Saint Teresa of Calcutta, mother to the poorest, angel to the dying, target for materialists



“Mother Teresa”, who doesn’t know her? She is honored worldwide as an icon of humanity and self-giving in the service of the needy, beyond the boundaries of nations and creeds. But that doesn’t mean she told people what they wanted to hear. She had a very simple and understandable speaking style, without intellectual frills, but in doing so she expressed her opinion without any detours. This little sister, the epitome of simplicity and direct charity, thus took her place among the greatest and most remarkable personalities of our time.

Her youth, vocation and education

On August 26, 1910, she was born in Skopje, capital of present-day North Macedonia, but at that time still belonging to the Ottoman Empire. Her baptismal name was Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. Her parents were deeply religious Catholics and passed on their beliefs to their daughter with word and example. When she was eight years old, her father died, but despite the difficult circumstances, she learned from her mother, who had three children, to continue to practice charity: “My child, never eat a mouthful without sharing with others”. Little Agnes washed twice a day an alcoholic who could no longer take care of herself.

At the age of twelve she first felt her religious vocation during a pilgrimage to the Black Madonna of Letnice and six years later, in 1928, she went to Ireland to study English with the sisters of Our Lady of Loreto in Rothfarnham, with a view to missionary work in India. She took the name of Maria Teresa, in reference to St. Theresia of Lisieux. After a year she left for Darjeeling in India, where she completed her novitiate and took her first vows.

Her first working period in Calcutta

From Darjeeling, Sister Maria Teresa was sent to a hospital in Calcutta where she learned about the extreme poverty and misery of many inhabitants of this city. In 1937, after her final promises of obedience, chastity and poverty, she was appointed as a teacher in a school for girls from the poorest Bengali families of Calcutta. She was referred to as Mother Teresa, the name by which she will later become known worldwide. She learned to speak Bengali and Hindi fluently, taught geography and history and tried to lift the girls out of poverty through her educational work. Through her example and approach, she also sought to lead her disciples to a life of devotion to Christ. In 1944 she became the headmistress of the school.

Several Belgian Jesuits were working in Calcutta. One of them, Father Celeste van Exem, born in Ypres, became her confessor and will guide her spiritually in the decisions that will determine her final direction of life. Mother Teresa continued to write to him later, until his death in 1993. These letters, together with those to others, such as her local archbishop Mgr. Ferdinand Périer from Antwerp, are among the most important sources of insight into her inner life and struggle. During her work in the school, Mother Teresa also takes care of the poor in their neighborhoods and involves her students In those years, the region was hit by a severe famine, estimated to have killed more than 2 million Bengalis.

On September 10, 1946, Mother Teresa received a second vocation, the “calling in her calling” that will determine her future life. This happened while she was travelling back to Darjeeling for her annual retreat. Christ asks her to go to Him in the “poorest of the poor.” During the retreat, that voice continues to insist, and in a vision she sees a crowd of deeply unhappy people crying out for help.  When she returns, she asks her confessor to help her fulfill her new calling. Bound by her vow of obedience, this could only be done by an official ecclesiastical approval. Finally, after a year and a half of laborious insistence, she gets an “indult of exclaustration”, which allows her to remain a religious and possibly return to her original order, if her new project in the service of the poor would not succeed.

The foundation and expansion of the “Missionaries of Charity”

In August 1948 she dresses in the white sari with blue trim, which she and her later sisters will wear all their lives at work. After a six-month basic course of medical training with the Medical Missionary Sisters, she moves to the slums of Calcutta with the sole purpose of helping “the unwanted, unloved and all those who no one looked after”. She starts with an open-air school and convinces the city council to give her a dilapidated building, as a shelter for the needy dying on the street. She becomes their comforting angel.

Gradually, girls, to whom she had previously taught, are joining her and even teachers. Ultimately, Mother Teresa sees her work grow into a fully-fledged new religious order. In 1950, she obtained permission from Pope Pius XII for the foundation of the “Order of the Missionaries of Charity” whose members pledge to dedicate their whole person to the service of the poorest of the poor and to keep nothing for themselves. Important here is the daily personal and communal prayer, a necessary condition to be able to sustain this.

Mother Teresa prays for more vocations and her prayers are answered. The aid also flows in from all over the world. Between 1950 and 1960 she opened a leper home, an orphanage, a nursing home, a family clinic, and a range of mobile clinics. In 1970 she opens her first American “House of Charity”.  In 1982 she went to Beirut, where, at the height of the Israeli siege, she crossed the front line and took care of both the Christian children in the eastern part of the city and the Muslim children in the western part. Her order continues to grow internationally. In 1979 the order was expanded with a male branch of “Missionaries of Charity Brothers” and in 1984 with a priestly, “The Missionaries of Charity Fathers”. At her death in 1997, the order had 610 foundations in 123 countries, more than 4,00O members and thousands of lay helpers.

In 2020, it will have more than 5,000 members. Because of their work in the poorest neighborhoods, the sisters are strongly affected by the Covid 19 pandemic.

Her internal struggle

Her new calling was accompanied by a hidden inner struggle. Outwardly, she remained the sister with the soft smile, who took care of the poor, sick and dying with heart and soul. But inwardly she no longer felt the presence of God, and her soul was torn apart by doubts of faith. This only came to light after her death, through correspondence with her spiritual counselor and superiors. Her counselors generally describe this as a “spiritual purification process”, with which other great saints have also struggled. Christ himself felt abandoned by his Father just before his death, but moments later put his spirit in his hands. Similarly, despite the inner darkness she experienced, Mother Teresa remained faithful to her calling and belief in God until her death.

Criticism and suspicions

The worldwide fame and appreciation for a “conservative” Catholic nun was a thorn in the side of materialistically inspired thinkers. A Flemish proverb says, “high trees catch a lot of wind” and another says: “Whoever wants to beat a dog will soon find a stick”. The sometimes very vicious criticism of some intellectuals, of whom it is not known whether they have ever lifted a finger to help the needy, is a good example of this. For example, she is blamed for the inferior hygienic conditions in her shelters, without taking into account the local context and possibilities. One must also look at the main purpose of her work: to restore neglected people to their spiritual dignity, by showing them a glimpse of God’s love.

The material help that Mother Teresa and her organization provided was primarily “first-line help”, with the resources and opportunities available. In the early days, for example, there were no narcotics, because they were reserved for the established hospitals. Injection needles had to be cleaned with water. She was also accused of being “friendly” with some dictators, forgetting that a Christian should not exclude anyone. Her order would also have been guilty of “suspicious financial flows Where they came from and where they went apparently only the spreaders of those messages know. The sisters themselves live in sobriety and have no  personal benefit whatsoever.

The main accusation, repeated like a mantra, is her “dogmatic” views on abortion, contraception and divorce. They would be “a stain on her holy life”. As convinced Catholic humanists, we can only be very grateful to her for that. Mother Teresa, like us, was a proponent of “natural family planning.” Social problems are not solved by prenatally eliminating people, nor by artificially pre-eliminating them.  There is nothing more vicious and contagious than gossip: many other great examples were thus posthumously smeared.

Her worldwide recognition

Mother Teresa received the following awards (source: Wikipedia)

1962: Ramon Magsaysay Award

1971: Pope Johannes XXIII Peace Prize

1971: John F. Kennedy Award

1972: Nehru Award

1973: Templeton Prize

1978: Balzan Prize

1979: Nobel Peace Prize

1980: Bharat Ratna (The “Jewel of India”: India’s Highest Civilian Award)

1984: Damian Dutton Award

1992: UNESCO Prize for Peace Education

1996: Honorary citizen of the United States

Many things, buildings, avenues, etc., were named after her in tribute, even a KLM plane.

Her canonization

Her swift canonization came as no surprise to many who knew her, for they saw her even before her death as a living saint: a woman who put her life entirely at the service of her rejected and forgotten fellow human beings, both spiritually and physically.

There has been much to do about the two miracles with which she was successively beatified and canonized. For some, they are inexplicable, while others question their miraculousness. More important to us is her life itself, characterized by continuous heroic self-denial, prayer, teaching, care for the sick, and much more, day and night in the service of God and her fellow men. The ecclesiastical investigation has only confirmed this.

On September 4, 2016, one day before the 19th anniversary of her death (September 5, also her ecclesiastical holiday), Pope Francis declared to tens of thousands who had gathered in Rome (own translation from Latin): “After a thorough deliberation and frequent prayer for divine assistance, and after consulting many of our brother bishops, we declare and confirm that Blessed Teresa of Calcutta is holy and include her in the list of saints, determining that she is thus to be venerated by the whole Church”. He praised her life’s work and said of her, among other things: “In all aspects of her life, Mother Teresa was a generous distributor of divine mercy, making herself available to all through her welcome and defense of human life, the unborn and those who were abandoned and discarded…  She bent over those who were exhausted, left for dead by the roadside and saw their God-given dignity. She raised her voice before the powerful of this world, that they might recognize their guilt for the crime of poverty they have created.”

About herself, Mother Teresa simply said the following: “By blood relationship I am Albanian, by citizenship I am Indian, by faith I am a Catholic sister. As for my calling, I belong to the world. As for my heart, I belong fully to the Heart of Jesus.”

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