Miracle cure, or was it?

Published : Nov 08, 2002 00:00 IST

Monica Besra. - AFP

Monica Besra. - AFP

IT has been said that to be a rationalist is to be able to conquer one's own mind. Until that is done, it would seem, there will be as many believers of faith accepting miracle cures as there will be converts to the New Age. The controversy over rationalists raising questions about a miracle cure attributed to Mother Teresa underlines these truths.

The controversy arose when questions were raised not against Mother Teresa and her memory per se, but against a posthumous "miracle" attributed to her. Monica Besra, a 32-year-old Santhal woman from Dangram village, some 735 km northeast of Kolkata, claims to have experienced the "miracle". She was admitted to the Balurghat District Hospital on June 11, 1998, with tubercular meningitis and stayed in the hospital for about a week. She returned to the hospital in August, when she was found to have a lump in the lower abdomen. This was diagnosed as an ovarian tumour. The doctors say the tumour disappeared after Besra was treated for tuberculosis at the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital.

Besra, however, attributes its disappearance to her stay at the Missionaries of Charity home at Patiram. "For two months I had severe pain, and I was crying. I was not able to sleep; I could lie only on the left side and could not stand straight,'' she said in a statement sent to Pope John Paul II. Besra said: "The sisters gave me medicine but the pain was still there. I was always praying to Mother Teresa, whose picture was on the wall opposite my bed."

This was when two of the nuns caring for Besra sisters Bartholomea and Ann Sevika decided to try something different. On September 5, 1998, the first anniversary of Mother Teresa's death, they tied an oval-shaped silver medallion to Besra's stomach with a piece of black thread. According to Besra, in three days her pain disappeared.

Sceptics pointed to discrepancies in the entire incident. They questioned Besra's statement, which was written by one of the sisters. Besra is illiterate and speaks only a tribal dialect and a smattering of Bengali. They also questioned the excessive secrecy deployed by the Missionaries of Charity. All the nuns involved in the treatment refused to discuss the matter publicly. Besra's medical records, sonograms and test reports are with the Mother's order. The rationalists say that an examination of these records can prove convincingly the medical basis of the cure.

The believers see no reason to explain anything. Three years ago the diocesan church in Kolkata began gathering evidence that would support Mother's journey to sainthood; some 34,000 pages of material has been sent to the Vatican. Missionaries of Charity claims that Besra's healing is "scientifically inexplicable" and the Vatican seems to have accepted this line of reasoning. Mother Teresa is now one step closer to her canonisation. The Vatican cardinals and bishops have formally recognised as authentic Monica Besra's miracle cure. Canonisation is the last stage in the road to sainthood. It requires a declaration by the Pope that a person is now in heaven, and that public prayers be made to that person, who in turn will intercede for those who pray to him or her. The decree recognising Besra's miracle cure is expected to be signed at a meeting of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in December and Mother's beatification is likely to take place at the Vatican next year. Soon after Mother Teresa's death in 1997, at the age of 87, the Pope put her sainthood on a fast track by waiving the customary five-year waiting period.

The tussle in the entire controversy is between rationalist inquiry and religious belief. Rationalist organisations and doctors have associated themselves with the narrative that science relies upon in order to legitimise itself. This narrative applies reason to every area of life: religion, morality, politics and social life. The message being: open the rational faculties of the mind where the practical discoveries of science allow men and women to seek happiness. Seen in this perspective, the rationalists stand by `modern' age, where ignorance and superstition need to be erased with scientific explanations.

Not surprisingly, the voices against the miracle cure have been raised by an organisation called the Science and Rationalist Association of India led by its 54-year-old chief Prabir Ghosh. He says the Vatican has put its seal on a "medical hoax". Ghosh says Mother is not capable of a miracle but he has no complaint if Mother is declared a saint for all the great work she has done among poor people.

Naunidhi Kaur
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