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Holiness is not to be sneered at

St Damien De Veuster on his deathbed on the Hawaiian island of Molokai in 1889 (CNS)

There is something about a great many saints that annoys and even angers some people. Thus the recent canonisation of Mother Teresa revived in the press the various attacks that had been made on her in her lifetime by the likes of Germaine Greer and, most notably, the late Christopher Hitchens, who went to the length of writing a critical book about her.

I knew a little about Hitchens’s book as he had consulted me in my capacity as the biographer of Malcolm Muggeridge, the man who did more than anyone to bring Mother Teresa to the world’s attention with his BBC film Something Beautiful for God (also a bestselling book).

Hitchens was determined to ridicule Malcolm’s claim that some kind of miracle had occurred when the BBC crew filmed in Mother Teresa’s House of the Dying. They had been convinced that it was much too dark, yet when the film was processed the room seemed to be bathed in light.

I remember telling Christopher that he should speak to the producer Peter Chafer, a non-believer, who had been just as amazed as Malcolm; but he never felt inclined to contact him. (Malcolm told me how surprised the cameraman Ken Macmillan had been that, when saying goodbye to Mother Teresa, she asked him to say a prayer for her.)

Apart from mocking Malcolm, Hitchens, along with others, repeated the familiar charges that Mother Teresa had accepted money from disreputable figures such as Papa Doc Duvalier and Robert Maxwell, and also that the medical facilities in Calcutta were primitive and unreliable – the same accusation that had been made against Albert Schweitzer at his leper colony at Lambaréné in French Equatorial Africa (now Gabon).

The charges may have been perfectly true but, even if they were, did they disqualify Mother Teresa from canonisation? And were the critics concerned with preserving the highest standards for sanctity or was there a simpler explanation? Was it just a case of what Graham Greene once called “the regulation sneer against holiness”?

The Mother Teresa story is reminiscent of that of another saint, Fr Damien De Veuster, a Belgian missionary who gave his life for the lepers of Hawaii, dying there aged 49 in 1889. His story of Christian sacrifice, like that of Mother Teresa, caught the imagination of the world and countless articles were written about him – though living, as he did, in the days before television, it was not until 2009 that he was canonised; unlike Mother Teresa, who was fast-tracked to sainthood.

Damien, too, had his critics, like his fellow (Presbyterian) missionary in Hawaii, the Rev Doctor Charles Hyde, who in a letter to a colleague, the Rev HB Gage, published in Australia, expressed surprise at the “extravagant newspaper laudations” that had been written after Damien’s death.

“He was a coarse, dirty man,” Hyde wrote, “headstrong and bigoted … he was not a pure man in his relations with women and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness … Others have done as much for the lepers, our own ministers, the government physicians and so forth but never with the Catholic idea of meeting eternal life.”

If Hyde, coincidentally the namesake of Dr Jekyll’s infamous alter ego, was the Hitchens of the story, the Muggeridge figure who made Damien famous was Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson had visited the leper colony on his way to his final home on the island of Samoa, and was so outraged by Hyde’s remarks that he was inspired to write one of the most devastating rebukes in the English language.

The attack was made doubly effective by the way Stevenson accepted the validity of Hyde’s criticisms. So Damien, according to Hyde, was coarse: “It is very possible. You make us sorry for the lepers who had only a coarse old peasant for their friend and father.”

Damien was dirty: “He was. Think of the poor lepers annoyed with this dirty comrade.”

As for the charge of Damien’s impurity: “I will suppose your story to be true,” Stevenson wrote. “I will suppose that in the horror of his isolation, perhaps in the fever of incipient disease, he who was doing so much more than he had sworn, failed in the letter of his priestly oath – he, who did what we have never dreamed of daring – he too tasted of our common frailty … ‘Oh Iago, the pity of it!’… The least tender should be moved to tears: the most incredulous to prayer. And all that you could do was to pen your letter to the Reverend HB Gage!”

How lucky it was for Christopher Hitchens that there was no Robert Louis Stevenson around when he penned his attack on Mother Teresa.

This article first appeared in the December 23 2016 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here