Those who visit Mother Teresa's Tomb, Christian, Hindu and Muslim alike, have no doubt that she is already
a saint, says Crispian Thorold The headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity is a drab grey building, sandwiched
between motor repair shops, and a Communist Party office on one of Calcutta's filthy and impossibly congested roads. Six hours a day for six days a week, outsiders are allowed into the convent to pay their respects at Mother Teresa's tomb. Nearly four years after she died hundreds still visit. In death as in life, Mother Teresa has an
\uncanny ability to unite people
of all faiths and backgrounds. The pilgrims at the Mother House include Christians, Hindus and Muslims; the distinguished and the destitute; the rich and the poor.
Most of them have no doubt that Mother Teresa really was the "Saint of the Gutters". A determined and holy woman, who selflessly helped the thousands of people who suffer abject poverty on Calcutta's streets. For the city's Hindus, the Roman Catholic Church's ongoing beatification process is all a bit of a mystery. Hinduism is an allembracing philosophy, and Mother Teresa has happily been accepted into the Hindu pantheon. Worshipped by individuals, she is seen by many as a Goddess in her own right. Although Catholics will never be able to worship Mother Teresa, they could soon venerate her.
he Diocesan Enquiry, set up by the Archbishop of Calcutta at the Pope's request, is drawing to a close. On August 15th the Church's extensive research into Mother Teresa's life, heroic virtues, and her worldwide reputation of sanctity will end. For over two years a mainly clerical team, led by the erudite Bishop of Baruipur, Salvadore Lobo, has been collecting letters, and other documents about Mother Teresa. The group has also interviewed nearly eighty people from all over the world. On Wednesday they will hand over nearly one hundred and twenty reams of evidence to the Vatican.
"The judgement in the case of canonisation, or beatification, is totally reserved to the Holy Father", says Bishop Lobo. "As head of the Diocesan Enquiry I collect the material, and forward it to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. They make a study, give their opinion, and the Pope finally declares the person beatified or canonises the person."
For the Pope to beatify a Venerable Servant of God, the Church has to confirm that a miracle occurred through his or her intercession. In the past few months alleged miracles have been flooding into the Mother House, there are reports of more than three hundred "favours received".
A number of these were looked in to but the enquiry decided to research fully the case of a woman who lives in rural West Bengal. The Church has been pretty tight-lipped about the case, the members of the Diocesan Enquiry and the Missionaries of Charity are bound by an oath of secrecy. but a few details have emerged.
The woman had what doctors believed was an incurable stomach tumour. She visited several hospitals before finally arriving at a Missionary of Charity home near the Bangladeshi border. Taking pity on her, the sisters let her stay the night. It is said that before she went to sleep the nuns lit candles by her bed, and placed a picture of Mother Teresa on her stomach. The next day the woman felt better, and when she was subsequently x-rayed the tumour had disappeared. All of this happened on the first anniversary of Mother Teresa's death, adding weight to the belief that there was a miraculous intervention.
The Archbishop of Calcutta, Henry D'Souza, believes that this apparently miraculous event will ensure Mother Teresa is beatified soon. "Given the fact that the case is so well known, and the most essential condition of the miracle has already been established, or could be considered as established, there is every chance that the beatification of Mother Teresa will take place early."
The woman lives in a village in West Bengal relatively close to the Bangladeshi border. Life in the region is typical of rural India. For an outsider passing through, the area appears peaceful and laid-back. Buffaloes wallow in the village ponds ignoring the children who splash around them. The village's men sit playing cards in the shade of banyan trees, whilst the women clean innumerable times their spotless mud huts. Everything happens at Indian Standard Time, in other words very slowly. On the surface life seems trouble-free and relaxed, the rural idyll. But a short conversation with the villagers shatters those illusions.
The Christians are generally dalits (formerly called untouchables). Most are desperately poor, and many have faced discrimination. The lucky ones own a small plot of land, perhaps half an acre, but the majority earn a pittance as labourers (a typical daily wage is twenty rupees (around thirty pence). Thanks to their low status they are shunned, and as a result the Christian communities are very tight-knit. Those who live near the Missionaries of Charity home where the alleged miracle took place have all heard rumours about the woman who was, "saved by Mother". They know the story of her miraculous cure from a stomach tumour, but no one is exactly sure where she lives.
At the Missionaries of Charity home, a Sister said all the nuns are new to the area, despite the fact that locals say two of the sisters have been there for years. The parish priest was
equally evasive; at first he was apparently mystified that a foreign journalist should turn up on his doorstep. After a while he bluntly said, "Go away, I don't want her to be harassed". It is of course completely understandable that the Church is protecting the woman from a possible media onslaught. But despite their efforts, more details of the miracle will soon emerge. An Indian freelance photographer has, after days of talking to local villagers, finally tracked her down.
Dave Knight only managed to speak to the woman for ten minutes before, "an irate Missionaries of Charity nun stormed into the hut and told her not to talk to me". But before the nun arrived the woman confirmed the story of the apparently miraculous intervention saying, "My tremendous stomach pains were healed overnight. After sleeping with the picture of Mother Teresa on my stomach, and a locket of Our Lady in my hand, I was cured."
Journalists and photographers have been searching for this vulnerable woman for nearly two years, and now that she has finally been found there is a danger she could be exposed to intense scrutiny. The Pope's decision to "fasttrack" Mother Teresa's beatification process, waiving the normal five-year breathing space after death, has added grist to the mill of her critics. For them this is all just a PR exercise. After all, the sceptics say, just think what Saint Teresa could do for the Catholic Church in India, a country where most Christians are converts.
But the Church says their investigation into Mother Teresa's life has been rigorous, following canon law. The head of the Diocesan Enquiry points out that they have interviewed a range of witnesses, including Mother Teresa's arch critic, the journalist Christopher Hitchens.
If the Pope does, as widely expected, beatify Mother Teresa then the search will be on for the one more "verifiable miracle", which is required for canonisation. Catholics close to the Diocesan Enquiry are confident that one of the more than three hundred "favours received" will stand up to scrutiny.
In Calcutta many Hindus are bemused by this whole procedure, which although it has been accelerated, still seems lengthy. In the words of one devout Hindu, who worked with Mother Teresa for years, "who needs a miracle to call someone a saint?" But for India's Catholics, and especially for those who knew Mother Teresa, the Church's investigations are part of a vital process.
Vatican-watchers say the Pope has a personal interest in this case, and it is believed he wants Mother Teresa to be canonised within his lifetime. Few Indian Catholics now have any doubt that their "Saint of the Gutters" will soon become St Teresa of Calcutta.