JAMES P. PINKERTON NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- How's this for multiculturalism: An Albanian woman, born in Serbia, trained in Ireland, travels to India and becomes a teacher. After a time, she starts an organization dedicated to the poor, which then sets up 500 more shelters in 95 countries; for her work she is awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. After nearly 70 years of service she turns her operation over to another woman, an ethnic Indian.
This may seem like a utopian World Federalist fantasy, but it's the story of Mother Teresa, who founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 and just last month, at age 86, stepped down from her post as superior general. Her replacement, Sister Nirmala, was born a Hindu but converted to Roman Catholicism and has been with the order since 1958.
To be sure, Mother Teresa's life and works have not been without controversy. In spite of her demonstrated commitment to female leadership, some on the left claim she has been subservient to male authoritarians, from the pope to President Reagan. Author Christopher Hitchens, in his 1995 book, ''The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice,'' ripped her as ''an ally of the most reactionary forces'' in the world, the ''poster girl for the right-to-life wing in America.''
At the same time, some on the right might bridle at her notions of economics: ''God has not created poverty,'' she wrote recently. ''It is we who have created it.'' Here one might respectfully disagree: Poverty has been the normal state of humanity. The key intellectual question to be understood is not why so many people are hungry or naked, but rather, in a world of scarce resources, how it happens that so many have been fed and clothed.
Share both wealth and soul
Of course it is difficult to cubbyhole ideologically a woman who summons lay persons to give the needy not only money but also prayerful witness: to share not only wealth, but soul.
Today, as faith in big government fades, it is urgent that people of good will take a look at other models of social problem-solving. Specifically, what does Mother Teresa know about running a compassionate organization that Washington bureaucrats don't?
One element of her success is faith. On September 10, 1946, when Mother Teresa heard the call, she thought of Christ's words in Matthew 25: 40: ''What you did to the least of mine, you did it to me.'' If you believe, as Mother Teresa does, that Jesus is hiding in the disguise of the poorest of the poor, then each day spent with them is a blessing, not a burden.
Yet, an effective organization must be flexible -- open to diversity and change. While Catholic liturgy is basically the same everywhere, the differing influence of everything from Marianism to Santeria to Zoroastrianism is visible to the globe-trotting churchgoer.
In addition, 59 nations have their own patron saints; so do nearly 200 occupations, some of which -- aviation, television -- indicate that the church is keeping up. Moreover, the state-of-the-art organization must permit ''intrapreneurial'' start-ups within its structure; Mother Teresa was already a nun when she founded the Missionaries of Charity.
A third element worth considering is the special contribution that women can make. In her recent book, ''Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns Through Two Millennia,'' Hunter College historian Jo Ann Kay McNamara tells the story of women dedicated to their faith -- from Thecla, St. Paul's virgin companion, to the black Holy Family Sisters of 19th-Century New Orleans to the 283 nuns martyred by Communists during the Spanish Civil War.
Ms. McNamara is critical of the church's opposition to the ordination of women, but she prefers to state her argument positively. Having detailed, over 751 fascinating pages, the good works that spiritual women have accomplished in the past, the author asks the reader to agree with her that women could do even more in the future if they were fully equal within the church.
She writes hopefully of the day when ''women from every culture will take their places in this long history of the warriors who found dignity and autonomy in dedication to God and to their neighbor, a noble purpose in life and a beneficent legacy in death.''
Now in her ninth decade, after having spread her beneficent legacy around the world, Mother Teresa awaits her reward. The on-going challenge to the rest of us is not merely to be inspired by her exemplary good works, but to institutionalize them.
James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday.
Pub Date: 4/02/97