Mother Teresa: For the Love of God? review – damning testimony from a killer witness
Who could have foreseen, when Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born in what is now Skopje, North Macedonia, in August 1910, that she would become one of the icons of the 20th century, recognised across the globe as Mother Teresa, saintly giver of comfort to the destitute? More specifically, who could have predicted that she would embody so much of what was wrong with that century and the next? The three-part documentary Mother Teresa: For the Love of God? (Sky Documentaries) sets out the pros and cons of Teresa mania, finding the good to be fragile and the bad, profound.
Briskly we are given the backstory of a family made vulnerable by the death – perhaps by poisoning – of their patriarch, after which they leaned heavily on the church. Having moved to India and become a nun, Anjezë heard the voice of Jesus calling her on a train near Darjeeling in 1946. By 1969, she was revered enough under the name Mother Teresa of Calcutta – as the boss of donation-funded sanctuaries for orphans, people with leprosy and the dying – for a laudatory BBC film to be made about her. The attention boosted Teresa’s effort to expand her organisation, Missionaries of Charity, beyond India, opening orders around the world.
For the Love of God? tries to offer an unimpeachably balanced range of contributors. In the absence of the late Christopher Hitchens, the writer best known for cutting down Teresa, Aroup Chatterjee, whose work inspired Hitchens’ film about her, appears, offset by a couple of friendly biographers and with first-hand witnesses to the work of Missionaries of Charity in the middle. The problem, for Teresa’s defenders, at least, is that as soon as you mount a description of her that goes into more detail than “she spent her life caring for the poor”, the illusion melts.
An American woman who signed up for the mission, and who felt an electric charge akin to romantic love when Teresa put a hand on her as a welcome blessing, describes how the nuns’ devotion required being cut off from newspapers, radio and contact with friends. A craze for self-flagellation developed among the “sisters”, inspired by Teresa’s dictum that “love, to be real, has to hurt”. Even a man who was a Kolkata orphan stricken with polio in the late 1970s, and who credits the Missionaries of Charity with saving his life, talks of the psychological effects of the sometimes “brutal” atmosphere.
Episode one’s killer witness is Dr Jack Preger, whose 40 years as a “street physician” in Kolkata brought him into contact with Teresa’s sanitoriums. “The nuns were not delivering proper care,” he remembers, visibly hurt at the memory. “Needles were used over and over again. They were blunt.” This is the most serious charge levelled at Teresa: that there was insufficient practical assistance, and perhaps even outright neglect, behind the rhetoric about selflessly attending the needy. What is extraordinary about the stronger version of that accusation – that Teresa embodied a pain-cult version of Christianity that does not want to alleviate suffering – is that she basically agreed. Over to one of the friendly biographers, reporting what her idol used to say: “Our calling is not necessarily to cure. It is to pass on the love of God to every human being in whom we see the suffering Christ … suffering shared with Christ’s passion is a wonderful thing.”
Archive clips of adulatory TV interviews show how, once the brand was established, complaints about this startling ethos were dismissed as heresy, with the backing of the powerful. For the Love of God? shows how figures such as Teresa are a key component of unjust societies, dabbing balm on the consciences of those who send “thoughts and prayers” to the vulnerable while ensuring they remain so. It is OK for us to concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands at the expense of the masses: someone, somewhere will help them. One thinks of David Cameron tweeting photographs of himself visiting food banks he helped to create, having encouraged the “big society” to care so that he didn’t have to.
But, by happenstance, the programme is more timely than that. Next week, the series delves into the rise of the American religious right in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, and how Teresa helped it by campaigning against the “pure murder” of abortion. Such hatred is afoot again in the US. Harsh as For the Love of God? may have ended up being on an individual whose flaws were magnified by a fame she couldn’t control, the portrait showing where dogma and hysteria can lead is painfully pertinent.
Anyway, she would not have minded. For the Love of God? ends its opening instalment with a statement from Missionaries of Charity, which continues Teresa’s work: “If she were alive today, she would pray for her accusers and forgive them.”