St Teresa did what she could with what she had

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Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa. Photo: CNS

In his homily at the Mass for her canonisation, Pope Francis anticipated that we would have difficulty referring to Mother Teresa by her new title of St Teresa. “Her holiness is so near to us, so tender and so fruitful” he said, “that we continue to spontaneously call her Mother Teresa.”

Others are also having this difficulty, but for quite different reasons.

Many of Mother Teresa’s oldest critics, and some new ones, took the opportunity of her canonisation to repeat or refresh their criticisms of her.

The criticisms fall into three broad categories: the quality of health care provided to those for whom Mother Teresa and the Sisters cared, the use of funds donated to her work, and her strong pro-life stance, epitomised by her famous words upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize: “the greatest destroyer of peace is abortion.”

The opposition to her vocal advocacy for life is unsurprising.

It comes from people who do not appreciate the need to be consistent in a belief in the inviolable dignity of the human person.

It is based in a failure to understand that if we were to ever abandon our commitment to the life of the unborn child, we would have no logical reason to retain our commitment to the sick because declaring one life to be disposable consequently declares all life to be so.

In terms of the health care provided to the dying, there are conflicting claims.

Critics will say that the medical care was inadequate, hygiene precautions such as discarding needles after a single use were ignored and most of the staff and volunteers were untrained in nursing or medicine.

Admirers will point to the number of people who recovered from illness in the Sisters’ care as evidence that the criticisms are baseless. I imagine the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Mother Teresa greets a dying man. Photo: CNS
Mother Teresa greets a dying man. Photo: CNS

The Missionaries of Charity are not pretending to be medical professionals, nor do they claim to be.

They are not providing an alternate to otherwise available hospital care, but rather using the resources available to them to care for those who would otherwise receive no care at all.

India spends about 4.7 per cent of its GDP on healthcare, compared to Australia’s 9.4 per cent. Reports vary, but the BBC recently reported that there is one doctor in India for every 28,000 people.

And Forbes magazine stated that Indian citizens must pay 70 per cent of health care costs up front, leaving many unable to afford care at all.

Added to this, 70 per cent of the population live in rural areas so, even if they could afford to attend a hospital or clinic, they have little or no ability to access one.

Mother Teresa was doing what she could with the resources that she had.

This brings us to the next criticism, which is that the funds which were donated to her – sometimes from people considered to be corrupt – should have been spent on building hospitals.

I don’t know how much money the Missionaries of Charity had, but it has been estimated that it would cost approximately $30 million to build a 300-bed hospital in India, with ongoing costs needing to be met.

Maybe the Missionaries of Charity could have built a few hospitals in India, but that’s probably all they would have done.

If Mother Teresa had waited until she could provide “best practice” health care before she took a dying person off the street and into her home, then countless of them would have died alone on the side of the road.

If she had focused on the construction of high quality clinics, then I am certain that thousands of her Sisters would not currently be serving in more than 130 countries.

No doubt the construction of hospitals would have meant that health care would have been provided at a significantly higher standard, but it would have been provided to significantly fewer people.

And it would have detracted from Mother Teresa’s core mission, which Pope Francis described as “making herself available for everyone… seeing in them their God-given dignity”.

This is why Pope Francis said that Mother Teresa is a model of holiness to “the whole world of volunteers”.

We can be tempted to allow the fear of not succeeding to prevent us from doing anything at all, allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

We can also be tempted to listen to those who would criticise us, allowing their sneers to distract us from our task.

In St Teresa, we have a model – and an intercessor – to encourage us to persevere even in the face of inevitable criticism and possible failure.

In the face of the temptation to give up (or to not even try), may we remember her words: God does not call us to be successful, but faithful.