The rolling road to sainthood

Observations on Mother Teresa

Did Mother Teresa of Calcutta really perform miracles? Whatever your views about miracles of any sort, it is worth looking at how the Vatican set her on a fast track to sainthood. This began on 19 October in St Peter's Square, Rome, where, in front of a congregation of more than 250,000, Pope John Paul II beatified Mother Teresa just six years after she died.

Under the Church's rules, one miracle is needed to reach this stage; Mother Teresa will need a second to become a saint.

The first miracle is said to have happened when Monica Besra, a poor West Bengali tribal woman suffering from tubercular meningitis, went to pray at Mother Teresa's tomb on the first anniversary of the nun's death. Besra has since said that "a light came to me from a photograph of Mother Teresa" and that she "felt stunned". Nuns prayed for her, she went to sleep and the next morning a "giant tumour" in her stomach had gone. Other reports suggest that either a wall picture or a medallion depicting Mother Teresa was tied to her stomach.

Doctors tell a different story. "We gave her anti-TB drugs for nine months and the cyst went away - there was no miracle," Dr Ranjan Mustafi of Balurghat General Hospital, who examined Besra in August 1998 and May 1999, told me. He said that no one from the Roman Catholic Church had been to see him or, as far as he knew, any other doctor involved in the case.

Besra's husband, Seiko, was annoyed when she became the centre of media attention. "It is much ado about nothing - my wife was cured by doctors and not by any miracle - I want to stop this jamboree," he told Time magazine last October. He agreed the pain had eased temporarily one night when the medallion was applied, but the "pain had been coming and going".

Now he has changed his tune. Would this be because money appeared, enabling him to buy land, and because nuns are helping with the education of the couple's five children? "It was her miracle," Seiko Besra now says. His neighbours also told reporters initially that the "tumour disappeared gradually". Now they have gone quiet. Such is the power of miracles.