A favourite motto of Blessed Teresa of Kolkata was: “Do small things with great love.”
But the “small things” she did so captivated the world that she was showered with honorary degrees and other awards, almost universally praised by the media and sought out by popes, presidents, philanthropists and other figures of wealth and influence.
Despite calls on her time from all over the globe Mother Teresa always returned to India to be with those she loved most – the lonely, abandoned, homeless, disease-ravaged, dying, “poorest of the poor” in Kolkata’s streets.
On 4 September, Pope Francis, who has spent this year preaching about mercy, will canonise Mother Teresa, who traveled the world to deliver a single message: that love and caring are the most important things in the world.
“The biggest disease today,” she once said, “is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody. The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference toward one’s neighbor who lives at the roadside, assaulted by exploitation, corruption, poverty and disease.”
Her influence is worldwide. The Missionaries of Charity, which Mother Teresa founded in 1950, has more than 5300 active and contemplative sisters today. In addition, there are Missionaries of Charity Fathers, and active and contemplative brothers. In 1969, in response to growing interest of laypeople who wanted to be associated with her work, an informally structured, ecumenical International Association of Co-Workers of Mother Teresa was formed.
The members of the congregation take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but the vow of poverty is stricter than in other congregations because, as Mother Teresa explained, “to be able to love the poor and know the poor, we must be poor ourselves”. In addition, the Missionaries of Charity – sisters and brothers – take a fourth vow of “wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor”.
The tiny, wizened Mother Teresa in her familiar white and blue sari opened houses for the destitute and dying, for those with AIDS, for orphans and for people with leprosy. She founded houses in Cuba and the then-Soviet Union – countries not generally open to foreign church workers.
Her combination of serene, simple faith and direct, practical efficiency often amazed those who came in contact with her.
In 1982, when Israeli troops were holding Beirut under siege in an effort to root out the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Mother Teresa visited a community of her nuns at Spring School, a home for the aged in East Beirut. It was her first visit in a war zone but not her last.
Meeting with Red Cross officials about relief needs, she asked what their most serious problem was. They took her to a nearby mental hospital that had just been bombed, requiring immediate evacuation of 37 mentally and physically handicapped children.
“I’ll take them,” she said.
“What stunned everyone was her energy and efficiency,” a Red Cross official involved in the evacuation said afterward. “She saw the problem, fell to her knees and prayed for a few seconds, and then she was rattling off a list of supplies she needed – nappies, plastic pants, chamber pots. We didn’t expect a saint to be so efficient.”
She was an advocate for children and was outspoken against abortion.
In a 1981 visit to New York, she proposed a characteristically direct and simple solution to the problem of unwanted pregnancy: “If you know anyone who does not want the child, who is afraid of the child, then tell them to give that child to me.”
When Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, on 10 December, 1979, she accepted it “in the name of the hungry, of the naked, of the homeless, of the blind, of the lepers, of all those who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society”. She also condemned abortion as the world’s greatest destroyer of people.
“To me, the nations who have legalised abortion are the poorest nations,” she said. “They are afraid of the unborn child, and the child must die.”
Often when criticised about her approach to social issues, Mother Teresa told of a man who suggested she could do more for the world by teaching people how to fish rather than by giving them fish.
“The people I serve are helpless,” she said she told him. “They cannot stand. They cannot hold the rod. I will give them the food and then send them to you so you can
teach them how to fish.”
When she was criticised for not using her considerable influence to attack systemic evils such as the arms race or organised exploitation and injustice, she simply responded that was not her mission, but one that belonged to others, especially to the Catholic laity.
“Once you get involved in politics, you stop being all things to all men,” she said in an interview in 1982. “We must encourage the laypeople to stand for justice, for truth” in the political arena.
She also found herself occasionally caught in the middle of criticism from more comfortably situated religious contemporaries or commentators in western nations.
In 1994, British journalist Christopher Hitchens released a video, Hell’s Angel – Mother Teresa of Calcutta, in which he accused her of being, among other things, a fraud and a “ghoul”; of providing inadequate and dangerous medical treatment for patients; of taking money for her personal gain; and of using her fame to “promote the agenda of a fundamentalist pope”.
New York Daily News columnist Dick Ryan said many American religious women were quietly critical of Mother Teresa’s lack of acceptance of or support for their lifestyle and their self-image as American religious women intent on fostering social justice and religious renewal. However for Mother Teresa, he asserted, love for the dying, the scandal of abortion and the obedient servanthood of women were paramount – to the exclusion of such issues as social problems and male domination in the church, Ryan said.
Ryan was partly right; love for the dying and the scandal of abortion were not matters she minced her words about but it’s doubtful she particularly believed in the obedient servanthood of women as she may have been portrayed by slightly more jealous contemporaries. More likely was her passionate belief in the servanthood and witness of religious life as a vocation for both women and men.
American columnist Colman McCarthy sought to answer the critics.
“Undoubtedly,” he wrote, “Mother Teresa would be much closer to the orthodoxies of American social improvement if she were more the reformer and less the comforter.
But instead of committee reports on how many people she’s moved ‘above the poverty line’, all she has are some stories of dying outcasts. Instead of acting sensibly by getting a grant to create a program to eliminate poverty, she moves into a neighbourhood to share it.
“When Mother Teresa speaks of ‘sharing poverty’, she defies the logic of institutions that prefer agendas for the poor, not communion with individual poor people. Communion disregards conventional approaches. It may never find a job for someone, much less ever get him shaped up. Thus the practitioners of communion are called irrelevant. They may get stuck – as is Mother Teresa – with being labeled a saint.”
Mother Teresa was born Agnes Ganxhe Bojaxhiu to Albanian parents in Skopje, in what is now Macedonia, on 26 August, 1910. She had a sister, Aga, and a brother, Lazar.
Her father was a grocer, but the family’s background was more peasant than merchant.
Lazar said their mother’s example was a determining factor in Agnes’ vocation.
“Already when she was a little child she used to assist the poor by taking food to them every day like our mother,” he said. When Agnes was 9, he said, “She was plump, round, tidy, sensible and a little too serious for her age. Of the three of us, she alone did not steal the jam.”
As a student at a public school in Skopje, she was a member of a Catholic sodality with a special interest in foreign missions.
“At the age of 12, I first knew I had a vocation to help the poor,” she once said. “I wanted to be a missionary.”
At 15, Agnes was inspired to work in India by reports sent home by Yugoslavian Jesuit missionaries in Bengal – present-day Bangladesh, but then part of India.
At 18 she left home to join the Irish branch of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known as the Loreto Sisters.
After training at their institutions in Dublin and in Darjeeling, India, she made her first vows as a nun in 1928 and her final vows nine years later.
While teaching and serving as a principal at Loreto House, a fashionable girls’ college in Kolkata, she was depressed by the destitute and dying on the city’s streets, the homeless street urchins, the ostracised sick lying prey to rats and other vermin in streets and alleys.
In 1946, she received a “call within a call”, as she described it. “The message was clear. I was to leave the convent and help the poor, while living among them,” she said.
Two years later, the Vatican gave her permission to leave the Loreto Sisters and follow her new calling under the jurisdiction of the archbishop of Kolkata.
After three months of medical training under the American Medical Missionary Sisters in Patna, India, Mother Teresa went into the Kolkata slums to take children cut off from education into her first school. Soon volunteers, many of them her former students, came to join her.
In 1950, the Missionaries of Charity became a diocesan religious community, and 15 years later the Vatican recognised it as a pontifical congregation, directly under Vatican jurisdiction.
In 1952, Mother Teresa opened the Nirmal Hriday (Pure Heart) Home for Dying Destitutes in a dormitory – formerly a hostel attached to a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Kali – donated by the city of Kolkata.
Although some of those taken in survive, the primary function of the home is, as one Missionary of Charity explained, to be “a shelter where the dying poor may die in dignity”. Tens of thousands of people have been cared for in the home since it opened.
When Blessed Paul VI visited Bombay, now Mumbai, India, in 1964, he presented Mother Teresa with a white ceremonial Lincoln Continental given to him by people in the US. She raffled off the car and raised enough money to finance a centre for leprosy victims in the Indian state of West Bengal.
Twenty-one years later, when US President Ronald Reagan presented her with the presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House, he called her a “heroine of our times” and noted that the plaque honoring her described her as the “saint of the gutters”.
He also joked that Mother Teresa might be the first award recipient to take the plaque and melt it down to get money for the poor.
In addition to winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa was given the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize in 1971; the Templeton Prize in 1973; the John F. Kennedy International Award in 1971; the A$400,000 Balzan Prize for Humanity, Peace and Brotherhood in 1979; the US Congressional Gold Medal in 1997; and dozens of other awards and honors, including one of India’s highest – the Padmashri Medal.
Even after health problems led her to resign as head of the Missionaries of Charities in 1990, her order re-elected her as superior, and she continued traveling at a pace that would have tired people half her age.
In 1996 alone she had four hospitalisations: for a broken collarbone; for a head injury from a fall; for cardiac problems, malaria and a lung infection; and for angioplasty to remove blockages in two of her major arteries.
In late January 1997, her spiritual adviser, Jesuit Fr Edward le Joly, said, “She is dying, she is on oxygen.”
That March, the Missionaries of Charity elected her successor, Sr Nirmala Joshi. But Mother Teresa bounced back and, before her death on 5 September, 1997, she traveled to Rome and the US.
Mother Teresa was beatified in record time – in 2003, just over six years after her death – because St John Paul set aside the rule that a sainthood process cannot begin until the candidate has been dead five years.
In his eyes, she was about as clear a candidate for sainthood that anyone would ever want.