Blessed Teresa of Kolkata, India, presents documents for a new house to a villager in 1994 in Mumbai, formerly Bombay. Mother Teresa will be canonized by Pope Francis Sept. 4 at the Vatican. CNS photo/Luciano Mellace, Reuters

To Mother Teresa, love, caring trumped all

By 
  • September 3, 2016

CALCUTTA, India – A favourite motto of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta 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 Calcutta’s streets.

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 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 neighbour 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 and laypeople.

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 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.

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 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.

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 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.

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.”

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.

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.”

Teresa-life-graphic-web

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 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.

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 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 Calcutta, 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 Calcutta.

After three months of medical training, Mother Teresa went into the Calcutta 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. 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.

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 honours, 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 travelling 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.

But Mother Teresa bounced back and, before her death Sept. 5, 1997, she travelled 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.

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