"In the process of encountering the world's different cultures, the Church not only transmits her truths and values, but she also takes from the various cultures, the positive elements already found in them."
—Pope John Paul II, addressing the Asian assembly of the Vatican council in 2000
They wear saris, use purifying 'Hindu' symbols such as diyas and incense sticks during worship and sing hymns in praise of 'Yesu Masih' (Jesus Christ) in several Indian languages. They are the Missionaries of Charity, the extraordinary order founded by Mother Teresa in 1950, that now has 4,500 full-timers working in 133 countries.
Last week's ceremony at the Vatican to mark the beatification of Mother Teresa—a prelude to her being formally declared a saint—was startling in its use of Indian or 'Hindu' symbols. The three-hour long ceremony, presided over by the Pope himself, was a grand affair, witnessed by a quarter of a million people crowded into St Peter's Square. Most of the hymns and speeches were in Latin—considered the acme of languages but incomprehensible to most in the modern world. But every now and then, there was a refreshing use of the language of the people whom the Mother had served. As young girls in saris carried lit diyas, a serene Bengali hymn began which freely used words like 'anjali', 'pushpanjali', and 'subhanjali'. Nuns from the Missionaries of Charity also offered flowers and performed a sort of arati. For a fleeting moment, the scene was reminiscent of a Calcutta puja rather than the highest seat of Christendom.
It was a reminder of the central paradox about Mother Teresa. Was she an Albanian nun, born in Skopje (now a part of Macedonia), who had merely settled in India to spread the good word about Jesus Christ on behalf of the Church at Rome? Yet a closer scrutiny of the Mother—who arrived in India in 1918 at the age of 18—and the order she founded shows the degree to which she absorbed Indianness. For instance, the distinct blue-bordered sari is the dress of the nuns belonging to her order across the world and not just in India. Some months ago, Indian journalists covering the US invasion of Iraq, were startled to see the nuns in their crisp saris walking the war-ravaged streets of Baghdad. The Missionaries of Charity apparently had a branch in Baghdad and the nuns, many of whom were from Kerala, were determined to stay through the war to help the orphaned children. Indeed, it would not be wrong to say the Mother had founded an Indian order to serve the poorest of the poor across the world. Though many non-Indians are part of her order, nuns from India constitute the largest number.
True to her guidelines, the sisters give those who die their last rites in their own religion. This quite disproves her critics who have accused her of converting the diseased and the dying to add to Christian souls. These kind of below-the-belt accusations were ignored by the Mother since she felt that countering them would not serve any purpose.
The Archbishop of Delhi, Father Vincent Concessao, points out that technically the process of beatification allows Mother Teresa to be venerated only within her own country (India) or wherever the sisters from her order are. It is only after she is canonised that she can be venerated by the whole church. Though the Mother is on the fast track to sainthood, as usually the process begins decades or sometimes even centuries after an individual's death, her canonisation is expected after around five years. The Archbishop says: "I consider it an extraordinary honour for India, that someone who dedicated her life to the people here should achieve sainthood so quickly."
Of the 23 million Christians in India, 16 million are Catholics. This clearly brings out the fact that the spread of Christianity in this country cannot be linked to British rule.The British, who follow the Protestant faith, in fact, took a decision not to meddle in matters of religion and never actively promoted conversions. If the bulk of Indians converted have gone over to Catholicism, it is also because the Catholic Church has of late been the most tolerant of local customs and symbols. This is in contrast to some other evangelical orders that attempt to exorcise rituals and traditions from the life of neo-converts. Pope John Paul II has been an ardent champion of what is known as the concept of "inculturation"—the assimilation and acceptance of local idioms and customs by the Church. Some years ago, while addressing bishops, priests and deacons in Asia, he had said: "Asian people are known for their spirit of religious tolerance and plurality of religions and cultures. Thus being Asian is best discovered and affirmed not in confrontation and opposition but in the spirit of complementarity and harmony. In this framework, the Church can communicate the gospel in a way which is faithful both to her own tradition and to the Asian soul."
There is also a fascinating nugget about the Pope's visit to India in 1986. In a speech made some years later, the Pope recalled that many Asian bishops had difficulties in proclaiming Jesus as the only saviour. "Some of the followers of the great religions of Asia have no problem in accepting Jesus as a manifestation of the Divine but it is difficult for them to see him as the only manifestation of the divine." The Pope also lamented over the fact that Jesus, who was born in Asia, is "often perceived as foreign in Asia". In fact, the Catholic church appears to have come around to the view that this alienation is to some extent the result of work done by some early Christian missionaries, who often presented a rather puritanical version of the faith that insisted on expunging local customs and traditions.
Mother Teresa, on the contrary, went all native. She believed in doing in Rome as the Romans do. She never objected to any of the customs and rituals of those she took into her many homes. This, perhaps, is the main reason why she was readily accepted by most Calcuttans. At Nirmal Hriday, the home for the dying, she is worshipped. And thousands of Hindus and Christians regularly visit her tomb at Mother House, the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity, to pray for her blessingws or ask for a miracle. While it may be a while before she becomes a full-fledged saint in Rome, for many Indians she is nothing less than a goddess.
Indeed, if India is often described as a sacred landscape, it is because it has been remarkably hospitable to all the world religions and is a corner of the world that has seen the inter-mingling and synthesis of cultures. Mother Teresa's absorption into the Indian pantheon comes at a time when the country is torn apart by religious extremism and when 'foreign origin' has become an electoral issue. The Mother, at least at her core, is a reminder of all that is good in religion. Perhaps a sign that India too can practice a normal, human charity.
By Saba Naqvi Bhaumik with Ashis K. Biswas