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ANALYSIS Teresa of Calcutta: a life for the ages

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Upon her death, Mother Teresa’s “estate” consisted of two saris, two pairs of sandals, two pairs of eyeglasses, an old sweater, a water bucket and a worn Bible.
Princess Diana’s reportedly hovered near $65 million.
Were she alive, Mother Teresa would scold anyone making such comparisons. She had many rich benefactors, including Diana herself. She also probably would remind us that her own possessions exceeded those of Jesus, who had nowhere to lay his head.
Yet the irony in the way the Western media and public responded to the deaths of these two women cannot be ignored. Hundreds of millions watched and wept for days as saturation coverage of the death of the jet-set princess, who lived and died by the camera, descended into virtual hysteria.
Meanwhile, the passing of Mother Teresa got a comparative nod. The Hindus and Muslims of India gave this Christian missionary a more heartfelt farewell. They sensed she was one who loved them with the love of God. Gandhi once said he would be a Christian if Christians lived like Jesus. If he had known Mother Teresa, he might have become one.
Agnes Bojaxhiu heard God call her to missions as a 12-year-old Albanian girl. She came to Calcutta in 1929 to teach in a convent school, adopting the name Teresa in memory of Therese of Lisieux, patron saint of Roman Catholic missionaries. St. Therese taught that we can do no great things for God, but we can do little things with great love.
Teresa of Calcutta always believed that. But in 1946 she sensed a “second call” to emerge from her convent to live it out on Calcutta’s streets — streets filled with the refugees of communal violence, poverty, indifference.
One day she stumbled over one of them in the gutter, a starving woman eaten with worms. She picked up the woman and took her to a hospital, refusing to leave until someone cared for her. Calcutta authorities finally gave Teresa an abandoned Hindu hostel, where she could take the living dead to die.
“They have been unwanted all their lives,” Teresa said. “We want them to know at the end that someone loves them. They have lived like animals, but now die like angels.”
Thus was born her mission to “the poorest of the poor.” In 1950 she founded the Missionaries of Charity. She expanded her ministry to orphans, lepers, disaster victims, the unborn. Today several thousand of her missionaries work in 100 countries.
But it all began with one dying woman.
“If I had not picked up that one woman, I would not have picked up the thousands,” Teresa reflected. “I always think one, one.”
Her practical theology came from Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:35-40: “I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat … thirsty, and you gave Me drink … a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me … sick and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me …. To the extent that you did it to … even the least of them, you did it to Me.”
Mother Teresa took those words quite literally. For her, every hungry or unwanted person was “Jesus in his distressing disguise.”
The more distressing the disguise, the greater the need for love. She carefully schooled her missionaries in simple acts, like touching. If a sister was out of sorts, Teresa didn’t let her go into the streets. The poor have enough burdens without God’s servants adding to them, she reasoned.
“We train ourselves to be extremely kind and gentle in touch of hand, tone of voice and in our smile so as to make the mercy of God very real and to induce (others) to turn to God with real confidence,” she said.
There is only way to live such a life, Teresa cautioned: “My secret is simple: I pray.”
In the ancient monastic tradition, she compelled her missionaries to cease work periodically each day to pray, to worship, to be silent before God, to become “contemplatives in the heart of the world.”
“You cannot give what you do not have,” she said. “In the silence of the heart, God speaks.”
Teresa didn’t limit her ministry to poverty-stricken places. She founded mission centers in cities like London and New York. For her, the “poorest of the poor” included anyone lonely or lost — regardless of the size of their bank account.
“There are thousands of people dying for a piece of bread. There are thousands more dying for a little bit of love, a little bit of acknowledgment,” she said. “The greatest scourge is to forget the next person, to be so suffocated with things that we have no time for the lonely Jesus — even a person in our own family who needs us. Love begins at home.”
She was much admired, but critics multiplied. To skeptics, she was naive. Many Catholics felt she was far too traditional in her faith; some Protestants and evangelicals viewed her as a heretic for similar reasons.
Political activists chided her for putting a Band-Aid on suffering instead of challenging the injustices behind it. Feminists and population control advocates condemned her for opposing abortion and birth control. Cynics claimed she was too friendly with celebrities and scoundrels.
“We are missionaries, not social workers,” Teresa responded. Hers was a “revolution of love,” not politics. As for associating with the mighty as well as the lowly, she reminded critics that Jesus befriended sinners of all kinds. Who was she to do otherwise? And she never wavered in telling women, lawmakers and anyone else that taking an unborn life is the worst violence.
“If a mother can kill her own child, what is left to be destroyed?” she asked. “A nation that destroys the life of an unborn child, who has been created for living and loving, who has been created in the image of God, is in tremendous poverty.”
The image of Mother Teresa as a meek, quiet nun does her an injustice. She was meek in the New Testament sense, but seldom hesitated to confront presidents and prime ministers when necessary. She hectored Catholic officials in Rome until they allowed her to begin a homeless shelter inside the Vatican.
She founded and nurtured a worldwide missionary order through faith, conviction and sheer force of will. She expected Missionaries of Charity to follow the rule of St. Benedict: Obey without protest or delay the commands of God and his appointed authority — who, in their case, was Mother Teresa.
One of her favorite recommendations to Christians: “Let Jesus use you without consulting you.”
Was she the woman of the century? Yes or no, she was a testament to the power of love, and a living rebuke to the violence and selfishness of our age. Roman Catholics may or may not declare her a saint one day. It doesn’t matter — any more than the Nobel Peace Prize the world gave her.
The best tribute Christians can pay to Mother Teresa is to love Jesus as she did.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges