Exactly one year ago today, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta (Kolkata) was proclaimed a Saint in St. Peter’s Square before tens of thousands of people from around the entire world. Tomorrow, September 5, is her feast, marking the date of her death 20 years ago in Calcutta. She was born August 26, 1910 in Skopje, then part of the Kosovo Vilayet in the Ottoman Empire, into a Kosovar Albanian family. She was foundress of the Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity and the Missionaries of Charity. The day after she died in 1997, 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.
In 1997, 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 bite, 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 often 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 or authentic holiness. 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. They collected broken, abandoned and dying persons off the streets and brought them to a shelter. Though people often lived as animals on the streets and in the gutters, with Mother Teresa and her sisters, they were clothed with dignity and love and often died as angels. The houses and centers of the Missionaries of Charity become oases of hope and peace. When Mother Teresa spoke of ‘sharing poverty,’ she defied 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 not considered by the world.
Fr. Thomas Rosica CSB with Mother Teresa in Rome, 1989.
Though Mother Teresa left this world scene twenty 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 and again her canonization last year 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.
Stained glass window of Mother Teresa of Calcutta in the Chapel of the Newman Centre of Toronto. Window by Josef Aigner. Photo by Bill Wittman.
What the Church looks for in saints is not just good works – for that there are Nobel Peace Prizes, honorary doctorates, medals and other such worldly awards – but solid evidence that the candidate for canonization or beatification was transformed, inwardly and outwardly, by God’s grace and embodied a deep love of God and neighbour.
Mother Teresa was proclaimed blessed by her friend, St. John Paul II, on October 19, 2003. A crowning gift of the Jubilee of Mercy was Mother Teresa's canonization by Pope Francis last year on September 4, 2016. I had the privilege of commentating each ceremony – the first in Canada for a national audience in 1997, and the second, last year in Rome, for a world audience. My life in television is directly linked to the story of this great saint of our times. Let us ask this great woman of faith to intercede for a world at war, nations filled with fear, terror and dread, leaders who construct walls and not bridges, tens of thousands of refugees and homeless people who have no place to call home. May this tiny woman and towering spiritual giant help us to open the doors of our nations, communities, homes and hearts to welcome strangers and offer them hospitality and love. May St. Teresa of Calcutta pray for us and teach us how to love God and neighbor in unity and harmony. May she teach us how to be the face of mercy and charity in our world today.