Mother Teresa was officially declared a saint this week, but is still a figure of some controversy. Several years ago, contributing editor-at-large Tess Lawrence met Mother Teresa and asked her about her lifelong crusade against abortion.

Part One

SITTING BESIDE ME IS MOTHER TERESA, the celibate who has given life to thousands, her fingers kneading the well-worn rosary beads on her lap. 

One wonders if the prayers of a saint differ from those of a sinner. 

The saving of lives has its cost. Her opaque brown eyes scratched with age, reflect the eyes of the starving; neither accusatory nor pleading but a look that inks the conscience of the onlooker.

Though I sit so close to her halo, it provides no shelter from the storm of self-reprobation one feels in her presence.  

She is so divorced from the trivia and vanities of this world that my excesses are magnified into absurdity. On her back is no silk shirt. She is swathed in a white and blue cotton sari, her naked feet strapped into brown leather sandals. 

"Let us carry Mother Teresa’s smile in our hearts and give it to those whom we meet along our journey."

~ Pope Francis

This tiny woman, laden with the conscience of a relieved world, has been proclaimed a saint and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. In a universe of mouthed platitudes it is very convenient to laud a saint who manifests the humanities that governments and peoples discard in favour of more realistic pursuits.

GROWN BENT FROM CARRYING HER CROSS IN CALCUTTA'S BLACKEST HOLE

Grown bent from carrying her cross, she has lived in the blackest hole in Calcuttta for some time now.  

Her stigmata is the caring for the poor, the hungry, the unwanted and the dying. 

Mother Teresa is here for several reasons: to speak at a Festival of Light conference, various Right to Life groups both in Sydney and in Melbourne.  

She'll also visit the nuns of the Order she founded, the Missionary Sisters of Charity and their three refuge centres: one in Melbourne, for alcoholics; one in Bourke for Aboriginals; and a third that Mother Teresa opened in Queanbeyan.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO LITTLE ROSA?

She also brought to Australia a five year old Indian girl, Rosa, “a very beautiful child” who will be adopted by a family in Alice Springs.

In many ways she is an enigmatic figure. Heads of churches and heads of state both court and pay homage to her.  

She is not given to taking money from governments, not even the Indian government. Nor is her saintliness the type of myopic serenity that sometimes stares out of holy pictures.  

She is a woman of tenacity, of strength, who grapples with the daily domesticities of feeding the hungry, consoling the dying and giving succour to the physical and mental lepers in her world ... and there are thousands of them.

She and her nuns have fossicked through mounds of refuse dumped in the Calcutta streets, searching for dumped babies. They find them. And sometimes they even save them.

Then there is the other work. In India, abortion is legally performed up to the fifth month, but like elsewhere, sometimes done later.  

MOTHER TERESA AND HER GANG OF "BABY RAIDERS"

Mother Teresa and her "baby raiders" go around the abortion clinics, collecting the aborted foetuses and try to keep them alive. To Mother Teresa, abortion is a violation against God.

Not everyone shares her vocation. Some people find her work offensive and hypocritical in a Church whose Pope condemns contraception. Either way, it is work that would cripple the spirit of a lesser human being. Always, she stands in the shadow of her Christ. 

“It is all His work,” she says, “I am just a little pencil in His hand. It is He who is the writer.”

Doves of Love. Mother Teresa's nuns in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) watching the live broadcast of her canonisation in Rome, by Pope Francis.

She talks of holiness and her formidable religious standing. She giggles.

“Holiness is not the luxury of the few, each one of us has the capacity to be holy.”

Spiritual siblings Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama meet in person, Oxford, England, 1988. 

MOTHER TERESA, DALAI LAMA SPIRITUAL SIBLINGS, CUNNING DIPLOMATS

She could easily be the spiritual sibling of the Dalai Lama; both have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Both cunning diplomats. 

Are you a saint?

That I cannot tell. That, Jesus has to say. We all hope to become saints, isn't that right? All human beings want to become holy and they can be if they live according to Our Lord. We want to be perfect as Our Father is perfect ... if we are in a state of grace then one is holy. As for sainthood, I do not say I am a saint, only God can say.

Forgive me Mother Teresa, but I cannot agree that all human beings want to be holy. I am curious about your attitude to contraceptives. The Catholic Church of course, denounces oral contraceptives, but to me it seems a lesser evil to swallow a pill than to have an abortion.

Anything that destroys life is evil — even destroying the life you can give in you. God created something very beautiful — the power of conceiving is very beautiful. And anything against that is direct action against God's beautiful creation. 

We are teaching people natural family planning and now the government fully recognises it and we have a tremendous response from people ... you see something that destroys the very life in the life of a man and woman is the same as abortion.

But natural methods are still attempts to avoid conception and you've suggested that's wrong. On that basis you could argue that your vow of chastity is equally wrong and against God's law.

BEAUTIFUL GIFT OF MY OWN MOTHERHOOD, I HAVE OFFERED TO GOD

It is true that I have in me that beautiful gift of God to be a mother but I have offered that gift to God. My love for God is an undivided love. It is just like when a girl marries and becomes Mrs So-and-So and belongs to that man, so I give my word to God.

The person that takes the pill destroys something in her.  

She has contact with man and doesn't conceive because she destroys that power. She does the action but doesn't accept the fruit of that action. Do you see what I mean?  

Natural family planning is pure self control. You cannot practise it, though without love for each other.

The striking teenager Agnese Gonxha Bojaxhiu who gave up her “beautiful gift of God to be a mother” and “offered her love to God” instead and who would become known throughout the world as the complex and controversial Mother Teresa, now Blessed Teresa of Kolkata.

Do you think the Church will change its views in the future

Tomorrow has not yet come. Yesterday has already gone. I live only for today.

Well. What is your solution? 

That's why we are fighting abortion by adoption ... little Rosa ... that child would have been destroyed, now she's going to a family with no children.

You have been a mother to thousands, but I have often wondered if you missed having your own child? 

Naturally, naturally. Of course. That is the sacrifice we make. That is the gift you give to God ... in our family we have so many children and my love I give to my family, to my children ... the men and women of the street.

JUST BECAUSE WE'RE NUNS DOESN'T MEAN WE DON'T FEEL

Yes ... we miss things. Just because we are nuns it doesn't mean we don't feel things, have emotions.  

I miss family life but I think that it is good that I miss it, because that is something beautiful I can give to God and to the people that really need us.

It puzzles me how a woman like yourself remains so loyal to a Church that will not allow women any prominence in its heirarchy.

No-one could have been a better priest than Our Lady ... she only remained the handmaiden of the Lord ... but the Church doesn't say 'don't give.' It doesn't prevent women from working for God.

Women are not meant to be priests. What I have no man has ... not the capacity I have as a woman to bring up a child with tenderness, compassion.

NO-ONE BETTER PRIEST THAN "OUR LADY" MOTHER OF JESUS

Many would share her views about Mary's priestly capabilities — but not the limited career prospects for "handmaidens" of the Lord, or the notion that men cannot rear children with compassion. 

Isn't part of the Church's attitude towards women priests to do with the early Judeo-Christian belief that menstruating women are unclean and would defile the altar ?

“No, it's absolutely nothing to do with that, otherwise by right, we should not go to Holy Communion at that time, either.”

MOTHER TERESA REJECTS VIEW THAT CHURCH'S ATTITUDE AGAINST FEMALE PRIESTS STEMS FROM THE NOTION MENSTRUATING WOMEN ARE UNCLEAN

She is rigid in her faith and her resolve is legendary. She professes no empathy with those in favour of women priests and yet surely she is a profound example of a splendid priest.

Despite the soul-crunching squalor of Calcutta where rows of people die in less argument than at a supermarket checkout, Mother Teresa remains indefatigable in spirit.

People show great love. The work has become the work of everybody now and you must put in your story that it is He and not me who was responsible.

Personally, I do not have – neither I know do my sisters – have anything that the world would claim for itself. It is all His doing. 

Worse than physical hunger is spiritual poverty. That is harder to fight.

Stomachs you can fill, but the soul has a more discerning appetite.

Part Two of Mother Teresa's Foetal Attraction tomorrow. 

 

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