The greatest celebrity saint of the twentieth century in the minds of many people is Mother Teresa. In common with Bob Pierce, she gained worldwide recognition for good works, but without the glaring personal flaws. Yet, like him, she struggled with administrative failures, though unlike him, she had an adoring throng of followers who did not try to interfere with her uncontested leadership of the mission. Her detractors focused primarily on matters of administration or philosophy such as her adamant stance against birth control and family planning—rarely attacking her personally, except as it related to authoritarian leadership. But no amount of criticism has been able to dim the shinning star of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
“As you fly into Calcutta today, city of twelve million and growing, you are welcomed, “writes Anne Sebba, by a giant billboard, “which announces this as the city of Tagore the poet, Ray the film maker and Teresa the nun. Extraordinary as it may seem, she has become a tourist attraction. Of the three, it is Teresa who is the best known internationally and it is she who has made Calcutta famous anew in the West.” [Sabba, xiii.]
She was born Agnes Bojaxhiu in Albania in 1910, the youngest of three children, and lived a life of modest comfort until her died in 1919, leaving his business ventures to his partners. Yet, despite poverty, her mother was known in the community for helping others, and her example did not go unnoticed by her youngest daughter. Her mother’s devout faith and devotion to Mary also had a profound influence on young Agnes, who was assured of her mother’s blessing when she announced that she was going to be a missionary in India, and at age nineteen, she did just that. “She was caught in a wave of enthusiasm,” writes Edward Le Joly, for “spreading the gospel in the missions, an enthusiasm generated by the writings of Pope Pius XI.” [Edward Le Joly, S.J., Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Biography (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), 8.]
In the winter of 1929, she was sailing up the Hooghly River to Bengal, as William Carey had done one hundred and thirty-five years earlier. For two years she trained as a novice, and in 1931 took her vows to become a Loreto sister, serving as a teacher specializing in geography—a position she held several years until she was named headmistress.
Her call to minister to the poorest of the poor did not come from a sense of pity for the sick and homeless in Calcutta—a point that is repeatedly emphasized by those who have been closest to her:
“This is how it happened,” she told her spiritual director, Father Julien Henry. “I was travelling [sic] to Darjeeling by train [for her annual retreat], when I heard the voice of God.” Father Henry then asked her how she had heard his voice above the noise of a rattling train and she had replied with a smile: “I was sure it was God’s voice. I was certain that He was calling me. The message was clear I must leave the convent to help the poor by living among them. This was a command, something to be done, something definite. I knew where I had to be. But I did not know how to get there.” [Sebba, 46.]
Apart from the “voice of God,” however, Mother Teresa may have heard voices from the past. She had never imagined herself spending her life cloistered behind the walls of a girls’ school for India’s elite. The stories she had read in Catholic Missions as a girl were stories of self-denial and danger—stories about “sisters so poor that they lived in thatched huts with wild animals rampaging through the encampments and hardly enough money for food and clothes . . . and one issue told how a Mother Superior was saved by her orphans from a snake poised to bite her, another of a lucky escape from a tiger.” [Sebba, 36.]
It took two years before Mother Teresa was granted permission to leave the convent, and soon she had three followers join her—all students from the Loreto school. That same year she obtained Indian citizenship and applied to Rome to form a new congregation, Missionaries of Charity. From the beginning it was different than other religious orders—most significantly, no “walls” of security. “Our Sisters must go out on the street,” she insisted. “The must take the tram like our people, or walk to where they are going. That is why we must not start institutions and stay inside. We must not stay behind walls and have our people come to us.” [Eileen Egan, Such a Vision of the Street: Mother Teresa—the Spirit and the Work (NY: Doubleday, 1985), 90-91.]
During the 1950s the Missionaries of Charity grew steadily, and in 1960, when she left India for the first time in more than three decades, there were more than one hundred sisters in the movement. Her travels took her to the America and Europe, and as she spread the message funds poured in. Like Hudson Taylor a century earlier, she emphasized that she would not ask for money because she had no need to. “She was entirely dependent on the providence of God,” writes Sebba. “But she did remind her audience that she was giving them, too, a chance to do something beautiful for God. This, rather than directly appealing for donations, was a far more powerful method of raising money.” [Sebba, 72.] In the years that followed the number of sisters grew to the thousands and houses were established in cities all over the world, and the aura of saintliness accorded Mother Teresa was bestowed on them as well—at least in the words of Malcolm Muggeridge, a one-time agnostic who became their greatest champion:
Their life is tough and austere by worldly standards, certainly: yet I never met such delightful, happy women, or such an atmosphere of joy as they create. Mother Teresa, as she is fond of explaining, attaches the utmost importance to this joyousness. The poor, she says, deserve not just service and dedication, but also the joy that belongs to human love. . . . The Missionaries of Charity . . . are multiplying at a fantastic rate. Their Calcutta house is bursting at the seams, and as each new house is opened, there are volunteers clamoring to go there. As the whole story of Christendom shows, if everything is asked for, everything—and more—will be accorded; if little, then nothing. [Malcolm Muggeridge, Something Beautiful for God (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1971), 37.]
In December of 1979, Mother Teresa accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, bringing the spotlight of the world on her selfless missionary service. When asked how she identified herself, she responded: “By blood and origin, I am all Albanian. My citizenship is Indian. I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the whole world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to Jesus.” [Eagan, 357.] Wherever she went, she was esteemed—whether speaking at Harvard University graduation or at a Capitol Hill luncheon, as Dee Jepson, whose husband was a U.S. Senator, relates:
In came this tiny woman, even smaller than I had expected, wearing that familiar blue and white habit, over it a gray sweater that had seen many better days. . . . As that little woman walked into the room, her bare feet in worn sandals, I saw some of the most powerful leaders in this country stand to their feet with tears in their eyes. Just to be in her presence.” [Dee Jepson, Women Beyond Equal Rights (Waco: Word Books, 1984), 52.]
Mother Teresa died in 1997, her death overshadowed by the tragic auto accident that took the life of Princess Diana—a young princess and an old nun who considered each other friends.