A worldwide sense of loss

Print edition : September 20, 1997

THE memory of Mahatma Gandhi weighed on the minds of Indian leaders who responded to news of Mother Teresa's death. President K.R. Narayanan drew from Albert Einstein's famous tribute to Gandhi. "Such a one as her," he said, "but rarely walks upon the earth." Narayanan described Mother Teresa as an "angel of mercy" who spread love and compassion throughout the world and brought succour and relief to the poorest of the poor.

Speaking on September 6 in New Delhi, Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, like the President, drew parallels with the Mahatma's death, using a metaphor from Jawaharlal Nehru's historic speech on that tragic occasion. "A beacon of light and hope for millions of poor has gone out of our lives," he said. "Gandhi and Mother in this century demonstrated to us the beauty and power of this ultimate and most difficult form of worship."

The Union Cabinet's formal two-page resolution of September 6 said: "Mother Teresa rendered yeoman service to the poorest of the poor, with humility, love and compassion. Her life was devoted to bringing love, peace and joy to the people whom the world generally shunned. In her passing away, India has lost one of the greatest social workers of all times."

FRONTLINE

M.F. Husain, oil on canvas, 1997. India's best-known painter first painted Mother Teresa in New Delhi in 1979. Over the next 18 years, he did a series of paintings of her. Husain, who was in Calcutta for the funeral on September 13, said Mother Teresa combined "beauty and power".-

West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, who shared a close friendship with Mother Teresa despite the stark ideological differences between them, said he was "deeply grieved at the death of such a humanitarian. I had known Mother Teresa since 1975-76. After we formed the Government, we had given her all help in her work for the suffering humanity, particularly for children, orphans, disabled persons and persons with incurable diseases." The Left Front Government he heads would continue to help the Missionaries of Charity, he said, and added that he hoped that the tradition of service established by Mother Teresa would continue. Many abandoned street children would have taken to crime "had Mother not taken care of them," he said. He had repeatedly attempted to prevail upon her to reduce her workload, "but she would not listen."

The Hindutva formation appeared caught between the widespread regard for Mother Teresa and its own public ideological position. On the one hand, Bharatiya Janata Party leader K.L. Sharma said in a statement: "We have lost a mahatma (great soul)." Vishwa Hindu Parishad secretary-general Acharya Giriraj Kishore, however, articulated sentiments precisely to the contrary, sentiments perhaps closer to those many on the Hindu Right actually hold. Kishore said at a press conference: "I do not understand why an entirely religious Mother Teresa is being given a state funeral when behind her services there was a motive of baptising." Several right-wing Hindu groups had in the past attacked Mother Teresa, claiming that her charitable work was a facade for conversion.

Mother Teresa with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican on June 29.-PAOLO COCCO / REUTERS

THE Vatican's official newspaper, Osser-vatore Romano, carried a long eulogy and quoted the Pope as saying that she was "a luminous example of the way in which love for God is transformed into love for our fellow men and those abandoned by this world."

In France, which is known as the "younger daughter of the Roman Catholic Church," Mother Teresa had millions of admirers, but as in the rest of Europe, Princess Diana's funeral pushed the news of the nun's death off the front pages of most newspapers. A notable exception was the Left-leaning French daily Liberation, which carried a front-page colour picture of Mother Teresa with the headline "Death of an Icon". The paper said that she was "adulated for her work in the service of the world's disinherited but also by anti-abortion lobbies." Describing her as the world's "most mediatised nun", it concluded that she was simultaneously "saint and reactionary".

Father Louis Marie, a chaplain at a Paris hospital who is close to Monseigneur Gaillot, who was stripped of his bishopric for his outspoken views on the use of contraceptives to prevent AIDS, said that it was difficult to make "a balanced judgment" about Mother Teresa. "Her absolute faith allowed her to accomplish the gigantic task of helping the world's poorest, but some of her views and attitudes leave me perplexed," he said. It was "pointless", he said, to put people into "moral straitjackets" and condemn homosexuality and "promiscuity". "These are the signs of our times and the Church must be able to move with the times or lose its relevance," he said. "Mother Teresa could not accommodate these changes. She could bring succour, but she could not be a spiritual guide because her absolute faith deprived her of the ability to understand modern dilemmas and complexities."

President Jacques Chirac said: "This evening there is less love, less compassion, less light in the world."

IN a week totally given over to the mourning of Princess Diana, Mother Teresa's death was one of the few events that made it to the front pages of British newspapers. The diminutive nun had a following in Britain, and newspapers marked her death with lengthy obituaries and tributes. Mother Teresa became widely known in Britain in the 1970s after the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge met her in Calcutta and produced a television documentary on her work. Mother Teresa soon found herself an international celebrity, appearing on television shows with David Frost and Barbara Walters in the U.S.

Mother Teresa visited London in 1983 and, horrified at the numbers of homeless people sleeping on the streets, dubbed it a "cardboard city". She berated Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for the poverty in the city and extracted from her a promise to construct a hostel for the homeless in central London.

The Queen sent a message of condolence, while Prime Minister Tony Blair noted that "in a week already filled with tragedy, the world will be saddened that one of its most compassionate servants has died."

Newspaper editorials paid tribute to Mother Teresa's life, but also noted that her methods and philosophy were not above criticism.

Writing in The Observer, Mark Tully, the BBC's former New Delhi correspondent, drew parallels between Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi. "Like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa understood the importance of symbolism. Just as the loincloth was his symbol of identity with the poor, Mother Teresa's sari was the symbol of her Indianness."

The Daily Telegraph, in its obituary reproduced a tribute paid by Muggeridge: "It will be for posterity to decide whether she is a saint. I only say of her that in a dark time she is a burning and shining light."

IN Oslo, the Chairman of the Nobel Prize Panel, Francis Sejerstad, expressed his sadness at the passing of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize winner. "She was one of the choices of the committee that we look upon with pride," he said. "Humanitarian work has always been one of the most important criteria, and she has been an outstanding example of how this can be done in a self-sacrificing way."

IN the United States,the "twin tragedies" of recent weeks - the death of Diana and Mother Teresa - made for much media comparisons between the "People's Princess" and the "Saint of the Gutters". Mother Teresa was no stranger to the U.S. - she made periodic visits to Washington and met a number of high-profile people. Columnists and common people recalled the opening in 1971 of the kitchen of the Community for Creative Non-Violence; her commencement address at Georgetown University in 1982; her 1986 meeting with President Ronald Reagan; and her 1995 visit to the capital city to open a Home for Infant Children, in the presence of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Also remembered were the opening of the Missionaries of Charity's first house in Harlem and, over the years, other shelter homes in New York City, including an AIDS hospice and a home for pregnant teenage girls, which were reflective of Mother Teresa's unyielding stand against abortion. Mother Teresa also opposed capital punishment and had on several occasions pleaded with U.S. Governors to spare the lives of death row inmates.

To many in the U.S., Mother Teresa was someone who elevated the dignity of the human being; for her, "everybody" had to be loved and cared for. Others, however, felt that she did address the issue of economic poverty as much as the "poverty of the spirit".

SOUTH AFRICAN President Nelson Mandela's statement, sent to the Indian High Commissioner from Blantyre (where he was attending a summit), described Mother Teresa as a "unique person". Mandela said that her death had touched him in a personal way, "as it has been a humbling experience to have shared the similar honours of a Nobel Laureate and India's Bharat Ratna with such a unique person."

On September 9, the National Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution mourning the death of Mother Teresa. The resolution, moved by Sister Bernard Ncube of the African National Congress, described Mother Teresa as "an outstanding humanitarian who devoted her life to the care of children, the destitute, the poor, the sick and the dying." Memorial services were held in Pretoria, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban.

The Missionaries of Charity maintains four homes in South Africa. The oldest of these, established in 1988, is in Khayelitsha, a black township in Cape Town. The other three homes are in Klipgat, a black township near Pretoria, Chatsworth, the 'Indian' township in Durban, and Bellevue East in Johannesburg.

The Missionaries of Charity has centres in six other southern African countries: Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe. All these homes provide hospice facilities for the terminally ill - mostly victims of AIDS, cancer and tuberculosis

Mother Teresa travelled to South Africa only once, in 1988, when she visited Cape Town and established the home in Khayelitsha.

IN Japan,the Asahi Shimbun newspaper brought out a special morning edition announcing Mother Teresa's death and said that "her death brings sadness and grief to the hearts of people around the world". A Japan Times editorial said: "It is difficult for those of us who live in a world of abundance to understand what it means to have absolutely nothing." All other dailies similarly carried elaborate tributes.

Morihiko Oki, whom Mother Teresa had virtually accepted as her official photographer, left immediately for India to pay his respects. The Yomiuri Shimbun recalled her words in 1981 during her first visit to Tokyo: "Japan is a beautiful country, but why don't people lend a helping hand to a person who has fallen on the street?" The Mainichi Shimbun recalled her asking the Japanese: "Isn't there something you can do for your neighbours?"

Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who was on a visit to China, sent regrets to Mother Teresa's successor, Sister Nirmala, in Calcutta. His wife Kuniko Hashimoto, as well as the chief Cabinet Minister and the Foreign Minister paid condolences at the Indian Embassy.

In South Korea, a predominantly Christian nation, President Kim Young Sam praised Mother Teresa's work. A major Seoul daily succinctly echoed the mood of the people when it said: "The world loses the Mother." The Chinese media seemed silent.

SOUTH-EAST Asian governments, leaders, media and the people were deeply affected by, and responded spontaneously to, the death of Mother Teresa as they did to the death of Diana.

The people of the Philippines, a predominantly Roman Catholic nation, gave expression to their sorrow by holding nationwide Masses and prayers the day after Mother Teresa's passing away. Manila's Archbishop, Jaime Cardinal Sin, led the Church in offering condolence and paying tributes. Former President Corazon Aquino joined a Mass commemorating Mother Teresa.

Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, in a condolence message, described Mother Teresa as "a symbol of hope to the poor, the suffering and the dying." The Missionaries of Charity have established a home for the sick and the destitute, Gift of Love, in suburban Punggol in 1985. Six nuns and four Brothers tend to the inmates of the home. The Superior at the home, Sister Pei Ling, has visited Calcutta and received Mother Teresa here in 1995.

SRI LANKA joined the international community in mourning the death of Mother Teresa. President Chandrika Kumaratunga said in a message to the Missionaries of Charity that Mother Teresa had enriched the tapestry of human endeavour and won international acclaim that matched her life's work.

In Pakistan, President Farooq Leghari, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Speaker Illahi Buksh Soomro and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto led the nation in paying tributes to Mother Teresa.

Sharif said in his condolence message that Mother Teresa was "a rare and unique individual who lived long for higher purposes. Her life-long devotion to the care of the poor, the sick and the disadvantaged was one of the highest examples of service to humanity." The Government also deputed Information Minister Mushahid Hussain, a confidant of the Prime Minister, to attend the nun's funeral.

Mother Teresa visited Pakistan thrice and set up three homes for the sick and the underprivileged. Her last visit was in October 1991, when she established a "home of love" in Lahore. Her mission was continued by her colleagues who set up a similar home in Tajpura, considered to be one of the most backward areas of the country. The Lahore centre provides shelter to some 80 destitute and sick people.

Bangladesh mourned the death of Mother Teresa, with politicians, the press and the people paying rich tributes to her. President Shahabuddin Ahmed said that her lifelong service to the poorest of the poor would be a source of inspiration to the underprivileged. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who was away in Indonesia, said that Mother Teresa was "an embodiment of peace and love".

Portraits of Mother Teresa were garlanded by all shades of believers in Dhaka, Chittagong and other towns.

Mother Teresa visited Bangladesh thrice. During the country's war of independence in 1971, she took in Bengali refugees who were escaping from Pakistani atrocities into camps in the Jessore-Khulna border. She visited the country again in 1986 and 1995.

Praveen Swami in New Delhi, Vaiju Naravane in Paris, Thomas Abraham in London, Sridhar Krishnaswami in Washington, M.S. Prabhakara in Cape Town, F.J. Khergamvala in Tokyo, V. Jayanth in Singapore, P.S. Suryanarayana in Colombo, Amit Baruah in Islamabad and Haroon Habib in Dhaka.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×