It's been sixteen years since Mother Teresa suffered a heart attack and died at 87 years old on Sept. 5, 1997 in Calcutta. She would have turned 103 years old this year. The day after she died, she was set to lead an interfaith memorial prayer service in Calcutta for her friend, Diana, Princess of Wales, who had been tragically killed in a car accident one week earlier.
How well I remember those days… my own father died on August 27 that year. On the night I returned to Toronto from his funeral, the Princess was killed in the horrible car crash in Paris. One week later, Mother Teresa was called home to God. I commentated her funeral for several national television networks in Canada, which marked my first time ever doing commentary on television! The pomp, precision and somber majesty of Princess Diana's London farewell one week earlier were hardly visible in the chaotic scenes of Mother Teresa's simple wooden casket riding on a gun carriage through the mobbed and chaotic streets of Calcutta for her State funeral.
Mother Teresa's life was not a sound byte, but rather a metaphor for selfless devotion and holiness. Her most famous work began in 1950 with the opening of the first Nirmal Hriday (Tender Heart) home for the dying and destitute in Calcutta. Mother's words remain inscribed on the walls of that home: "Nowadays the most horrible disease is not leprosy or tuberculosis. It is the feeling to be undesirable, rejected, abandoned by all."
There are critics in the Church who say that Mother Teresa personified a “pre-Vatican-Council” view of faith and did not address systemic evils. She is politely and sometimes unpolitely dismissed because her life is hardly “prophetic” in the eyes of some people. In fact, many saints and blessed are dismissed by such folks who have no understanding of the meaning of biblical prophecy. They criticize Mother and her followers for their relentless condemnation of abortion. Some have said that in Mother Teresa, there was no element of prophetic criticism in her teachings and her lifestyle. Instead of acting sensibly by applying for government grants to create programs to eliminate poverty, Mother Teresa and her sisters moved into neighborhoods and befriended people. Their houses often become oases of hope and peace, like the ones in Canada, and especially the convent in downtown Toronto where I will celebrate mass for her feast day this evening, with the small community of sisters and a host of poor people from the inner-city neighborhood that is not found in Toronto’s tourist magazines and their best places to visit. When Mother Teresa speaks of 'sharing poverty,' she defies the logic of institutions that prefer agendas for the poor, not communion with individual poor people. Agents and instruments of communion are often called irrelevant and unprophetic by the world.
Though she left this world scene sixteen years ago, this tiny nun made the news big time several years ago with the publication of her letters. Many journalists, magazine editors, television newscasters and bloggers completely distorted the story with their sensational headlines: "Mother Teresa's secret life: crisis and darkness," or "Calcutta's Saint was an atheist," or even "Mother and the Absent One." Some commentators wrote: "She lost her faith and the Church rewards her for it." These people seem unaware that those who prepared Mother's Beatification in 2003 cited the letters as proof of her exceptional faith and not the absence of it.
Mother Teresa tells us in those deeply personal messages that she once felt God's powerful presence and heard Jesus speak to her. Then God withdrew and Jesus was silent. What Mother Teresa experienced thereafter was faith devoid of any emotional consolation. In the end Mother Teresa had to rely on raw faith, hope and charity. These are the virtues of all Christians, not just the spiritual elite. She was one of us after all.
Years ago, during my graduate studies in Rome, I met Mother Teresa of Calcutta several times while I was teaching her sisters in a slum neighborhood on the outskirts of the Eternal City. At the end of our first visit, she blessed my forehead before placing into my hands one of her famous business cards unlike any I had ever seen.
On one side of the card were these words: "The fruit of silence is PRAYER. The fruit of prayer is FAITH. The fruit of faith is LOVE. The fruit of love is SERVICE. The fruit of service is PEACE. God bless you. --Mother Teresa."
There was no e-mail address, Twitter handle, phone number or website on the card. Mother didn't need an address back then. And Blessed Teresa of Calcutta certainly doesn't need contact information today. Everyone now knows where she is and how to reach her. She still has her hands full with our requests.