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Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta:
The Life of a Saint
By Joan Guntzelman
She was called to serve the poorest of the poor. On the "fast track" to canonization, Mother Teresa is being beatified this month.

Q U I C K S C A N

A Strong Faith, A Strong Mother
Vocation Within a Vocation
To the Poorest of the Poor
God's Pencil
The Life and Work of Mother Teresa
In Her Own Words: The Wisdom of Mother Teresa
Remembered in the Words of Others

 

St. Anthony Messenger

Photo 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.

A 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 and educators.

Vocation 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.

To 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 Charity.

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 their tasks.

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.

God's Pencil

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.

 

Joan Guntzelman, clinical assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, Albuquerque, holds a Ph.D. in counseling psychology. For over 30 years, she has conducted workshops in caregiving, grief and human interactions. Her articles have appeared in Church and Catechist magazines.

The Life and Work of Mother Teresa

 

1910 

August 27

Born Gonxha (Agnes) Bojaxhiu in Macedonia.

 

1928

 

Joined the Irish Sisters of Loreto and was sent to their novitiate house in India in 1929.

1937

 

Professed final vows as a Sister of Loreto.

1946   

September 10

"Inspiration Day," when Mother Teresa heard God's call to begin a new order working in the streets of Calcutta.

1948 

 

First slum school opened, with a home for the sick and dying next door.

1950   

 

Pontifical approval given for the Missionaries of Charity. There were 12 sisters by this time.

1953

 

Shishu Bhivan opened—her first home for abandoned and malnourished children.

1965    

 

Opened first home outside India, in Venezuela.

1971  

 

Received three international awards for her work, including the John F. Kennedy International Award. She would receive a total of 124 separate awards in her lifetime.

1979

 

Received the Nobel Peace Prize.

1983

 

Suffered her first heart attack while in Rome. She would suffer five more in later years.

1997

September 5

Died in the Motherhouse in Calcutta, India.

1999

 

Mother Teresa's cause opened before the usual five-year waiting period, inquiring into her life and virtues.

2003

October 19

Scheduled beatification in Rome by Pope John Paul II.

     

 

In Her Own Words: The Wisdom of Mother Teresa

"What matters is not success, but faithfulness."

"Christ is really living his passion in these houses. In our people you can see Calvary."

"The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread."

"I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion...if a mother can kill her own child, what is left for me but to kill you and you to kill me?"

          — Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech,
                                 Oslo, Norway, 1979

"The other day I dreamed that I was at the gates of heaven and St. Peter said, 'Go back to Earth. There are no slums up here.'"

—To Prince Michael of Greece, 1996

"Love begins by taking care of the closest ones—the ones at home."

"Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls."

"[Christ] makes himself the hungry one, the naked one, the homeless one, and he says: 'You did it to me.' He is hungry for our love, and this is the hunger that you and I must find."

  — Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech,

Oslo, Norway, 1979

"I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world."

 

Remembered in the Words of Others

"Mother Teresa marked the history of our century with courage. She served all human beings by promoting their dignity and respect, and made those who had been defeated by life feel the tenderness of God."

        —Pope John Paul II, Rome, September 1997

"Mother Teresa had a mother's heart, great and strong, and courageous enough to embrace the whole world. She will not soon be forgotten. Her reward will be great in Heaven....She has done something beautiful for God."

 —Sister M. Raphael, P.C.P.A., Our Lady of Angels Monastery, Birmingham, Alabama, September 1997

"[Mother Teresa] was a champion of the unwanted, from the outcast of Calcutta to the unwanted unborn of America....Above all, she was in every sense a woman of the gospel: strong in forgiving, tender to the poor, in love with Jesus Christ, and a servant of his Church."

—Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M.Cap., Archdiocese of Denver, September 1997

"Mother Teresa surrendered in an absolutely radical way to God's will, and God used her as an instrument of his love. This is the great mystery of God and it is also the mystery of our vocation."

        —Sister Nirmala, superior general of the  Missionaries of Charity, in an interview with L'Osservatore Romano, August 5, 1998

"In the world of today, Mother Teresa has become a sign of God's love. Through her, God has reminded the world of his intense love—his thirst—for mankind and his desire to be loved in return."

          —Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, postulator for the cause of sainthood of Mother Teresa, in an interview with Zenit, published December 21, 2002


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