In the streets of Calcutta, the walls of buildings were painted blue and white a few years ago. A simple tribute, in the colors of the sari that the nun wore upon her arrival in the country. “Here, Mother Teresa is part of the daily life of the inhabitants”, sums up Father Laurent Bissara, a priest of the Foreign Missions of Paris (MEP) in the capital of the state of Bengal, where the mother house of the Missionaries of Charity is located, the congregation she founded in 1950.
Twenty-five years after his death on September 5, 1997, his legacy remains rooted in Indian society. The sisters’ homes have more than 20,000 employees and people welcomed in the country, including 1,902 nuns who have made a vow – specific to the congregation – to consecrate their lives to the poor. “Mother Teresa was the first to carry out missionary work without any discrimination of religion, caste, color”, recalls Father Vincent Kundukulangara, an MEP priest in Kerala, southernIndiawhich testifies to the recognition of the population towards the work of the sisters.
Political context of tensions
The spiritual legacy of Teresa of Calcutta, canonized in 2016, is however part of a tense political context. Since 2014, the BJP, the ruling Hindu nationalist party, has pursued a repressive policy towards religious minorities, including the country’s 28 million Christians (2.3% of the population). “For Narendra Modi (BJP leader and Prime Minister of India)Mother Teresa is a figure to forget,” observes Father Yann Vagneux, also a priest of the MEP, living in Bénarès.
Missionaries have been regularly targeted by accusations of forced baptisms in recent years, while the government tracks down any attempt at proselytism by passing anti-conversion laws. A suspicion of child trafficking further rocked the congregation in 2018, when a couple claimed to have paid sisters at a home in Ranchi, northeast India, to adopt a child. This statement had led to the arrest of a nun, the opening of an investigation throughout the congregation for the trade in infants and the closure of the home the following year.
Does the central government’s mistrust of the congregation taint the memory of its founder? “In the working classes, even among Hindus, there is in all the houses a statue of Ganesh, of Shiva, next to a photo of Mother Teresa, note Laurent Bissara. Many understand that these matters are part of the political game of the BJP. »
The figure of Mother Teresa is also used by political opponents of Narendra Modi, such as the leader of the state of Bengal, Mamata Banerjee. The latter strongly denounced, in December, the decision of the central government to stop international subsidies to the congregation.
The organization had however specified that it had not been the victim of a bank freeze but had asked itself to no longer use foreign currencies, after the discovery of irregularities in its accounts. A situation regularized a week later. “Mother Teresa is the anti-Modi, the anti-BJP, so she strongly inspires her opponents,” analyzes Father Bissara.
In this stormy context, what will remain of his charisma in twenty-five years? “There will always be poor people in India, says Father Vagneux. But the congregation has undergone great changes, with the cessation of adoptions, in particular. » After a tightening of administrative conditions, in 2015, the Missionaries had indeed closed their 18 adoption centers in the country. The Benares priest also notes a drop in vocations within the congregation, linked to the progressive secularization of Indian society and the rigidity of the rules that the sisters must respect – for example, they can only visit their families once every the ten years.
“Despite everything, the work of Mother Teresa remains a great inspiration for all Christians in India”, assures Father Bissara. In this sense, he evokes the other religious orders, such as the Jesuits or the Salesians who, following Mother Teresa, went down to the slums.
An international congregation
The Missionary Sisters of Charity, numbering 5,123 today, are installed in 700 homes throughout the world.
Present on all continents, notably in Kenya, Italy, Latin America and the United States, they are also established in conflict zones, such as in Aden, the capital of Yemen, where four nuns were murdered in 2016.
India, where the parent company is located, has the largest number of households.