, if indeed any child could be bothered to follow it. And not only was the time spent in devotions difficult for a child, but this was backed up with, sometimes brutal, rote learning of the catechism and religious doctrine, and a frequent inquest as to whether Sunday services had been properly attended. How times have changed!

It was in this context of a child struggling to understand and conform to a traditional Catholic upbringing that the experience of the family rosary (which was also, somewhat sporadically, celebrated at home in London) had I think a quite amazing power.

It’s hard to adequately put into words what those nightly prayer sessions had on my youthful mind and heart. I say mind and heart because in truth this was not so much a mental evaluation of spiritual things but much more a deep touching of the heart. The whole experience of the cosy farmhouse kitchen, with the whole family gathered at the end of another hard physical day’s work, and grandad, without any objecting, suddenly took to his knees and began the prayer. The atmosphere went immediately from general family chit chat to a reverent hush that it seemed even the dogs responded to.

The rosary for those who are unfamiliar with it, is a traditional Catholic devotion that lends itself to group or family praying, being based on the repetitive saying of the Hail Mary within one of five ‘decades’ or sets of ten Hail Mary’s, each decade having a theme based on events in the life of Jesus and Mary as portrayed in the Gospels. As such the rosary easily becomes a communal chant, and in its rhythm and cadence, it becomes somewhat hypnotic – almost an entry point to a mystical experience beyond the actual words. And it doesn’t require a priest to lead the celebration!

The effect of this respectful hush and rhythmic chanting on a child is hard to exaggerate, especially when the atmosphere is effectively generated by the ‘significant adults’ in his or her life. As such, the experience reached deep into my core and while I certainly didn’t try to evaluate its effect at the time I think it’s undeniable to claim that it left a lasting impact. It may well have been the most important factor in my gaining a sense of God.

Cynics will claim that I was psychologically influenced by the overall experience, and that any so-called mystical experience is essentially a self induced ‘mind trip’. We never have definitive proof when it comes to spiritual things – faith is always required, and I have spoken elsewhere of the criticality and logic of faith. Suffice it to say that I believe I was somehow enabled to tune in to a Voice which is always singing in every human heart. God’s Word broadcasts constantly but we rarely tune in to His frequency. Perhaps some kind of a ‘pre-set’ radio button was created in my inner core by those summer nights of long ago which remained and was available to me whenever I felt the need in good times or bad?

For I certainly cannot claim that I have made vital use of this sense of God in my life. God always respects our freedom and never forces His way in. As Jesus put it, the blind cannot be blamed for not seeing – only those who see or claim to see can be guilty of any blame (John 9: 41). Perhaps I early on found the treasure in the field that Jesus spoke about, but unlike the man in the parable, I failed to really ‘sell all’ and go and grab that treasure (Matthew 13: 44 – 46)? I found, I saw, but have never really taken possession?

Whatever about me, surely a sense of God is badly missing in today’s world? Even many religious folk appear to be going through the motions, and their faith doesn’t appear to effect their daily lives or indeed their politics or world-views? For we can never grasp God with the mind alone. We can only really – in this life – attain a relationship of love with our God. As such, having a sense of God, a deep, inner awareness of His love, is that priceless treasure against which all other wealth and possessions are just so much junk.

We believers, of whatever denomination, need to find and make use of those prayer forms that will give us – and our children – that precious treasure. We need to do it today!