On Sunday September 4, when many of us will be living easy during a holiday weekend, bells will ring out in churches around the world. Pope Francis will proclaim Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a saint of the Catholic Church. Unlike many of those declared saints in recent years, most of us have actually heard of Mother Teresa! Mother Teresa’s life began in Yugoslavia in 1910. She was born into a fairly wealthy family, but had dreams of becoming a missionary sister. In 1928 she joined the Loretto Sisters of Dublin, and went to Ireland for her initial religious formation. After taking first vows in 1931, she began teaching history and geography at a girls boarding school just outside of Calcutta. Her contemporaries in the Sisters of Loretto described her as quiet and ordinary, and under normal circumstances she would probably have continued doing something quiet and ordinary for the rest of her life. Since, the sisters rarely left the convent grounds, they had little contact with the bigger world. But in 1946, Mother Teresa went down into the city to board a train for her annual spiritual retreat. There she was exposed to the great suffering her nation was experiencing following World War II—the extreme poverty, starvation, with both elders and children dying alone in the streets. Stunned by this sea of wounded humanity, she felt the call to a second vocation: caring for the poorest of the poor. Gradually this crystalized into starting a new religious congregation to care for the sick and the dying, the starving and the abandoned.
Mother Teresa faced many obstacles getting this new congregation off the ground. When we do what is expected of us, procedures are already in place. When we try to do something no one is doing, people in authority often do not know what to make of us. Their prime responsibility is to support and expand the programs and institutions they already have. Finally, in 1950 Mother Teresa was released from her vows as a Sister of Loretto and given permission to begin a new congregation, the Missionaries of Charity. Her sisters were to live very simply, sharing the life of those they served as much as possible. Today there are 4,500 Missionaries of Charity who serve the poor throughout the world. The Sisters have had a convent in Chicago for several decades. Until her death in 1997, Mother Teresa continued to minister directly to the starving and the dying, while trying to balance her primary calling with administrative tasks and her growing fame. In a Gallup Poll conducted in 1999 Mother Teresa was named the most widely admired person of the twentieth century. No small thing for a Catholic nun! In order to be named a saint, two miracles are required from people who attribute their healing through the prayers and intercession of a holy person. A second miracle through Mother Teresa’s intercession was authenticated in 2008. Pope Francis wanted to declare Mother Teresa a saint during the Church’s Year of Mercy, since she exemplifies the kind of “hands on” ministry to the poor that is so close to the heart of the Pope.
Like all saints Mother Teresa had her limitations and faced critics both within and outside the Church. Some leading Catholics criticized her for her very traditional approach to religious life and for her lack of attention to social justice. While caring for those dying in the streets, should she not have done more to address the causes of poverty and starvation? Secular critics went a step further and claimed that by refusing to advocate for abortion and birth control among the poor that she and her sisters were actually helping spread poverty and making social conditions worse. Others took umbrage at her remarks upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 when she pointed to abortion as an obstacle to real peace. Well, a lot of people took umbrage at Jesus’ words and actions too.
One of the things that humanized Mother Teresa to a lot of people was the publication of her diaries a few years ago. There she admitted to many decades of dryness in prayer—being faithful to work and prayer without feeling the consolation of God. Even the greatest of saints must walk by faith and not by sight. I saw Mother Teresa up close at a vocation conference in St. Louis in the late 1970’s. There was an unmistakable glow about her. Maybe she could not feel it, but others could see it. And through her life and example she left us with much practical spirituality: “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked, and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”