Mother Teresa O Dearly beloved Word of God, teach me to be generous, to serve Thee as Thou dost deserve, to give without counting the cost, to fight without fretting at my wounds, to labor without seeking rest, to spend myself without looking for any reward other than that of knowing that I do Thy holy will. Amen.
— Catholic Prayer of Selflessness.

There are over 3,000 cases pending in the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints which are scrutinized on the basis of merit and worthiness. On September 5, 1997 the council readied itself for a case which may leap frog the rest with little debate. When two posthumous miracles can be verified by the Vatican, Mother Teresa will join her namesake, Saint Teresa of Lisieux in the ranks of the churches most revered. The original Saint Teresa is celebrated by Catholics for her extraordinary literary talents. One of her most quoted phrases has been, "Love is repaid by love alone." Mother Teresa first read these words when she was eighteen years-old while on her way to Ireland to become a nun. Sixty-nine years later before her death she must have realized that she was one of the most loved women in the world. If the Saint Teresa’s phrase has any literal meaning, there is possibly no one in our age who has deserved so much love in return as the future Saint Teresa.

While the world attempted to show this love with an extravagant state funeral and several tributes, she would have probably been happier with a simpler service and burial. She would likely have preferred that the people who gathered in Calcutta and around the world would have spent their time helping the poor and continuing her work rather than celebrating our remembrance of it. If we had learned her lessons well, we would have realized that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with grief for her but instead concentrate on the people that she had worked so hard to help. Remembering her means remembering what was important to her. She would have told us that a state funeral, tributes and titles don’t feed the poor or cure the sick.

Now that she is gone the official confirmation of sainthood is really just a formality. With or without it, anyone who has heard her story can attest to her worthiness. This was a woman who felt being a devout nun, just wasn’t enough. She gave up her Sisters of Loretto robe for the blue and white sari of the poor, to aid and live among the destitute of Calcutta. Upon taking a vow of poverty, purity and obedience to start her new order, she told herself, "I’ll teach myself to beg no matter how much abuse and humiliation I have to endure" in order to help others. Her unwavering devotion to this cause came from her belief that her work was nothing less than a direct order from God.

She had always been a faithful believer. She was born into a devoutly Catholic family in 1910, as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, in Albania. Her greatest joy as a child came during church masses where she could sing, read and pray. Agnes attended mass every day, prayed and said the rosary every night. When she was nine, her father passed away after being intentionally poisoned at a dinner party because of his political position in the town council. Her mother was left to raise the family. Agnes’ mother continued to help others in need, seemingly unaware of her own condition. She would take care of alcoholic women in their neighborhood and helped another widow with six children raise her family. When that widow died, those six children became a part of the Bojaxhiu family.

By looking back on Mother Teresa’s childhood now we cannot help but understand the effects of her mother’s values, charity and devotion. She grew up surrounded by faith and compassion and at age twelve received her first "calling from God" to help the poor. Upon hearing of this experience, her mother gave Agnes this advice, "Put your hands in His hands and walk all the way with Him." In 1929, at the age of 18, she left her family and joined the Sisters of Loreto to begin work on her calling. She was first sent across Europe to Ireland, where she learned English and where she chose her name; Sister Teresa. From there she soon left for India where she would continue to spend the next seventeen years of her life as a Sister of Loreto.

In Calcutta, she worked as a school aid, teacher and principal for a middle-class high school for Bengali girls. During these years she could not help but be touched by the poverty and misery in the streets and slums around her. She started actively going to hospitals and slums where she became more and more dissatisfied with the state of the people around her and the efforts to help them. A fellow sister remembered her as being, "Very gentle full of fun. Enjoyed everything that went on. In those early years there was nothing to suggest that she would ever leave Loreto." Yet her calling could not be fulfilled in the upper-class precincts of the Loreto House in Middleton Row.

On September 10, 1946, Mother Teresa set out on what she described as "the most important journey of my life." While on a retreat to Darjeeling she received a message from the voice of God. She was to leave the convent to help the poorest of the poor by living among them. While the church recommended she join the Daughters of Saint Anna, who worked with the poor, Sister Teresa felt this was not nearly adequate to the calling she had received. She didn’t want to help the poor and retreat to a convent at night, but instead become one of the poor herself.

As India struck out for its own independence from Great Britain, Sister Teresa sought a similar freedom to answer the calling she had received. However, the Vatican was becoming increasingly concerned with the safety of European sisters in a potentially xenophobic revolutionary atmosphere where Christians were a very small minority. As Mother Teresa would later remark, she was rarely affected by it all. "There are so many religions, and each one has its different ways of following God. I follow Christ....because of this I am never afraid," she said. It took two years for the political situation to stabilize to the point where the church would allow her to leave the Sisters of Loretto.

In 1948, at age 38, she exchanged her sister’s robe for the uniform of Calcutta’s poor and adopted a diet of rice and salt. The impoverished people of Calcutta were stunned by her presence among them. They could not understand why this European woman who spoke their language fluently would wash their babies, clean their wounds and educate their young. It was here in the streets of Calcutta where she was approached by one of her former students who made the remarkable request to join her. Mother Teresa was hesitant to invite someone else to take part in her calling because she wanted to make sure they understood the poverty that they would have to live in. Several weeks after Mother Teresa asked her former student to take time to think about it, the girl returned without any personal belongings or jewelry, wearing a sari, the uniform of the poor. She took Mother Teresa’s childhood name, Agnes as her own and became the first sister to join Mother Teresa’s calling.

More sisters would join every month. and by 1950, Sister Teresa had received approval from the Vatican to create another vow beyond her sister’s vows of poverty, purity and obedience. The fourth addition was, "To devote oneself out of abnegation to the care of the poor and needy who, crushed by want and destitution, live in conditions unworthy of human dignity." With this vow, the Missionaries of Charity were born and its members were commanded to seek out the poor, abandoned, sick, infirm and dying and Sister Teresa became Mother Teresa. She wrote in her diary at this time that, "If the rich people can have the full service and devotion of so many nuns and priests, surely the poorest of the poor and the lowest of the low can have the love and devotion of a few–The Slum Sister they call me, and I am glad to be just that for His love and glory."

These sisters renovated a hostel next to a Hindu temple as a place where the terminally ill could die with dignity. While facing the often violent hostilities of Hindus who were not happy with the placement of the hospice next to their temple, the sisters remained true and steadfast to their vows. When one of the Hindu priests from the temple became terminally ill and was turned away himself from local hospitals he found a place in Mother Teresa’s hospice. When he died after receiving the personal care of Mother Teresa, she sprinkled water from the Ganges River on his lips [an ancient Hindu rite] and delivered his body to the temple and once again, the streets of Calcutta were filled with the amazement of this European Catholic who helped them so unselfishly.

The world came to know Mother Teresa after a 1969 BBC documentary on her work which included footage of a potential miracle. Images of an area in the hospice too dark to show up on film appeared in a soft light after development. This public exposure led to growth of her order throughout India and later the world. Soon after she was visited at the Motherhouse by Cardinal Spellman from the United States. Mother Teresa recalled, "He asked me where we lived. I told him, ‘Here in this room, your Eminence. This is our refectory. We move the tables and benches to the side.’ He wanted to know where the rest of our convent was, where we could study. ‘We study here, too, your Eminence,’ I said. Then I added, ‘And this is also our dormitory.’ When the Cardinal asked if we had a chapel, I brought him to the end of this room. ‘It is also our chapel, your Eminence’ I told him...I don’t know what he was thinking, but he began to smile."

The sisters regularly woke at about 4:30 am and prepared for mass at 6:00 am. This was followed by prayer and a breakfast of tea and chapattis where after they left the Motherhouse to do their work about the city. As they walked from duty to duty they said the rosary and even measured distances by "three rosaries" or "five rosaries." At 12:30 pm they would return for a lunch of lentil soup, some meat and more chapattis and then would return to working in the Calcutta slums until 6:30 pm. After supper they would pray more and attend to household chores and religious study.

Mother Teresa made no exceptions to this dedication. When asked what she expected of a sister she said, "Let God radiate and live his life in her and through her in the slums. Let the sick and suffering find in her a real angel of comfort and consolation. Let her be a friend of the little children in the street. I would much rather they make mistakes in kindness than work miracles in unkindness."

Mother Teresa diligently led her order to become the saving grace of Calcutta on a day to day basis and even more so during crisis and disasters. She remarked, "We know what people need, and we start doing it. During floods, the Sisters collect food, while the government provides helicopters to deliver it. Many organizations come forward to help. People give. They help. If everybody does something then the work is done." It was for this tireless organization and her endless efforts that she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for "upholding the sacredness and dignity of every human being....[and because] poverty and distress also constitute a threat to peace." Normally winners of this award are celebrated at a dinner with heads of state and honored guests. She refused such a dinner and asked that the money for such an event be donated to the poor. She remarked, "We need to tell the poor that they are somebody to us. That they too have been created by the same loving hand of God, to love and be loved."

With worldwide acclaim and attention the Missionaries of Charity have grown to 569 missions in 120 nations which can be found on every continent. With their geographic and popular expansion has come greater resources. In India alone the value of the groups assets is valued at over $41 million, all of which is used for those stricken with illness and poverty, as the sisters remain firm in their vows of poverty.

Even as her movements spread to nations with fewer obvious problems of poverty she was quick to point out their problems. She remarked, "There are many in the world dying for a piece of bread but many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God." Her beliefs came with controversy here in the United States. At a commencement ceremony at Harvard in 1982 she lectured, "If a mother can kill her own child, then what is left of the West to do, be destroyed?" She pointed out with great poignancy our greatest faults challenging us to do more than donate some money to a good cause. She wished for us to look at our own lives, our own families and within our selves to heal our own spiritual and moral impoverishment. At a Washington D.C. speech in front of congressmen and the president she surprised them by asking, "Do you do enough to make sure your parents, in old people’s homes, feel your love? Do you bring them each day your joy and caring?"

In her last years she was often ill with malaria and heart disease. However, she never stopped working and denied herself treatment whenever she could. Yet she was so beloved wherever she fell ill that she was always given the best of care. On one occasion after awakening in a private hospital after fainting she told the doctor, "In all conscience, doctor I can not stay here." The doctor then replied, "In all conscience, Mother I cannot let you go." As the illnesses became more serious, Mother Teresa began to prepare for the future. Yet she did not worry about her order. "Let me go first. Just as God found me, He will find somebody else. The work is God’s work and He will see to it," she said.

Yet today, we are indeed impoverished by her absence. She had once said, "I can tell you about my path, I’m only a little wire—God is the power. Talk to the others, the sisters and brothers and the people who work with them. Some are not Christians, talk to them. You will know it when you see it. It is very beautiful." She is dead but not gone—soon to be a saint. Her example is there for anyone who wishes to take it. Brother Jesudas, one of four general councilors of the Missionaries of Charity, had this to say about the future, "Let us walk in Mother Teresa’s footsteps. If we can be faithful to her charisma, if we continue to work with the poorest of the poor, God will never abandon us."


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