Mother Teresa’s Sisters Don’t Have to Proselytize — They Have the Love of God to Share
The accusations that the Missionaries of Charity force conversions of Hindus to Christianity are not new and are not founded.
A recent New York Times article (“Arrests, Beatings and Secret Prayers: Inside the persecution of India’s Christians”) depicts a well-informed picture of the ongoing harassment and persecution of the Christian minority in India. Christians make up 2.3% of India’s population of 1.3 billion. Attacks on Christian churches, images, gatherings and schools are reported, especially in states governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
On Christmas Eve, the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa, had their share of persecution as the government froze their access to foreign funds. The Union Home Affairs Ministry was quick to deny having frozen the accounts, clarifying that, instead, on Christmas Day, the order’s application to renew their registration under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act was rejected. The development was so startling that on Dec. 27, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, representing the opposition party, tweeted:
Shocked to hear that on Christmas, Union Ministry froze all bank accounts of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in India! Their 22,000 patients and employees have been left without food and medicines.
The Missionaries of Charity had access to their funds restored by Jan. 7, but they and other Christian charities continue to be targeted by Hindu nationalists for allegedly forcing the conversion of Hindus to Christianity. According to AsiaNews’ Dec. 27 report, the Christmas 2021 rejection of foreign funds to the Missionaries of Charity came in the wake of an inquiry launched several weeks prior in Gujarat against an orphanage run by the sisters, following a visit by an official with the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. The charge was conversion of girls to Christianity, violating the government’s anti-conversion law.
Accusations of forced conversion are not new to the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa dealt with the conversion critics during her lifetime. The question can be asked, did Mother Teresa and her apostolate to the poorest of the poor open people’s hearts to faith in God? The answer is: Yes. At the heart of Mother Teresa’s theology of conversion is tenderness and the drive toward betterment.
What was conversion for Mother Teresa? As St. Paul defined it (Galatians 2:19), it was a profound act of faith:
I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.
That profound act of faith, she understood not in exclusively Christian terms. Rather, she viewed conversion as a work in progress to which all people — religious or not — were called.
“Yes, I convert,” Mother Teresa is recorded saying. “I convert you to be a better Hindu, or a better Muslim, or a better Protestant, or a better Catholic, or a better Parsee, or a better Sikh, or a better Buddhist. And after you have found God, it is for you to do what God wants you to do.” Mother’s religious message went to the heart of the people of India, inviting them closer to God. All people who acknowledge the Creator are part of the plan of salvation, according to Vatican II (Lumen Gentium 16).
Following Vatican II, Mother, through her profound faith commitment and faith in action, seems to have resolved the tension between evangelization and the acknowledgement that conversion to Christianity was not necessary for salvation of the people she served. Mother knew that the non-Christian faithful she served tried to live their lives in conformity with what they knew of God’s will through natural law. She knew that these people, moved by grace, strived “by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience” (Lumen Gentium 16). Having this theology of salvation in mind, it wasn’t Mother’s intention to proselytize. Instead, her theology of conversion aimed at betterment — making faithful people better faithful, whatever their religious confession.
Conversion to God’s tenderness: Mother Teresa followed a calling to the radical periphery, being this the material, social, or spiritual periphery, all for Jesus, as she wrote to Calcutta Archbishop Ferdinand Perier:
To leave that what I love and expose myself to new labors and sufferings which will be great, to be the laughingstock of so many — religious — to cling and choose deliberately the hard things of an Indian life — to [cling and choose] loneliness and ignominy — uncertainty — and all because of Jesus.
Mother showed the tender face of Christ to everyone she served. She showed that God is love, who created and loves. Mother understood that the love of God was “not to be kept under lock and key, but to be shared.” She wanted people to be converted to the tenderness of God by identification and experience. This was Mother Teresa’s Revolution of Tenderness, which meant conversion to God’s love.
Relying on the principles of Mother’s Revolution of Tenderness, the constitutions of the Missionaries of Charity take a clear stance against forced conversions:
We [the missionaries] shall not impose our Catholic Faith on anyone, but have profound respect for all religions, for it is never lawful for anyone to force others to embrace the Catholic Faith against their conscience.
The accusations that the Missionaries of Charity force conversions of Hindus to Christianity are not new and are not founded. They are scapegoats of the religious intolerance in India.
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