pastoral care of the sickIf we are to believe the words of her critics, the late Agnes Gonxha—better known as Mother Teresa—celebrated the pain and suffering of the sick and poor. In a recent Alternet article, Valerie Tarico explores the nun’s attitude toward suffering and how religious organizations are using the concept of religious masochism to survive. While some lessons may be learnt from unavoidable hardship, this does not excuse avoidable pain—the Universal Life Church Monastery believes in helping the sick and poor, not tormenting them.

In her article, Tarico unearths some rather unflattering evidence of the treatment of patients in Mother Teresa’s facilities. Tarico quotes her as saying, “There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering”, and cites an anecdote in which she tells a dying cancer patient, “You know, this terrible pain is only the kiss of Jesus—a sign that you have come so close to Jesus on the cross that he can kiss you”, to which the patient responds, “Mother Teresa, please tell Jesus to stop kissing me.” Tarico also notes that doctors have described the nun’s facilities as “deficient in hygiene, care, nutrition, and painkillers”, enough to cause a former volunteer to establish a counter-practice in Kolkata, called Responsible Charity, which employs medical professionals to look after patients. The picture which emerges is of a person who almost exults in sado-masochism, a trait which most who people become ordained ministers would hardly call humanitarian.

mother teresa, catholicismDespite these ugly discoveries, euhemerizing Mother Teresa might prove useful for the Catholic Church, which has suffered from an image problem in recent years due to child abuse scandals and opposition to reproductive rights and equality. Hope for a revitalized Church with the election of Pope Francis I might be bolstered by a sanitized treatment of the famous nun. “What could be better than beatification followed by canonization of [Mother Teresa] to revitalize the Church and inspire the faithful, especially at a time when churches are empty and the Roman authority is in decline?” Tarico asks, quoting a group of Canadian scholars who, after conducting research on altruism, unearthed documents revealing Mother Teresa’s dubious medical ethics, financial practices, and political connections.

But for Universal Life Church ministers, this campaign of religious revitalization is insufficient justification for the anguish experienced by those who suffered excruciating mental and physical pain under Mother Teresa’s care. As the famous Serenity Prayer asks of God, “[g]rant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference”, yet Mother Teresa didn’t make this distinction. This fetishization of pain for redemptive or purgative purposes trivializes the horrible experience of pain itself, treating it as a means to an end when in reality the end should be to eliminate it.

To be certain, there are countless compassionate Catholics round the world who would be shocked to discover the doctrine of masochism taught and lived by Mother Teresa, who was only one person. It is our duty to recognize and praise these caring and compassionate human beings as well as expose practices which condone pain and suffering. This is a key part of what it means to be “children of the same universe” and to “do that which is right”.


  1. Elisabeth says:

    Too many religious people—especially Catholics—feel that suffering is a form of purification that brings one closer to (their distorted concept of) God / Spirit / I am that I am. Mother Teresa was deeply steeped in this erroneous concept and treated those she “helped” accordingly. The truth needs to be told and she needs forgiveness.

  2. nitaharris1 says:

    I am 84, not a Catholic, and throughout many years have followed Mother Teresa and nothing bad has been said against her until these past few years. Early on her hospital was in CALCUTTA with India’s conditions, and she had to deal with what she could get. I do not believe (in fact this article starts with, “If we are to believe the words of her critics), that Mother Teresa celebrated the pain and suffering of the sick and poor. I absolutely do not believe she said, ““There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering,” as claimed by Valerie Tarico. Slime! Why are so many people eating it up? By the way, Mother Teresa is not here to defend herself! I never heard anything like that coming from Mother Teresa.

    I think lots of people hate her because she was against abortion and especially the fact that she was against contraception since contraception does not kill anybody. Wondering if this is why they lie about her.

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