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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

IN GOD'S HANDS

Mother Teresa is ill, perhaps even dying. Now the order she founded is faced with the task of finding a successor -- and it is proving to be as difficult as everyone had feared

By Ruchira Gupta / Calcutta


MOTHER TERESA IS LYING on a thin mattress on a narrow iron bed. She is very sick and in great pain, but she is doing her best not to show it. As grim-faced nuns silently move in and out, the 86-year-old head of the Missionaries of Charity is giving instructions to her secretary, Sister Joseph Michael. Her voice is strong, but speaking seems to take up all her energy.

Nobody at the mission's Calcutta headquarters, Motherhouse, is asking the question out loud. But it is on everybody's mind. Is Mother Teresa dying? She has seemed frail and ailing for so long now that it is easy to think she will always be this way. But things have become considerably worse in recent months as the ailments of old age have conspired against her. She has been in and out of hospital since August with life-threatening heart problems, malaria and pneumonia. She also suffers from serious and debilitating back pains most of the time and has had a pacemaker since 1989.

Only last November Mother Teresa was declared "near death" after a heart attack that needed angioplasty -- a procedure in which the arteries from the heart are opened to improve blood flow. A week later, her astonished doctors were saying she would soon be able to return to work. "She surprises us every time," said her U.S. physician, Dr. Patricia Aubanel. "I have seen her near death on at least four occasions, and her recovery has always amazed me."

She may well surprise everybody once again. But it is beyond doubt that Mother Teresa is in no condition to continue as head of the order she founded in 1948. "I can't carry on like this," she is said to have confided to her closest associates. She also asked to be relieved of her position in 1990 and 1994. Nothing came of that. This time, though, change seems certain.

Gathered in Calcutta from around the world are most of the 126 members of the Chapter General -- the body empowered to choose the order's next superior-general. The nuns had been scheduled to elect a leader Feb. 2, but there was no result that day. They had gone into retreat a few days before, but could not reach a consensus.

The election process -- like much of the inner-core activities of the Missionaries of Charity -- is not open to public scrutiny. But, as far as can be established, the leading contender is Sister Frederick, the assistant superior-general. She has been in charge of day-to-day running of the mission since Mother Teresa became incapacitated. The other main candidates are thought to be Sister Joseph Michael, who is believed to have the support of Mother Teresa, Sister Camullus and Sister Nirmala (see story, page 40). "None of them is campaigning openly as it is against our culture," says a nun.

How long it will take to select a new leader is not known. Latest reports suggest a result is unlikely before the end of February. Close associates say the members of the Chapter General have asked for more time because they do not know some of the contenders. This is not surprising. The sisters have all been overshadowed by Mother Teresa, whose international traveling and media-savvy ways have sometimes made it appear that she does everything -- and is everything -- at the Missionaries of Charity.

The presence of the electoral college has not disturbed the daily routine of Motherhouse -- as I discovered when I visited late in January. The two-story building looks just like any other on a street of sidewalk shops and food stalls in the Entally district of Calcutta. This is where I came as a child, sent by my school to give a hand with small tasks. The only difference now, as far as I can make out, is the presence on the door of a small board with the words "Mother Teresa MC." The MC stands for Missionaries of Charity. Below the sign is a shutter that can be moved to "in" or "out." It is in the "in" position. A chain hangs from a hole in the door. I pull it and a bell rings inside. The door is immediately opened by a novice nun.

A strong smell of washing is the first thing I notice as I step into a small, dark parlor furnished with a wooden table and three mismatched chairs. On the wall are two boards listing the activities of the Missionaries of Charity and a photo of Mother Teresa with Pope John Paul II. There is nothing else in the room. The atmosphere suggests uncompromising frugality. In a courtyard, novice nuns -- in white saris, without the order's distinctive blue stripes -- are doing the laundry with water drawn from a well. Close by, other nuns are gathered at a statue of the Virgin Mary set in a grotto.

Running along the length of the second floor is a chapel -- the barest I have ever seen. There are neither pews nor chairs. A plain table serves as an altar. Set to one side is a statue of the Virgin, with a small bunch of fresh flowers at her feet. Mother Teresa's sick room is on the same floor. It was chosen because it is away from the office and the ringing of the mission's solitary phone.

The air in the room is thick with the smell of medicine. It is so small there is barely space for more than a couple of people. Nevertheless, I am shown to a small stool at the side of Mother Teresa's bed. We talk for half an hour, but this isn't really an interview. One sentence takes her 10 minutes. The pauses are interminable, the pain on her face unmistakable.

"Who will succeed you?" I ask "Will your replacement be able to carry on the immense work?" The answer, when it finally comes, is not new. "I am a little pencil in the hands of God," she says. "God shows his humility by making use of instruments as weak and imperfect as we are. I am small. He will find someone smaller."

Mother Teresa has been saying more or less the same thing for nearly 50 years. Her message, whether to heads of state in banqueting halls or to a journalist from what may be her deathbed, is that she was placed on this earth to feed, nurse and comfort the poorest of the poor. She has had no choice in this calling, she says. She must follow the path set by the Almighty -- even if her work is sometimes portrayed as harmful to the very people she is dedicated to helping.

Her uncompromising opposition to abortion -- she calls it murder -- and artificial birth control has attracted the most criticism. For some, she seems almost to revel in the poverty sired by unbridled procreation. There is a little of that accusation in a story related by Shanghamitra (not her real name), a 45-year-old schizophrenic who was taken in by the Missionaries of Charity when she tried to commit suicide 10 years ago. Unwed, she had been thrown out of her job as a maid when she became pregnant. She wanted an abortion, but the sisters told her it was out of the question. "Now I have a nine-year-old daughter who begs on the street and I work as a prostitute," she says. "The only good thing is that I'm alive. But I sometimes wonder why it had to be like this."

The loudest voice raised against Mother Teresa is that of British journalist Christopher Hitchens. He calls the winner of the 1962 Ramon Magsaysay Award and the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize the product of tawdry media hype and medieval superstition. In the television documentary Hell's Angel, Hitchens accuses her of being out of touch with the reality of life in India. "She says she believes only in natural family planning," Hitchens argues, "but how many women in India have the negotiating or bargaining power with their husbands to make them refrain from sex. And what about sex workers or rape victims?"

I put a similar question to the Mother. "How many children, old and dying, can you help? Unless the factors that cause them are removed, there will always be the poor, the abandoned and the destitute." The answer: "I can take all the unwanted babies in the world. We have thousands of children whose education is paid by sponsors abroad."

Papiya was one such child. For her, Mother Teresa is a saint twice over. Papiya's mother abandoned her on a rubbish heap outside Motherhouse 19 years ago. The sisters took her to the Shishu Bhavan children's home, where she slowly regained her health. Then they found foster parents for her. But the parents died when she was 14 and the family retainer sent her back to Motherhouse. "The sisters took me to Mother," she recalls. "To my surprise, she remembered me at once. She said 'Papiya, my child, I hope you are well.' I felt she really cared for me. I wonder if the charity will be the same without her?" Papiya now lives and works in Motherhouse.

"How do you sustain your work?" I ask Mother Teresa. "Where does the money come from?" She replies: "The money comes from sacrifice. A boy who could scarcely recall his own name offered to donate sugar by not eating any himself for three days. A maid servant didn't have any money to give, but she was willing to wash floors at our orphanage. Now she works here. She is giving till it hurts. But it is not work for her any more. It is prayer."

One of Hitchens' accusations is that Mother Teresa is prepared to get her money from just about anywhere, irrespective of the suitability of the source. In his book The Missionary Position: The Ideology of Mother Teresa, he says she has associated with the likes of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, the despised former ruler of Haiti, Enver Hoxha, one-time dictator of her native Albania, and Iraq's Saddam Hussein. "She acts as a spiritual camouflage for dictators and wealthy potentates," he says. "She is a fantastically successful symbol of the old Catholic right wing."

Mother Teresa is unrepentant. She says she is quite prepared to sup with anyone who can help her cause. "I won't mix in politics," she told Navin Chawla, author of the respected biography, Mother Teresa. "War is the fruit of politics, so I don't involve myself, that's all. If I get stuck in politics, I will stop loving." For some, this attitude is a flaw in the Missionaries of Charity's international work. It means the order rarely gets to the cause of a problem. For others, it is a strength. They say so much comfort and hope could not have been brought to so many people without Mother Teresa's single-minded refusal to apportion blame.

At the end of 1996, the order was running 755 homes in 120 countries. During that year, half a million families were fed, a quarter-million sick were treated and 20,000 slum children were taught. There are hostels for lepers, AIDS patients, the crippled and mentally handicapped, unwed mothers, abandoned children, alcoholics, drug abusers and just about every kind of destitute you can think of. The Missionaries of Charity also operate study groups, pre-school and after-school programs, handicrafts lessons and commercial training courses. They visit prisons, hospitals and the housebound. They provide night shelters, day crches, soup kitchens and TB clinics.

The multi-billion-dollar funding for all this comes from governments, aid agencies, commercial organizations and individuals -- some of them unsavory, but the vast majority good people who recognize the decency of what the charity is doing. Benefactors have included convicted U.S. securities swindler Charles Keating and Robert Maxwell, the late and disgraced British newspaper magnate who plundered his own employees' retirement funds. But they also include Sujeet, a former slum dweller who now drives a Calcutta taxi.

He attended the first school Mother Teresa opened, in 1950. "Five of us were told by our parents to wait for her," says the 55-year-old. "We had no building, so we waited near a tree stump. She had a pink face and looked strange in a sari, but she spoke to us in Bengali. She picked up a stick and looked for some open ground. She marked out a space and said this would be our school. If I can earn a living today, it is because of her. I give her part of my salary every month."

The era of Mother Teresa is drawing to a close. Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, as she was born in Skopje in 1910, is likely to be awarded an honorary title by the Missionaries of Charity. There is also talk of her being declared a saint five years after she dies. All that, as she would no doubt say, is in the hands of God. Now, though, it is time for me to leave her to rest. "Thank you, Mother," I say. She clasps my hand. "God bless you, my child," she replies.

-- Ruchira Gupta is an Asiaweek contributor based in Delhi


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