As the cry for Mother Teresa’s sainthood gets louder on her birth centenary, Nishita Jha tracks down the miracle detective who investigates the improbable
WHEN LEONARD Cohen sang about waiting night and day for a miracle to come, he expressed a sentiment that seemed too maudlin. But for those whose lives were touched by Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, better known as the Blessed Mother Teresa, the wait has been a long one. Her superhuman commitment to the diseased and poor is the closest thing many have seen to saintliness. So, the Vatican’s extreme caution in recognising her as a saint seems like a morbid fear of controversy.
It all began smoothly enough. While there is a five-year waiting period after a candidate’s death before being nominated for canonisation, Pope John Paul II nominated Mother as a candidate soon after her death in 1997. Even her crisis of faith, during which she questioned the existence of a soul and Jesus, was deemed consistent with the experience of canonised mystics.
The process of canonisation begins with the local Bishop examining the candidate’s life and work. Their status is officially that of a ‘Servant of God’. The individual posthumously receives the title of ‘Venerable’, when the Catholic Church proclaims the servant of God to have demonstrated Christian virtues like faith, hope, charity and prudence to a heroic degree. At this stage, the church has not yet committed to the person’s likely presence in heaven.
But symbols like medallions and prayer cards bearing the candidate’s image are distributed among followers, to encourage praying for a miracle at their intercession. Prayer cards with Mother’s image on them display a number that can be contacted in case they should cause the impossible. A miracle not only indicates the candidate’s proximity to God, but also demonstrates God’s will that said candidate be canonised.
Salvadore Lobo, the Bishop of Baruipur, was heading the tribunal that investigated Mother Teresa’s first miracle when she was beatified in 2003. After duly examining witnesses concerned, he submitted his report to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican. When Monica Basra — under treatment for over an year for her abdominal tumour — said she was cured overnight after placing Mother’s medallion on her stomach, the Bishop had to deal with much scepticism. It was alleged that Sister Nirmala, Mother Teresa’s second-incommand at Nirmal Hriday, concealed the medical documents related to Basra’s case, which proved her recovery was a result of prolonged medication. The Science and Rationalist Association of India even registered a case of fraud against her, demanding immediate arrest. “The doctor who referred Basra’s case was not of Catholic faith. Basra herself was a non-baptised tribal at that time. So there was no vested interest. I am confident that it was a miracle,” says Lobo.
A miracle not only indicates the candidate’s proximity to God, but also demonstrates God’s will that said candidate is ready to be canonised
In the run-up to Mother Teresa’s centenary on 26 August, cases of reported miracles reached fever pitch. A woman in France claimed to have narrowly escaped death when her car collided with another, because a Mother Teresa medallion was hung on her rearview mirror. Another priest in Guwahati claimed his uterine stones were cured by Mother’s divine intercession. Although the Vatican rejected both as ‘favours’, Lobo explains that most accepted miracles these days are medical — “Since there is always documentation of a person’s medical history, it can be investigated effectively. There is the occasional ‘miracle’ captured on CCTVs, but even those aren’t totally foolproof anymore.”
Does the rejection of case after case make him anxious about when Mother Teresa will finally be canonised? “With faith, everything is possible,” he says.
Photo: Tumpa Mondal