INDEPENDENT NEWS AND COMMENT ON WORLD AFFAIRS
Mother Theresa and the United Nations
As a young reporter in Calcutta I was assigned to write about Mother Theresa and spent several days following her around the city, from early morning prayers at the Mother House on Lower Circular Road, to Nirmal Hriday, the house for the dying destitute she ran in one corner of Kalighat Temple, to the home for unwed mothers and abandoned children, to the rural refuge for lepers. It was the first time I really looked at the plight of the poor of Calcutta, and it left me shaken – and vastly impressed with the work she was doing. (There was already talk about her performing miracles but when I asked about them she waved the question away and directed my attention elsewhere.)
A few years later I was working for the United Nations, and had the bright idea of inviting Mother to speak at the UN at the first observance of International Women’s Day (7 March). She declined the invitation, saying in a handwritten note torn from a notebook that she would be a “misfit” at the UN.
Without thinking, I showed the note to a colleague from the secretariat, a priest who had been seconded by the Vatican Mission at the UN to help with the first World Population conference (Bucharest 1972); it was only when he asked if he could make a copy of the letter that I began to consider the consequences.
In the years that followed Mother attended a number of events at the UN, and each time I saw her it was with regret; she had been entirely right in wanting to avoid the place. Her simplicity did not fit. It made people uncomfortable. No one seemed to know what to say to her. She herself was strained, and each time hurried away as soon after speaking as she was able to do without giving offense. Needless to say, she was a huge irritant to those espousing birth control as essential to development.