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The Saint of the Calcutta Gutters

September 5, 2007
Blessed Teresa of CalcuttaTen years ago today, on September 5, 1997, Mother Teresa pf Calcutta suffered a heart attack and died in her 87th year in Calcutta. Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu on August 27, 1910 to Albanian parents in Skopje (then Albania, now former Yugoslavia), she entered the Loretto Sisters at age 18. After receiving a divine inspiration on a train ride, she left the upper middle class that she served and moved to Calcutta to found her new religious order, the Missionaries of Charity, whose mission was "to nurse the sick and the dying of the slums, to educate the children of the streets, to take care of the beggars, to give a shelter to the abandoned ones."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. To this day 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."
She was known to have said to government leaders engaged in discussions about the poor, "While you go on discussing causes and explanations, I will kneel beside the poorest of the poor and attend to their needs."
Six years after her death, in 2003, she was proclaimed blessed by her friend, Pope John Paul II. Even while she was still alive, walking the streets and slums of Calcutta, people the world over, from many religious backgrounds, were calling Mother Teresa “the Saint of the Calcutta Gutters.”
Mother Teresa's life was not a sound byte. We are living in the age of sound bytes and quick, often knee-jerk responses to the great issues of our time. Mother Teresa’s life was a metaphor for selfless devotion and holiness. That is why so many young women from nearly every corner of the world and from so many backgrounds, continue to enter the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity Order that now numbers more than 4500 women ministering in more than 100 countries. They run over 500 homes, hospices and shelters for thousands of dying and destitute people, plus hundreds more schools, mobile clinics, leprosy homes and AIDS hospices. Though the singer is gone, the song of love, charity and hope continues to be sung throughout the world as these angels of mercy discover Jesus in the “distressing disguise of the poor.”
In prayer Mother Teresa discovered the essential truth which underlies the church’s social teaching and her religious and humanitarian work in every age and in every part of the world: Jesus Christ, the eternal Word made flesh, the redeemer of mankind, who has wished to identify himself with every person- especially the poor, the sick and the needy. “You did it to me” Mother Teresa would repeat over and over again. A message ever ancient and ever new.
There are the critics in the Church who say that Mother Teresa personified a pre-Vatican Council view of faith and did not address systemic evils such as defense spending. They criticize her and her followers for their relentless condemnation of abortion. Some say that she was a "safe" model- and that every priest and bishop could put her on a pedestal and say to women: 'Be docile, do your womanly thing, but don't go out and criticize anything else.' I know many good, religious sisters and priests who are very critical of Mother Teresa's lack of support for their lifestyle and their self-image as North American religious intent on fostering social justice and religious renewal. Some have even said that in Mother Teresa, there was absolutely no element of prophetic criticism to be found in her teachings and her lifestyle.
Then there are the self-appointed religious prophets today who claim that that Mother Teresa would be much closer to the orthodoxies of American social improvement if she were more the reformer and less the comforter. But instead of committee reports on how many people she's moved 'above the poverty line,' all she has are some stories of dying outcasts. Instead of acting sensibly by getting a grant to create a program to eliminate poverty, she moves into a neighborhood to share it.
To us North American can-doers who believe that for every problem there is a solution and every outrage a balm, Mother Teresa stands out as the classic can't doer. Her spiritual beauty is overlooked. She possesses the rare fidelity to a sacredness that affirms each individual wherever that individual may be, and not where Mother Teresa, or the head of a social agency or the director of a jobs program, thinks they should be.
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. Communion disregards conventional approaches. It may never find a job for someone, much less ever get that person shaped up. Thus the practitioners of communion are called irrelevant. They may get stuck, as is Mother Teresa, with being labeled a saint.
DisplayThank God for saints like Mother Teresa, and her followers like Sr. Nirmala Joshi who continue to remind us that holiness, goodness, joy, generosity and peace are still possible in this complicated world. Mother Teresa dealt with the shadows of doubt, anguish and the dark night of the would when she was alive. These experiences purified her and allowed her to join with the host of saints, mystics and blessed who shared similar experiences on their roads to holiness.
Years ago during my graduate studies in Rome, I met Mother Teresa of Calcutta 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 printed 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 mailing address, phone or FAX number on the card. Mother didn’t need an address back then. And Blessed Teresa of Calcutta certainly doesn’t need one now. Everyone knows where she is and how to reach her.
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., C.E.O.,
Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation
People are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centered, Forgive them anyway
If you are kind, people, may accuse you of selfish ulterior motives, Be kind anyway
If you are successful you will win some false friends and some true enemies, Succeed anyway
If you are honest and frank people may cheat you,
Be honest and frank anyway
What you spend years building someone may destroy overnight, Build anyway
If you find serenity and happiness they may be jealous,
Be happy anyway
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow,
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough, Give the world the best you have anyway.
You see in the final analysis, it is all between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta