At the time of St. Teresa of Calcutta’s death in 1997, no one in the world was more revered as an icon of goodness and love. In a sense, then, the only thing surprising about her canonization is that it took nearly two decades to happen.
Her canonization by Pope Francis on Sept. 4 will be the crown of a remarkable life that included a dramatic, mystical experience, a surprising spiritual secret known to almost no one while she lived, and an iron will to make God’s love known to the poor.
Sister of Loreto
Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu was born on Aug. 26, 1910, in the city of Skopje, the capital of what is now Macedonia.
She was the youngest of three children in a Catholic family living among a primarily Muslim population. After her father, Nikola, a merchant and business owner, died when Agnes was 8 years old, her mother, Drane, supported the family by selling handcrafted items she had created.
Inspired by the words and example of Jesuit missionaries who visited her parish, Agnes decided by age 18 that God was calling her to missionary work in India. That desire led her to the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish religious congregation that ran schools in India.
And so in 1928, she left home for Ireland. She took the name Sister Mary Teresa, after St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the patron of missions. Within a few months, she was sent to India as a novice to teach in a Kolkata girls’ school. The school was in a clean, Westernized area of the city, in a compound enclosed within high walls. Though there was dire poverty nearby, she rarely came in direct contact with it during these years.
She took her final vows in 1937 and, according to the practice of the order, began at that point to be called Mother Teresa.
In 1944, she was named principal of the school.
Mother Teresa’s stable life as a successful and well-liked Loreto sister was turned upside down on Sept. 10, 1946. On a train ride from Calcutta to Darjeeling, India, as she looked at the suffering people who crowded the train and the platforms at every stop, she was jarred by a profound spiritual experience.
“She understood as never before how much God desired, longed, ‘thirsted’ to love and be loved,” Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, postulator of her canonization cause, told Our Sunday Visitor.
“He thirsted for her love and for the love of each person he created, especially those most in need. There is an inseparable connection between her work for the poor and her call to satiate Jesus’ thirst.”
With this inspiration came a specific call. Years later, she told a journalist: “I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith.”
| Pope St. John Paul II meets St. Teresa of Calcutta at the Vatican in this undated photo. Mother
Teresa will be canonized during a Mass in St. Peter’s Square on Sept. 4. CNS photo via L’Osservatore Romano
So at age 36, Mother Teresa responded by requesting to leave her community. For two years, she proceeded patiently through the canonical procedures necessary to formally leave the Sisters of Loreto. Permission finally came in July 1948, and on Aug. 17, she removed her Loreto habit and replaced it with the new habit she had purchased at a bazaar in Kolkata: a sari, widely worn by most women of India but distinctive for its plain white color with blue trim — and also for the cheap material of which it was made.
In December, after a short medical training course, she waded into the Kolkata’s slums for the first time. She taught children in the streets, visited sick people and tended to those who were dying in poverty. In March 1949, a former student joined her in her work. A second woman arrived to help the following month, and a third one in May. The first 10 women to join Mother Teresa were all her former students.
Mother called her community the Missionaries of Charity (MC) and created a constitution that said its aim was “to quench the infinite thirst of Jesus Christ on the Cross for love of souls.” In addition to the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the sisters would take a fourth vow of “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.” There were other religious orders helping the poor, of course, including in Kolkata. The distinctive thing about the Missionaries of Charity’s ministry was that the sisters actively went out to the poor (rather than working inside convents, hospitals and schools) and sought the most rejected.
This new approach, Father Kolodiejchuk said, was “very radical, even revolutionary. [The Loreto sisters], while not strictly cloistered, would not be engaged in what today would be called the ‘street apostolate.’ She moved out of the convent walls to minister to the poor in their own surroundings, and that was very innovative at the time.”
Mother Teresa soon established a home for the destitute dying. Every morning, she and her sisters scoured the slums to find and gather up dying people on the sidewalks. Those who could be treated were treated, and those who were unable to be helped were given comfort and love until they died.
Gift of love
The decades that followed were a whirlwind of exhausting service to the poor, the sick, the dying and the abandoned. As the number of Missionaries of Charity grew, so did the needs presented to them. Mother founded clinics for leprosy, tuberculosis and pregnant women; schools; homeless shelters; orphanages; emergency aid programs; and more. She established her first home outside India in Venezuela in 1965, then a second in Rome in 1968. The first U.S. location was opened in the Bronx in 1971, and dozens more followed around the world.
In 1971, a book about Mother called “Something Beautiful for God” by the British writer Malcolm Muggeridge brought her to the attention of many in the West for the first time. Then came the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, and she was soon one of the most admired people in the world. But she only treated the fame as an opportunity to do more good.
In 1985, as AIDS ravaged the gay communities of many Western cities, and some doctors and nurses still refused to touch its victims, Mother opened a hospice for them in New York City, called Gift of Love, and then in other cities as well. The fall of Iron Curtain in 1989 opened another door, and Mother moved her work quickly into Russia and eastern Europe.
After several years of declining health, Mother Teresa went home to God on Sept. 5, 1997. Even those who knew her well were surprised to learn, soon after, that for decades she had experienced a profound sense of abandonment by God. In letters to her spiritual director that became public, she wrote of a “deep darkness and desolation,” adding, “I don’t complain — let him do whatever he wants.”
“The darkness she experienced was an aspect of her union with God — so it wasn’t that she had the union and then lost it. Rather, she lost the consolation of that union and alternated between the pain of loss and a deep and painful longing, a real thirst for the experience of union that she had already known,” Father Kolodiejchuk said.
While some were troubled by this, many others understood it to be still another confirmation of her profound faith and love. Her canonization does the same.
Barry Hudock writes from Minnesota.
|Not without critics
St. Teresa of Calcutta was not without her critics. Here are the most common criticisms and some factors that ought to be kept in mind when considering them.
1. “She ignored the unjust social structures that cause and support poverty.”
Noting the adage about the importance of teaching people how to fish, rather than handing them a fish, Mother Teresa responded that the people she served “have not even the strength to lift a fishing rod let alone use it to fish. Giving them fish, I help them to recover the strength for the fishing of tomorrow.”
2. “She taught the poor to endure their lot, rather than helped them overcome it.”
St. Teresa’s attention was primarily on people at the furthest extremes of poverty and distress. Her focus was on getting them through the current day, or if they couldn’t, then helping them die surrounded by love. She welcomed the efforts of others that might keep people from ever needing her kind of care.
3. She pressured desperate, non-Christian people to become Catholic.
Mother Teresa had a profound respect for all faiths. A Hindu man recounted, “When I asked her whether she converted people, she answered, ‘Yes, I convert. I convert you to be a better Hindu, or a better Muslim, or a better Protestant, or a better Catholic, or a better Parsee, or a better Sikh, or a better Buddhist. And after you have found God, it is for you to do what God wants you to do.’”
4. “She ignored modern medical technology and methods in the care she offered.”
Mother Teresa had a deep fear of her work losing its direct and personal nature by becoming institutionalized. She rejected whatever seemed to her like a step toward institutionalization, including things like air conditioners, elevators or refrigerators. If this impeded the technological effectiveness of her work, it also enhanced the personal experience of those in her care.
5. “She was a fake and a liar.”
This criticism stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of the “dark night of the soul” that she experienced through much of her life. She didn’t lose her faith and pretend otherwise; rather, she lost her sense of God’s presence to her — her experience of God — but maintained her faith despite that felt absence.
There’s no question that Mother Teresa was imperfect; she readily admitted that. But Brother Andrew, first superior of the Missionaries of Charity Brothers, offered perhaps the wisest insight on her shortcomings: “Unless my life comes anywhere near hers in its effective concern for the poor and suffering, then I can only look very stupid in making my relatively petty negative points.”