from L'Osservatore Romano. All rights reserved.
It is reminiscent of the days of Francis and Anthony, when saints were made by public
acclaim at their funerals. Now the process is more complicated, but ever since Mother Teresa
died in 1997, she has been on the "fast track" to canonization, with her cause progressing
at lightning speed.
After approving the miraculous cure of an Indian woman from a stomach tumor, Pope John
Paul II has set Mother Teresa's beatification for October 19—World Mission Sunday. It is
a fitting date for this missionary nun, who devoted her life to "ministering to our Lord
in his distressing disguise" of the poor.
Almost anyone could pick Mother Teresa out of a crowd, but there is more to know about
this saint than simply recognizing the small, wrinkled woman in white.
Mother Teresa was always her own person, startlingly independent, obedient, yet challenging
some preconceived notions and expectations. She was a stickler for traditional, conservative
and self-disciplined Catholicism, yet her own life story includes many illustrations of
her willingness to listen to and follow her own conscience, even when it seemed to contradict
what was expected.
A notable example is the story of her "second calling" or "a call within my Vocation," as
she referred to it in Robert Serron's Teresa of Calcutta: A Pictorial Biography.
After 15 years of vowed and dedicated life in the Sisters of Loreto, during which she taught
young women from wealthy families in Calcutta, an inner voice spoke to her on a train ride
to Darjeeling as she set off for her annual retreat.
It was a call "to give up Loreto where I was very happy and to go out in the streets.
I heard the call to give up all and follow Christ into the slums to serve him among the
poorest of the poor." So, despite the strong resistance of the Church to approving new
communities, she set aside her commitment to the Sisters of Loreto to begin her own group,
eventually gaining the Church's approval.
Mother Teresa presented the same characteristic stance toward the world, powerfully resisting
the values of the times, very clearly following gospel values. Those our culture sees as
of little or no value—the poor, the sick (especially those with diseases seen as "deserved" or "self-inflicted," like
AIDS), those with unwanted pregnancies, the dying who remind us of our own relentlessly
approaching deaths—she literally and tenderly embraced.
Strong Faith, a Stronger Mother
This strong and independent Slavic woman was born Gonxha (Agnes) Bojaxhiu in Skopje, formerly
in Yugoslavia, now Macedonia, on August 27, 1910. Five children were born to Nikola and
Dronda Bojaxhiu, yet only three survived. Gonxha was the youngest, with an older sister,
Aga, and brother, Lazar.
Her brother describes the family's early years as "well-off," not the life of peasants
reported inaccurately by some. "We lacked for nothing." In fact, the family lived in one
of the two houses they owned.
Nikola was a contractor, working with a partner in a successful construction business.
He was also heavily involved in the politics of the day. Lazar tells of his father's rather
sudden and shocking death, which may have been due to poisoning because of his political
involvement. With this event, life changed overnight as their mother assumed total responsibility
for the family with Aga, only 14, Lazar, nine, and Gonxha, seven.
Lazar remembers the strength of their mother: "What would have become of us without my
mother, I don't know. I feel that we owe her everything."
Before Nikola's death, their home had been a real center of political discussion and interest,
always full of visitors and friends. But afterward, Dronda's intense religious interest
and commitment prevailed. The family had always been God-fearing and concerned about others
and, now under their mother's direction, their religious belief and expression intensified.
"We were very disciplined Catholics in our house," Lazar remembers. "That same discipline
is the backbone of Mother Teresa's Order." The family members helped organize Church activities,
sang in the choir, participated in Church meetings and cared for those in need.
During her early years, she was fascinated with stories of missionary life and service.
She could locate any number of missions on a map and tell others of the service being given
in each place. At 18, Gonxha decided to follow the path that seems to have been unconsciously
unfolding throughout her life. Taking her cues from both her parish priest and her own
experience of religious discipline, Gonxha chose the Loreto Sisters of Dublin, missionaries
Within a Vocation
In 1928, the future Mother Teresa began her religious life in Ireland, far from her family
and the life she'd known. During this period, a sister novice remembered her as "very small,
quiet and shy," and another member of the congregation described her as "ordinary."
Even with the later decision to begin her own community of religious, Mother Teresa continued
to value her beginnings with the Loreto Sisters and to maintain close ties. Unwavering
commitment and self-discipline, always a part of her life and reinforced in her association
with the Loreto Sisters, seemed to stay with her throughout her life.
One year later, in 1929, Gonxha was sent to Darjeeling, to the novitiate of the Sisters
of Loreto. In 1931, she made her first vows there, choosing the name of Teresa, honoring
both saints of the same name, Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of Lisieux. In keeping with the
usual procedures of the congregation and her deepest desires, it was time for the new Sister
Teresa to begin her years of greatest sacrifice, the service to God's people.
She was sent to St. Mary's, a high school for girls in Entally, a district of Calcutta.
Here she began a career teaching history and geography. It was in the protected environment
of this school for the daughters of the wealthy, with its huge walls enclosing comfort
and even opulence, so greatly in contrast with its poor and squalid surroundings and people,
that Teresa's new "vocation" developed and grew.
This was the clear message, the invitation to her "second calling," that Teresa heard
on that fateful day in 1946 when she traveled to Darjeeling for retreat.
During the next two years, Teresa pursued every avenue to follow what she "never doubted" was
the direction God was pointing her. She was "to give up even Loreto where I was very happy
and to go out in the streets. I heard the call to give up all and follow Christ into the
slums to serve him among the poorest of the poor."
Technicalities and practicalities abounded. She had to be released formally, not from
her perpetual vows, but from living within the convents of the Sisters of Loreto. She had
to confront the Church's resistance to forming new religious communities, and receive permission
from the archbishop of Calcutta to serve the poor openly on the streets.
She had to figure out how to live and work on the streets. Teresa decided she would wear
the ordinary dress of an Indian woman: a plain white sari and sandals. The security and
camaraderie of community life were gone.
Teresa was thrown back upon herself and God, and her belief in her call. "Leaving Loreto
was for me the most difficult thing I have ever done. It was a lot more difficult than
leaving my family and country to become a nun. Loreto was everything to me."
Teresa first went to Patna for a few months to prepare for her future work by taking a
nursing course with a group of American missionary sisters. In 1948 she received permission
from Pope Pius XII to leave her community and live as an independent nun. So back to Calcutta
she went and rented a small hovel to begin her new undertaking.
the Poorest of the Poor
Wisely, she thought to start by teaching the children of the slums, an endeavor she knew
well. Though she had no proper equipment, she made use of what was available—writing in
the dirt. She strove to make the children of the poor literate, to teach them basic hygiene.
As they grew to know her, she gradually began visiting the poor and ill in their families
and others all crowded together in the surrounding squalid shacks, inquiring about their
needs. Despite the weariness of her days she never omitted her prayer, finding it the source
of support, strength and blessing for all her ministry.
Gradually opportunities for assistance and support from others began to emerge. Teresa
was not alone for long. Within a year, she found more help than she anticipated. Young
women came to volunteer their services and later became the core of her Missionaries of
From their birth in Calcutta, nourished by the faith, compassion and commitment of Mother
Teresa, the Missionaries of Charity have grown like the mustard seed of the Scriptures.
New vocations continue to come from all parts of the world, serving those in great need
wherever they are found. Homes for the dying, refuges for the care and teaching of orphans
and abandoned children, treatment centers and hospitals for those suffering from leprosy,
centers and refuges for alcoholics, the aged and streetpeople—the list is endless.
In response to a request from Pope Paul VI to open a house in Rome, Mother Teresa went
to determine what the needs might be. After a tour through the city, seeing the wretched
conditions of so many people, she returned to the pope and said, "Your Holiness, God seems
to have left work for us to do just about everywhere." And so her missionaries have gone
just about everywhere.
Mother Teresa's work and followers have taken on many forms, offering a host of opportunities
for those who desire some association. The Missionaries of Charity, the earliest community
of those working closely with her, continues to grow with membership and service around
the world. She began the Missionary Brothers of Charity in 1963.
Mother Teresa called her lay co-workers her "second self." The simple co-workers help
through prayer, collecting supplies and resources, fund-raising, sometimes finding practical
ways to help the poor in their own neighborhoods, putting a great deal of love into all
Her sick and suffering collaborators associate themselves and their sufferings with the
work of the Order. There are also those in the contemplative houses, called the Missionary
Sisters (or Brothers) of the Word. Mother Teresa saw these houses as wellsprings of intensive
prayer to be the support of all the services offered by her workers worldwide.
Until her death in 1997, Mother Teresa continued her work among the poorest of the poor,
depending on God for all of her needs. Honors too numerous to mention had come her way
throughout the years, as the world stood astounded by her care for those usually deemed
of little value.
Among the many accolades she received was the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, giving her the
opportunity to speak to the world in the name of her beloved poor. Though she resisted
personal attention, she was never unwilling to be acknowledged when she could bring attention
to the needs of the poor. In her own eyes she was "God's pencil—a tiny bit of pencil with
which he writes what he likes."
Despite years of strenuous physical, emotional and spiritual work, Mother Teresa seemed
unstoppable. Though frail and bent, with numerous ailments, she always returned to her
work, to those who received her compassionate care for more than 50 years.
Only months before her death, when she became too weak to manage the administrative work,
she relinquished the position of head of the Missionaries of Charity. She knew the work
would go on. Finally, on September 5, 1997, after she finished her dinner and prayers,
her weakened heart gave her back to the God who was the very center of her life.
Upon her death, Pope John Paul II wrote to the new head of the Missionaries of Charity, "I
give fervent thanks to God who gave this woman of unshakable faith as a gift to the Church
and to the world in order to remind us all of the supremacy of evangelical love, especially
when it is expressed in humble service of the least of our brothers and sisters."
This article is adapted from Joan Guntzelman's book A
Retreat With Mother Teresa and Damien of Molokai: Caring for Those Who Suffer, published
by St. Anthony Messenger Press, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202-6498.
It is also found on the Web site at: www.americancatholic.org/Features/Teresa/WhoWasTeresa.asp.