Church in India Faces Fresh Attacks on Mother Teresa

Ahead of her canonization, Hindu fundamentalists claim she had a political motive to her actions.

 A prayer card of Blessed Mother Teresa being handed out by the Missionaries of Charity to pilgrims at World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland.
A prayer card of Blessed Mother Teresa being handed out by the Missionaries of Charity to pilgrims at World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland. (photo: Kate Veik/CNA)

NEW DELHI — The Church in India has ignored fresh attempts by Hindu fundamentalists to rake up a row by alleging that conversion was the “motive” behind Mother Teresa’s service to the “poorest of the poor.”

“They are known for making such baseless statements. This is nothing new,” Bishop Theodore Masceranhas, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, told the Register July 15 about the false reports about the “Saint of the Gutters” who founded the Missionaries of Charity.

Bishop Masceranhas was reacting to statements from key Hindu nationalist leaders calling into question the motive of Mother Teresa’s dedicated service to the needy and destitute as her Sept. 4 canonization draws near.

Yogi Adityanath, a senior member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the Indian Parliament, told a Hindu gathering on June 18, “Mother Teresa was part of a conspiracy for the Christianization of India.”

“Christianization has led to separatist movement in parts of northeast India, including the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland,” added Adityanath in his address in Uttar Pradesh state.

Another Bharatiya leader, Subramanian Swamy, endorsed Adityanath’s stance by saying such views were not “isolated.”

However, columnist A.J. Philip pointed out in Indian Currents, a Catholic weekly, “Swamy does not know that, for a large section of Indian people, Mother Teresa is already a ‘saint of gutters.’” Philip is a member of the Mar Thoma Christian church, which was founded by St. Thomas the Apostle but is not in communion with the Holy See.

While the disparaging comments against Mother Teresa made news headlines, a section of the media — including the New Indian Express — claimed that the comments were part of an attempt by the Hindu fundamentalist lobby to dissuade the Indian prime minister from attending the canonization in Rome.

Some media outlets even claimed that the Catholic Church asked the government and the ruling party to act against these leaders.

However, Bishop Masceranhas denied such claims and reiterated: “How could we make such a demand? It is against common sense. This is a democracy. Each one has freedom to express his opinion. But as a responsible political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party should reign in its leaders.”

As for reports — even in Church media — that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be attending the canonization ceremony, Bishop Masceranhas said that, although “the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India has suggested to the prime minister [that he] lead the government delegation to the canonization at the Vatican … we have no confirmation.”

Abraham Mathai, a Christian leader based in Mumbai, also dismissed the claim that the controversial statements against Mother Teresa were made to stop the prime minister’s attendance at the canonization.

“I don’t think that the prime minister would go [to the Vatican] at all,” Mathai told the Register.

But he pointed out that, as the media is beginning to draw more attention to Mother Teresa’s canonization, the Hindu fundamentalist lobby is trying to get media attention.

In a press statement, Mathai pointed out that Adityanath’s baseless statements do not befit his title of “yogi” (a master of spiritual discipline in Hindu belief). Mother Teresa, Mathai said, came to India “to work among the poorest of the poor in India. Where were the yogis at that time? Have they served? Have they done what Mother Teresa and her people have been doing? If Mother Teresa converted people into Christianity by her work, why hasn’t the population of Christians increased in the country?”

India’s Christian population has remained virtually static, around 2.3% of the total population, Mathai noted. “This is routine propaganda to keep (Hindu nationalist) cadres active,” he added.

But these latest comments are not the first. In February 2015, Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps) that espouses Hindu nationalism with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said: “It’s good to work for a cause with selfless intentions. But Mother Teresa’s work had ulterior motive, which was to convert the person who was being served to Christianity.”

“In the name of service, religious conversions were made. This was followed by other institutes, too,” alleged Bhagwat when addressing a women’s empowerment program in a village near Bharatpur. These observations against Mother Teresa, who was beatified in 2003, stirred Indian Parliament. Bhagwat’s “comments have been made against a person who is not just the country’s — but the world’s — legacy. No amount of condemnation can be enough,” said Jyotiraditya Scindia of the opposition Congress party, amid shouts of “Shame.”

And Mamata Bannerjee, the Hindu chief minister of West Bangal state — which has Kolkata as its capital — declared on Twitter, “I have accepted Sister Prema’s [the Missionaries of Charity’s superior general] invitation to be present at the canonization of Blessed Mother Teresa in Rome on Sept. 4.”

Bishop Masceranhas said the Church will hold a public celebration in Kolkata on Oct. 2 to honor Mother Teresa’s sainthood.

Register correspondent Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.