IMAGE: CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz
KOLKATA, India (CNS) — A favorite 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
On Sept. 4, Pope Francis, who has spent this year preaching
about mercy, canonized Mother Teresa, who traveled the world to deliver a
single message: that love and caring are the most important things in the
“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 5,300 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
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 Organization, 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 (diapers), plastic pants,
chamber pots. We didn’t expect a saint to be so efficient.”
She was an advocate for children and was outspoken against
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, Dec. 10, 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 legalized abortion are the
poorest nations,” she said. “They are afraid of the unborn child, and
the child must die.”
Often when criticized 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 criticized for not using her considerable
influence to attack systemic evils such as the arms race or organized
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
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
And New York Daily News columnist Dick Ryan said many American
nuns 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. For Mother Teresa, 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.
American columnist Colman McCarthy sought to answer the
“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 neighborhood 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, Aug. 26, 1910. She had a sister, Aga, and a brother,
Lazar. Her father was a grocer, but the family’s background was more peasant
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 ostracized sick
people 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 recognized 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 United States. She raffled off the car and raised
enough money to finance a center for leprosy victims in the Indian state of
Twenty-one years later, when U.S. 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 Pope John XXIII Peace Prize in 1971; the Templeton Prize in 1973; the
John F. Kennedy International Award in 1971; the $300,000 Balzan Prize for
Humanity, Peace and Brotherhood in 1979; the Congressional Gold Medal in 1997; and
dozens of other awards and honors, including one of India’s highest — the
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 hospitalizations: 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 Father
Edward le Joly, said, “She is dying, she is on oxygen.” That March, the
Missionaries of Charity elected her successor, Sister Nirmala Joshi. But Mother
Teresa bounced back and, before her death Sept. 5, 1997, she traveled to Rome
and the United States.
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.
– – –
Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at firstname.lastname@example.org.