Mother Teresa and the media storm

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • September 10, 2007

{mosimage}Perhaps what the headlines should have really said was “Stop the presses: Mother Teresa was human after all!” At least then they would have been truer to the underlying message in pretty much all the coverage of the new book of letters, Come be My Light, by Mother Teresa just published.

Instead, what you read and heard in mainstream media was “Mother Teresa doubts existence of God, of Jesus, of her faith.” This was followed by analysis of what it might all mean for the campaign for canonization of the Albanian native who spent much of her life working among the poor in Calcutta.

Pundits of all stripes weighed in on the crucial question, or what seemed to be the crucial question. How would evidence of Mother Teresa’s “dark hours” play in the Vatican corridors of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints? How would church officials cope with evidence, in her own hand and from her own at times troubled conscience, that the archetype of apparent self-sacrifice wrestled with the types of demons and doubts that plague ordinary mortals? Surely, or so goes the reasoning, such manifest wavering of faith had to be evidence that her role was an act or at worst a fraud.

{sa 0385520379}The denuded forest of print coverage cried out for Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great and The Missionary Position (a polemic against Mother Teresa), and he didn’t disappoint. “She was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person, and that her attempted cure of more and more professions of faith could only have deepened the pit that she had dug for herself,” reported Time Magazine, which set off the flurry of speculation and commentary when it published an excerpt from Hitchens’ book in late August.

It is 10 years this month that Mother Teresa died (Sept. 5), a death overshadowed by that of Princess Diana. Ironically the speculation about her struggles with belief were overshadowed by the eruption of grief, controversy and extreme adoration occasioned by the anniversary of the late princess’ passing.

In some ways this whole story is about saints as celebrity culture. It’s not about real human foibles, doubts, concerns or experiences. It is about “stars” and media-fuelled expectations and the impossibility of meeting them. The same journalistic rigour applied to the endless questions about Owen Wilson’s alleged suicide attempt — “What possible reason could he have to commit suicide?” — are at work in the musings that end with “well, if she doubted the existence of God, what possible explanation could there be for working in the slums of India?”

Journalism, especially as practised in the first decade of the 21st century, is fixated on the personal. The theory is that all stories can best be understood through the prism of the first person narrative, the personal witness, and that great currents and huge ideas can best be understood told through the eyes of the ordinary individual. The underlying premise is that universal experiences filtered through the singular reality makes the news real to us all. The media take on Mother Teresa puts that vision to its truest test.

Reading Mother Teresa’s letters themselves reveals a real person struggling with real dilemmas. Doubt is a reality everyone grapples with. To be shocked that Mother Teresa had to wrestle with the same existential questions as the rest of us is to insult all of us. It also gives the lie to the idea that viewing the story through the reality of a single individual is the best way to understand anything. That’s only true if you understand what it is you are trying to describe.

The journalists and pundits who seemed so shocked that Mother Teresa experienced doubt reveal something fundamental about themselves. They have never understood what having faith truly means.

(Kavanagh is a senior producer for CBC Radio in Toronto.)

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