Page 5, 31st January 1997

31st January 1997
Page 5
Page 5, 31st January 1997 — Mother Teresa: the task ahead

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Organisations: US Federal Reserve
Locations: Calcutta


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Mother Teresa: the task ahead

Some hard choices await Mother Teresa's successor, reports MADELEINE BUNTING

0 VER THE NEXT few weeks the nuns of Mother Teresa's order, the Sisters of Mercy as they choose her successor, will be the focus of almost as much media interest and speculation as a Papal conclave.

It is testimony to the extraordinary charisma of this remarkable woman that for millions around the world. She is as much the public face of Catholicism as Pope John Paul II. The distinctive blue and white sari, the tiny stooped woman with her warm smile have come to represent more eloquently than arguably any other living human being. Our understanding of sainthood. For her successor, it will be an immensely difficult challenge to follow in her footsteps.

After the secretive process of selection, the chosen sister will emerge into the glare of world press attention, eagle eyed to see if she has the skills to make another Mother Teresa. There will also be those who have grown disenchanted with the octogenarian Albanian nun and who will hope that her successor will be able to introduce much-needed reforms to safeguard the invaluable work of the Sisters of Mercy in the next century. The legacy Mother Teresa's long domination of the order she has founded provokes its share of the critics as well as admirers. In the last few years, Mother Teresa has become a figure of deeply polarised opinion.

Millions will not have a word said against her. Their spokespeople scorn the armchair critics, demanding of them. "What have you done for the poor of Calcutta?" When I wrote an article detailing the bitter disillusionment of a former volunteer. I received a pile of letters with such comments. They have a point. The poverty and destitution of Calcutta is such that surely, to give people who are dying on the streets a relatively clean, calm place to die in dignity is a hugely powerful act of Christian witness?

On the other hand, I received another, albeit much smaller pile of letters from former volunteers with close knowledge of Mother Teresa's homes in India. They described appallingly low levels of medical care: a girl left with a broken leg for two years because the untrained sisters mistakenly diagnosed polio. Basic pain relief was not always provided, bed sores festered for lack of proper hygiene, children in long-term homes were given no opportunity for education or development.

Nor is this carping from a few bitter individuals. Aid agencies unhappily admit that this is why they do not give funds to Mother Teresa's homes. They acknowledge her undoubted achievements with the dying, but feel that for longer-term work, she has no strategy other than keeping people alive and fed. They prefer to fund projects which are helping the handicapped to develop skills to support themselves, for example. They fear that her work fits a nineteenth century concept of charity rather than helping people to help themselves.

This is probably the greatest challenge which faces Mother Teresa's successor: can she adapt the order to the twenty-first century? This is going to be crucial because the order is going to have to establish its own credibility without its superstar saint. It is Mother Teresa's unparalleled pull all over the globe which keeps the donations pouring into the modest home in Calcutta. Without her, there is a real chance of them drying up. As senior sisters admit, the transition to life without Mother Teresa is going to be difficult.

It will be exacerbated by the strong hold that Mother Teresa has kept on the order until very recently. It has grown rapidly and spread its tentacles into many parts of the world with new convents at a time when other orders are being forced to close up shop for lack of vocations. The rate of growth has depended on the charisma of the order's head and the hierarchical structure of authority has ensured that virtually all decisions were taken by Mother Teresa herself. She has not delegated nor groomed a successor to take over.

It seems that it is hard for anyone to see Mother Teresa in proper perspective. This diminutive figure has assumed larger than life proportions both to her admirers and her critics. To polemicists such as journalist Christopher Hitchens, she was corrupt, dishonest and manipulative. Since his attacks on television and in a book, admirers reject the faintest murmur of criticism as from the same cynical stall. But surely it is possible to see Mother Teresa for what she is human? She has great virtues but also great faults.

ElMadeleine Bunting is Religious Affairs Editor of The Guardian

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