At 9:30 pm on September 5, 1997, Mother Teresa's long and eventful life journey came to an end. By midnight of the same evening, 4,000 people had congregated at her Calcutta headquarters. They came to grieve the woman they simply called "Mother." Most of the mourners were Hindus and Muslims.
This solemn midnight assembly highlights an oft-forgotten quality of the famous nun-Mother Teresa is in fact one of the most important interfaith figures to have emerged in the Catholic world in this century.
The diminutive missionary who saw God in every suffering human was revered as a saint by the followers of many religions, in India and around the globe.
Deo Kernahan, a Toronto Hindu with several years of experience in interfaith dialogue, has long been aware of Mother Teresa's significance as an interfaith ambassador.
"She was a foreigner to India yet she was able to adapt so well. She had this ability to identify with the people... and to accept their way of life and their poverty," he said.
"But her greatest dialogue, I think, has to do with the fact that she worked primarily among Hindus and Muslims rather than Christians. She clearly had a sense of respect for the religious beliefs of others."
Kernahan also points out that Mother Teresa, like Mahatma Gandhi, chose to adopt the garb of the ordinary people. The habit worn by her Missionaries of Charity is actually a sari, a garment worn daily by most Indian women. "And like Gandhi," said Kernahan, "she believed that one can best serve the poor by being poor."
When Mother Teresa first touched the soil of India in 1948, she encountered a society that is both ancient and multi-religious.
Hindus currently comprise the majority of the population (81%). Muslims are the largest religious minority (11%). About 2% of India's people are Sikh. Christians constitute less than 2%. Numerous other religions account for the remainder of the population.
In the eyes of many Hindus, Mother Teresa was seen as a living saint, even a goddess.
Many of the country's Muslims likewise esteemed her. A Muslim man named Mohinulisam broke into tears after viewing Mother Teresa's body. To him this saintly woman's compassion crossed religious boundaries: "She worked for the people and never thought about whether we were Hindu or Muslim."
Mother Teresa is one of a number of Catholics who have responded to the challenge of interfaith dialogue in 20th century India. The British Benedictine, Fr. Bede Griffiths, and the French Benedictine, Fr. Henri Le Saux, are perhaps the best-known figures in this field. They, along with numerous other priests, nuns and lay people have succeeded in breaking new ground in Hindu-Christian relations and East-West dialogue.
Mother Teresa's funeral was perhaps the best evidence of her vitality as an interfaith symbol. The Indian government, composed primarily of Hindu members, honoured this "saint of the gutters" with a state funeral, a recognition normally reserved for heads of state.
This honour of a state funeral is even more amazing when one considers that Hindus and the Indian government have long been suspicious of Christian missionary work in India. Some Hindus believe that Christian proselytizing activity has had damaging effects upon Indian and Hindu culture. (It should be noted that some Hindu political leaders did oppose the government decision to give Mother Teresa a state funeral.) At the end of the funeral Mass, representatives from six religions-Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Christian-went to the rostrum to praise Mother Teresa and to pray for her.
The significance of this liturgical event was not lost on Deo Kernahan. "It was amazing. This interfaith participation in a Catholic ceremony gave credence to the major religious traditions of India," he said.
Two days after Mother Teresa's death, the Indian Prime Minister said that just as India had Mahatma Gandhi to lead the struggle against poverty and injustice in the first half of the 20th century, so it had Mother Teresa to continue that fight in the second half.
Indeed, both of these exceptional individuals were heroes of the poor; and both were interfaith giants.