Mother Teresa

After all the debates, the 'saint of the gutters' was officially proclaimed St. Teresa of Kolkata

After all the debates, the 'saint of the gutters' was officially proclaimed St. Teresa of Kolkata

So Mother Teresa of Calcutta is now officially St. Teresa of Kolkata.

Most of the coverage of the canonization rites played the story straight, with the joy -- and tensions -- of the day included in hard-news reports. We can let the Associated Press report that will be read by the majority of American news consumers sum up the coverage.

Oh, and tensions during the rites?

My only real criticism of the solid AP report is found right up top, when a key fact about the event was separated from its cause. Read carefully:

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Elevating the "saint of the gutters" to one of the Catholic Church's highest honors, Pope Francis on Sunday praised Mother Teresa for her radical dedication to society's outcasts and her courage in shaming world leaders for the "crimes of poverty they themselves created."
An estimated 120,000 people filled St. Peter's Square for the canonization ceremony, less than half the number who turned out for her 2003 beatification. It was nevertheless the highlight of Francis' Holy Year of Mercy and quite possibly one of the defining moments of his mercy-focused papacy.

Look at that second sentence. Why the smaller crowd for this ceremony? Has enthusiasm for the cause of the tiny Albanian nun declined in the past decade?

Actually, no. Much, much later in the report there is this crucial reference.

While big, the crowd attending the canonization wasn't even half of the 300,000 who turned out for Mother Teresa's 2003 beatification celebrated by an ailing St. John Paul II. The low turnout suggested that financial belt-tightening and security fears in the wake of Islamic extremist attacks in Europe may have kept pilgrims away.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

No doubt about it, St. Teresa of Calcutta was (love her or hate her) a media superstar

No doubt about it, St. Teresa of Calcutta was (love her or hate her) a media superstar

Today seems like a strange time to defend St. Teresa of Calcutta, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

Actually, my goal in a post earlier this week -- then in our "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) -- was not to defend the tiny Albanian nun who dedicated most of her life to serving poor people who were dying in a dark corner of Calcutta. There are plenty of articulate, qualified people who have spent decades studying the fine details of her life and work who can defend her.

Yes, there are also critics who have spent decades developing detailed arguments for criticizing her, especially when it comes to the messy medical details of life and death inside the Home for the Dying. Both sides of that debate are worth attention.

Of course, there are Catholics who totally embraced Mother Teresa's defense of church doctrines on subjects such as contraception, abortion and the authority of church leaders -- including herself in her role as founder of the Missionaries of Charity. But there are Catholics on the left who believe she abused that power and that she should have used her clout to fight for social change in India and around the world.

Many doctrinal conservatives were upset that Mother Teresa and her sisters didn't strive to convert Hindus and Muslims to the Christian faith. There are others on the left who are just as upset that, when people whose lives she touched wanted to know about Christianity, she was more than willing to help them convert.

So what's the bottom line here? In the earlier post and the podcast, I stressed that it is totally appropriate to cover the controversies that surrounded Mother Teresa's life, as well as covering her fame as a living saint -- in the eyes of millions -- who served the poorest of the poor. What I questioned is media coverage that discusses the facts raised by her critics, without turning to authoritative voices on the other side to offer their side of this debate.

Take that CNN piece about her critics.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

New York Times offers update on criticisms of 'Hell's Angel' (as in Mother Teresa)

New York Times offers update on criticisms of 'Hell's Angel' (as in Mother Teresa)

Back in my Denver days, I covered a massive interfaith prayer event in which the featured speaker was Mother Teresa. I also had the chance to interview her, briefly, but that's a complicated story.

During her remarks, the tiny nun -- who was already being hailed as a living saint -- strongly defended Catholic teachings on the sanctity of human life, from conception to the grave. This was not a surprise, but it was a key theme in what she said and, thus, I included it in my story for The Rocky Mountain News. I also called the local Planned Parenthood office seeking a response to Mother Teresa's words.

The spokeswoman was, truth be told, quite gracious and on point. She had praise for Mother Teresa's work, but also was very specific in her criticisms of the tiny nun's beliefs on abortion, artificial contraception, etc. I quoted her at length and, days later, she called to thank me for quoting her positive words as well as her negative comments. After all, she said, no one wants to be seen as someone who "beats up on Mother Teresa."

Unless, of course, you were atheist Christopher Hitchens or, apparently, Dr. Aroup Chatterjee of India.

In preparation for the Vatican rites in which Mother Teresa will officially become St. Teresa of Calcutta, The New York Times has run a perfectly valid story focusing on the views of one of her strongest critics (and there are plenty of them). However, note the headline on this story:

A Critic’s Lonely Quest: Revealing the Whole Truth About Mother Teresa

Apparently, the "whole truth" about Mother Teresa is a rather simplistic, one-sided story.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Yo, journalists: Mother Teresa would be quick to explain that she cannot perform miracles

Yo, journalists: Mother Teresa would be quick to explain that she cannot perform miracles

Now it's on the calendar. The "saint of the gutters" will, on Sept. 4 -- the eve of the anniversary of her death in 1997 -- become a Catholic saint. The tiny nun who millions hailed as "a living saint" will officially become St. Mother Teresa.

Obviously, this announcement by the pope required journalists to describe the somewhat complicated process that led to this moment. Thus, this assignment -- trigger warning! -- required descriptions of complicated doctrinal concepts such as "prayers" and "miracles."

The key word you are looking for, as you scan the mainstream media coverage, is "intercede."

However, if you want to see a perfect example of HOW NOT to describe this process, note this passage from USA Today:

She was beatified in 2003 by Pope John Paul II after being attributed to a first miracle, answering an Indian woman's prayers to cure her brain tumor, according to the Vatican. One miracle is needed for beatification -- described by the Catholic Church as recognition of a person's entrance into heaven -- while sainthood requires two.
Francis officially cleared Mother Teresa for sainthood on Dec. 17, 2015, recognizing her "miraculous healing" of a Brazilian man with multiple brain abscesses, the Vatican said.

Note that we are dealing with paraphrased quotes. Did an official at the Vatican actually say that Mother Teresa, on her own, "healed" these two people? Or did the Vatican say that they were healed by God after believers asked Mother Teresa to pray for them, to "intercede" with God on their behalf?

Here is the key doctrinal fact that journalists need to grasp in order to get this story right: Saints pray. God heals.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Did gunmen in Yemen kill the four Missionaries of Charity for any particular reason?

Did gunmen in Yemen kill the four Missionaries of Charity for any particular reason?

So what would Pope Francis, stepping into a media-critic role for a moment, have to say about this BBC coverage of that slaughter at the retirement home in Yemen?

We don't know what he thinks about the BBC report in particular, but it is quite similar to the other mainstream news reports about this incident that I have seen. Please watch the BBC report (at the top of this post) or read this brief BBC summary, taken from the Internet.

The key question appears to be this: Did religion have anything to do with who died and who lived in this attack? To state the matter another way: Should these nuns be considered Christian "martyrs"? Here is the entire BBC summary:

Pope Francis has condemned a gun attack on a Catholic retirement home in southern Yemen which left 16 people dead.
Four nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, were among those killed.
Local officials in the port city of Aden are blaming the so-called Islamic State group, as David Campanale reports.

Actually, if you seek out the Catholic News Agency report about the attack you will find that Pope Francis did more than lament the attack itself. He is upset about the lack of coverage. Here is the top of the CNA story:

VATICAN CITY -- On Sunday Pope Francis lamented the world’s indifference to the recent killing of four Missionaries of Charity, calling them the ‘martyrs of today’ and asking that Bl. Mother Teresa intercede in bringing peace.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Tears or fears? The pope, the speaker, prayers and some amazing quotes in a notebook

Tears or fears? The pope, the speaker, prayers and some amazing quotes in a notebook

Just when you thought this was going to be a quiet week (and weekend) on the religion beat, there was an earthquake in Beltway land.

Anyone who has lived in Washington, D.C., knows that the job of Speaker of the House may be the single most overlooked piece in the puzzle that is the U.S. government, in terms of the public failing to understand how much power resides in that office.

So Speaker John A. Boehner, one of DC's most public Catholic voices, hit the exit door only hours after fulfilling his dream of seeing a pope address Congress. This also happened, of course, in the midst of fierce infighting over morality and money -- to be specific, the mountains of tax dollars going into the coffers of an institution at the heart of what St. John Paul II liked to call "The Culture of Death."

All of Washington muttered, at the same time, this question: So, what's the link between the pope's visit and Boehner's exit?

At the very least, the timing became linked -- on multiple levels -- with the emotions of the Francis visit. I don't know what surprised me more, in the elite media coverage: the word "prayer" showing up high in such a blockbuster political story or The Washington Post admitting, in print, that The New York Times broke the story. 

Oh, and the Post almost had the scoop -- on the spiritual level. We will come back to that.

The Times managed to keep the pope out of the lede, but -- after the political necessities -- wrote faith into the equation.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

New York Post scrimps on lots of important facts in Womenpriests story

New York Post scrimps on lots of important facts in Womenpriests story

The Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement is something lots of people feel strongly about. Opinions range from it being the best thing ever to happen to Catholicism, very broadly defined, to it being utter fraud.

Debates about press coverage of this movement have fueled waves of GetReligion posts over the years, far too many to list them. I am not joking. For starters, is it Women Priests, women priests, WomenPriests or Womenpriests? The group's own website says the latter. The words "Roman Catholic" are in the organization's name, even though these women have received ordination into their own movement, which has no standing with canonical Catholicism.

Partisans on both sides might agree that if a mainstream reporter writes about the movement, it helps to know the basics. A few days ago, a New York woman, who was ordained within the movement in 2014, had acid thrown in her face.

No, this was not South Asia, where such outrages happen in places like Pakistan and Bangladesh along with Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This was New York. The New York Post began as follows:

The man who attacked and seriously burned a Queens woman Wednesday night-- splashing her in the face with a Drano-like substance -- snuck up and ambushed her as she walked alone to her car, law-enforcement sources said.
“Can I ask you something?” the assailant said, before hurling an off-brand drain cleaner in the face of Dr. Alexandra Dyer, an ordained priest who has devoted her life to helping others.

The writer doesn’t identify Dyer’s denomination anywhere high in the story, leaving one to wonder if she was an Episcopalian, Lutheran or in some other category. Things get more confusing further on.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Memories of Mother Teresa and a religious-freedom story worth watching in India

Memories of Mother Teresa and a religious-freedom story worth watching in India

One of the highlights of my journalism career came in 1982 in Bombay (now Mumbai) where I had the opportunity to conduct a news conference for Mother Teresa, the late Nobel Peace Prize-winning nun and current candidate for Roman Catholic sainthood. The occasion was a conference staged by the International Transpersonal Association. My wife, Ruth, and I handled the press and Mother Teresa was one of the star presenters, hence the news conference opportunity.

Her talk and media comments were boilerplate Mother Teresa. Love the unloved, love the unwanted, love the dying; love, love, love until you think you have no more love to give -- then force yourself to love even more, for that is the way of God.

The diminutive, stoop-shouldered nun repeated some variation of that formula endlessly, in her talk and in response to every question asked at her news conference, and I, for one, was impressed. So it came of something of a shock to me years later when she famously admitted -- despite her popular image of saintly devotion to the poorest of the poor and the global public's assumption that her faith gave her the strength to persevere -- that she suffered for years from a spiritual dryness that distanced her from feeling connected to her God.

I'm sure that long ago news conference was just another day on the job for Mother Teresa. For me, though, it was a day to remember.

Mother Teresa, however, was a controversial personality, despite all the charitable work done by her and the order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Eye to eye with Mother Teresa (farewell to Scripps)

A couple of weeks ago, I flew the black religion-beat flag here at GetReligion to mark the announcement that the Scripps Howard News Service was closing its doors. That was rather stunning news for me, since — to one degree or another — that meant the end of the weekly “On Religion” column that I had written for that wire service for more than 25 years.

Please respect our Commenting Policy