Page 7, 28th August 1998

28th August 1998
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Page 7, 28th August 1998 — Going Home to the Father

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Organisations: St Thomas's Church


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Going Home to the Father

In the final chapter of her biography, published in paperback by HarperCollins on September 7,

Kathryn Spink recalls Mother Teresa's friendship with Princess Diana, the distressing media attacks which made her more than ever a sign of contradiction, and her growing frailty 6 Wit?' HY DID THEY DO

Mother Teresa's question was in response to a bout of criticism which found its most vehement expression in a broadcast by the journalist Christopher Hitchens on British television in November 1994 and in a subsequent book entitled The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. The attacks gave rise to an even more vociferous rally to her defence but there were also those who came out, if not entirely in support of the view that Mother Teresa was a "demagogue, an obscurantist and a servant of earthly powers", then at least of the opinion that her service to humanity was not without avoidable flaws. Discussion as to the accuracy or otherwise of such allegations filtered its way round the world.

Her reaction to Christopher Hitchens, who in his television programme had called her "Hell 's Angel", was to give instructions that she did not want her friends and supporters to speak out in her defence but rather simply to pray: "May God forgive him, he doesn't know what he is doing." She added: "Pray that that man realises what he has done because Jesus said whatever you do to the least you do it to him"

Her accuser was summarily dismissive of such prayers. Instead. in the autumn of 1995, he published the book underlining the criticisms first voiced in the programme. The book appeared in the shops at the same time as A Simple Path. a volume faithfully recoiling Mother Teresa's spirituality — in a similar vein to many others that had preceded it but one which was initially marketed as an "autobiography". Those who knew her could not fail to be mare that this was not the kind of publicity that occasioned her much joy.

In the twilight of her life, it seemed, far from being allowed to retire to peace and obscurity in the home for the dying in Calcutta, Mother Teresa was to know what it was to be a very public sign of contradiction. She was, furthermore, to do so from a vantage point of growing physical weakness and vulnerability.

Her health had become an increasing problem. In 1991, she had visited America to open a new house in Los Angeles. The Missionaries of Charity with whom she stayed were suffering from an extremely virulent form of 'flu which their Mother General also caught. On 26 December, 1991, she was found to be suffering from bacterial pneumonia. The cardiologist called in to check how her heart was coping could not believe that the worldrenowned Mother Teresa had a heart disease_ She had been travelling without any medical records. The unlabelled medication she had been taking had to be put under a microscope in San Diego in order to establish what it was.

At the beginning of February 1992 Mother Teresa arrived in Rome. It was bitterly cold and the rooms of the Missionary of Charity house in San Gregorio were scarcely ideal accommodation for an elderly woman convalescing after an illness that had brought her close to death. The sisters were permitted to tear up cardboard boxes to place as insulation on the otherwise bare stone floor of her room but that was vimally the only concession to her physical weakness she would allow.

I was there to accompany her friend and "other self' of many years, Ann Blaikie, who was by this time herself suffering fromi the early stages of Alzheimer's disease and who had wanted to see Mother Teresa, as she thought then, for the last time. The fact that Mother Teresa was so desperately frail was not preventing her from srending lime in the Vatican. She was busy trying to arrange for the opening of a house for the Missionary of Charity Fathers in Rome. Nor were the queues to see her any shorter. When she finally entered the "parlour" where we had waited for some hours, the meeting was an uncharacteristically emotional one.

Mother Teresa had rigorously avoided all physical demonstrations of affection in her younger years. Now such inhibitions were apparently cast aside. "My suffering," she told Ann Blaikie, not for the first time and not without a certain satisfaction, "has brought de world to prayer". Then, pointing to some mozzarella cheese set out on the table before us, she urged: "Eat some of that. It's very good!" She herself was going to rest but only briefly. At Mass a little later she could scarcely rise from her knees but that did not prevent her from speaking afterwards to a group of Italian coworkers and updating them on her foundation statistics. Her parting shot to me when we left Rome the next day was: "You're going back to London aren't you? Would you please tell Princess Diana that I do not think I shall be in Calcutta when she is due to see me there but she is welcome to come and see me here."

The message, in fact, was relayed by somewhat more official means. When, on February 15, the Princess of Wales visited the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, Mother Teresa was too ill to leave Rome, having been admitted once more to hospital. The Princess was welcomed instead by Sister Frederick and a group of novices who sang and danced and showered their royal guest with flower petals in traditional Indian style. In the chapel she took off her shoes to pray with the sisters. There were tears in her eyes as they sang a hymn of love for the poor. Princess Diana's period in Calcutta also included a visit to the home for the dying. She was not afraid to touch the suffering bodies of India's most rejected and they, not knowing that they were meeting a princess, simply smiled in return. She was manifestly deeply moved. She was moved, too, by the handwritten message Mother Teresa had sent from Rome to greet her. Within the week she flew to Italy to meet for the first time in the flesh the woman she had long By the following June, with the newspaper serialisation of Andrew Morton's book Diana: Her True Story. the Prince and Princess's marriage problems were becoming public knowledge. Mother Teresa's reaction was a characteristic emphasis on her belief in family unity. "I am praying so much for her happiness," she said when invited to comment on Princess Diana's difficulties. "I am praying that her family may remain together, which is very important." She added: "She and her husband should pray too. Prayer can help them through their troubles."

On September 9, 1992, she met Princess Diana again, this time at the Missionary of Charity home in Kilburn, London, and this time at the older woman's request and "in secret". The world could only speculate as to the advice Mother Teresa offered the Princess, who had obviously won her particular sympathy. By this time, however. der to her apperently undiminished capacity to attend meetings with people of influence, even those in whom others were unable to see the potential for goodness with which she credited every human being, and despite her determination whenever possible to attend the professions of her Missionaries of Charity and the opening of new houses, Mother Teresa herself was becoming increasingly vulnerable and dependent on the advice and support of the sisters and others closest to her. She also appeared to be experiencing the desire to set certain aspects of her own "house" in order.

On May 16, 1997, Mother Teresa arrived in Rome. She wanted to be present at the profession of a number of new sisters. She also wanted to outline to the Pope a plan for 'rehabilitating' the thousands of prostitutes in the run-down areas of Rome: and to introduce her successor to him. There were times now when she was having to be given oxygen three times a day and she was unable to go to Poland as she had originally intended. She did, however, manage to journey to the United Stares, again for the profession of some of her sisters, but also to receive a Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of her "outstanding and enduring contribution to human

itarian and charitable activities". Reports that she was at death's door were belied as, frail but smiling, she was seen walking hand in hand with Princess Diana in the Bronx.

She longed to return to Calcutta. India. even in the monsoon, suited her and on her 87th birthday, celebrated in the Mother House, she made an appearance, still smiling for the world.

The untimely death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a car crash in Paris brought Mother Teresa once more before the cameras. She spoke of the Princess's love for the poor and promised that she would offer special prayers for her. It was to be her last public statement. On Friday September 5, 1997, on the eve of Princess Diana's funeral. Mother Teresa's exhausted heart beat its last.

Her body was laid to rest first in the chapel of the Mother House where only invited guests were able to see it, but then transferred in a Missionary of Charity ambulance with the single word "Mother" written across the windscreen. to St Thomas's Church in Middleton Row, Calcutta. It was a church used by the Loreto Sisters who had a school nearby, but what had determined the choice of the buil ding was its accessibility to the crowds of mourners, especially India's poor, who thronged to pay their last respects to their "Ala".

Mother Teresa had once advised Princess Diana that when she was suffering or in distress she should reach out to others who were suffering, and she would find that t hey in turn reached out to her. The immense outpouring of affection that marked the funeral of Diana was to provide very tangible evidence of the truth of those words.

Just one week later the state funeral India afforded one of its most celebrated nati 4anals underlined that truth. Orm September 13 Mother Teresa' s body was borne through the streets of Calcutta on the same gun carriage that had carried the bodies of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, as tens of ttiousands of people lined the route to catch a final glimpse of the woman who, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of India's independence, had written: When I look arourad our country, the land God his given to each one of us to carl our home, I see so much of he's blessings and goodness: in the smallest flower the tallest trees, the rivers, plains and mountains'. But when do we find most of time beauty of our country? We find it in each man, woman and child.

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