Written by Ines Angeli Murzaku Ph.D.
Since March 2013, when Pope Francis was elected at the See of St. Peter, he has captured the minds and hearts of the people worldwide: Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, believers, and non-believers alike. Compassion and forgiveness, mercy in action and prayer, love of God and love of neighbor, are some of the markers of Francis’ papacy so far. A particular concept of paramount importance to Francis’ pontificate is “the periphery.” In his interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro SJ, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, a few months after his election, Francis talked about his theology of the periphery, explaining that the great revolutions and changes in history were realized when “reality was seen not from the center, but rather from the periphery.” According to Pope Frances, it is the life experience of the periphery, walking the walk of the periphery with the people of the periphery, through which one is acquainted with reality. The direction of Francis’ pontificate is periphery-bound, moving the Church from security to risk-taking, “from inward looking to outward looking,” from the center to society’s edges.
But what is “the periphery”?
Christ’s teaching to his apostles, “Go to the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15) can be accomplished only if one has lived and experienced the geographical and existential periphery. This is how one can follow the prototype, i.e. Jesus, who was born in the geographical periphery, not in Rome, but in Nazareth, which one of the disciples (Nathaniel) questioned in disbelief: “Nazareth - can anything good come from there?” Moreover, Jesus lived in the periphery for 30 years and during his ministry, he never lost sight of society’s existential periphery – the poor, the lost sheep, the abandoned, the discarded, the prostitutes, the troubled women, etc. For Francis, too, the church is called to come out of herself and go to the ends of the earth, to the peripheries of our times, geographical and existential, which are in need of the light of the Gospel.
Why has Francis made the theology of the periphery a landmark of his pontificate?
There are three reasons to be considered: 1. Francis himself comes from the periphery. He was born and raised in Argentina, which is both a geographical and existential periphery. 2. Francis is the first Latin American, non-European Pontiff in modern times to lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. 3. Francis was born and raised on the periphery of political and ecclesial power.
Mother Teresa, who will be canonized by Francis on September 4th, is a saint of the periphery: 1. Mother Teresa comes from the periphery. She was born and raised in Scopje, a geographical and existential periphery. 2. Mother Teresa grew up in a multi-ethnic, multi religious society where the Catholic community was a peripheral minority. 3. Mother Teresa knew first-hand the existential peripheries of poverty, misery, war, displacement and ethnic cleansing. 4. It was the “periphery of periphery” that taught and prepared Mother Teresa for her mission in India. The bottom line is that periphery is one of the commonalities between Mother Teresa and Pope Francis.
Agnes Gonxhe (Albanian for rosebud-flower) Bojaxhiu was born in Skopje, currently in Macedonia, on August 26, 1910. Gonxhe was born to Albanian parents Drane and Nikola Bojaxhiu originally from Prizren in Kosovo who had moved to Scopje. The Albanian Catholic community of Scopje during the time of Mother Teresa was a minority. Catholics were outnumbered by the Eastern Orthodox majority and Muslims, which constituted the second largest religion. Scopje was made up of various ethnicities including Albanian, Croatian, Bosniaks, etc. Her peripheral native Skopje, exposed future Mother Teresa, at an early age, to people of different faiths, ethnicities, cultures and languages. The geographical periphery was also a political-imperial periphery. At the time that Gonxhe was born, Skopje was part of the Ottoman Empire. The current Balkan nations of Albania, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia etc., did not exist at that time. Skopje was part of the administrative province of Kosovo, which was a first-level administrative division (vilayet) of the Ottoman Empire. The vilayet-division of the Ottoman society integrated within its administrative boundaries a diverse group of peoples and religions, which Mother Teresa knew first hand while growing up. Besides peripheral geography, Mother Teresa lived in society’s existential peripheries. She was only two years old when the devastating Balkan wars (1912-1913) broke out. Balkan wars marked the end of the Ottoman rule in the Balkans. What followed was the partition of the region among three countries: Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece. The land partition was followed by unspeakable human catastrophes, poverty, and massive violence. People fleeing their homes, expulsion, ethnic cleansing and displacement of entire villages, towns and families were events Mother Teresa witnessed first-hand. But there was more to come. During World War I, Macedonia became the fruit of discord between Serbia and Bulgaria. The life experience in the existential periphery, or “in the periphery of periphery” as the Western Balkans is referred to, prepared Mother Teresa to go to the peripheries and to make the peripheries in India her life’s mission.
Moreover, there were values of life in the periphery that Mother Teresa cherished and applied to her mission and to the other family she founded: the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa’s father, Nikolas Bojaxhiu, was a merchant who had traveled the world as far as Egypt. Nikolas was fluent in several languages and knowledgeable of cultures and traditions. Nikolas was also a great storyteller who amused his three children Age, Lazar and Gonxhe for hours. Mother Teresa’s mother, Drane Bojaxhiu, was a strong, hands-on and practical woman dedicated to her family and to her faith. When she was left a widow and penniless from her husband’s business partner, she managed extraordinarily to provide and raise her three children. The first training ground for Mother Teresa to love God and to serve her neighbor she learned from her mother Drane. Faith was a permanent feature of her family. Every evening Drane and her family prayed together. Though prayer life continued to define Drane, she was also merciful in action. As a single mother, she raised her family to never forget the poor, the abandoned, or the orphans. Mother Teresa wrote that “many poor in and around Scopje knew our house, and none left empty handed. We had guests at the table every day. At first I used to ask, ‘Who are they?’ and Mother would answer: ‘Some are relatives, but all of them are our people.’ When I was older, I realized that the strangers were poor people who had nothing and whom my mother was feeding.” Helping the poor actively and mercifully was a permanent feature of the Bojaxhiu family, “a training” Mother Teresa learned and applied to her own family. “My daughter, if you begin something, begin it wholeheartedly. Otherwise, don’t begin it at all” was the advice that Drane gave Mother Teresa when she decided to join the Loreto Sisters. Indeed, Mother Teresa served with joy and love in the peripheries, not only treating physical hunger, TB or leprosy among the poor, but also addressing the affluent people in the West who had a different kind of hunger and were dying for a little love. She provided that love generously, expecting nothing in return.
Mother Teresa is a saint of the peripheries and she will continue to be in the peripheries even after her canonization of September 4, as she herself said: “I will continually be absent from heaven—to light the light of those in darkness on earth.” The periphery, both geographical and existential, is what Pope Francis and Mother Teresa have in common. Mother Teresa came from the geographical and existential peripheries and devoted her life to the geographical and existential peripheries of India. Pope Francis, who also came from the periphery, is vigorously bringing the periphery to the center. He is energizing the Church to go beyond her comfort zone and to embrace the periphery.
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Bio: Ines Angeli Murzaku Ph.D., is Professor of Religion at Seton Hall University. Her research has been published in multiple articles and five books. The most recent is Monasticism in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Republics (Routledge 2016) <http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415819596/>. She has worked for or collaborated with various media outlets nationally and internationally including Radio Tirana (Albania) during the Cold War; Vatican Radio (Vatican City) and EWTN (Rome) during Eastern Europe upheavals in the 90's; Voice of America and Relevant Radio (USA), The Catholic Thing; Crux – Taking the Catholic Pulse etc.
Photos: CNS photo/courtesy Catholic Relief Service & CNS photo/Michael Collopy