Tribute to Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa (August 26, 1910 – September 5, 1997), born Agnesë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was an Albanian Roman Catholic nun with Indian citizenship who founded the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata (Calcutta), India in 1950. For over 45 years she ministered to the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying, while guiding the Missionaries of Charity’s expansion, first throughout India and then in other countries.
By the 1970s she was internationally famed as a humanitarian and advocate for the poor and helpless, due in part to a documentary, and book, Something Beautiful for God by Malcolm Muggeridge. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 1980 for her humanitarian work. Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity continued to expand, and at the time of her death it was operating 610 missions in 123 countries, including hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, soup kitchens, children’s and family counselling programs, orphanages, and schools.
She has been praised by many individuals, governments and organizations; however, she has also faced a diverse range of criticism. These include objections by various individuals and groups, including Christopher Hitchens, Michael Parenti, Aroup Chatterjee, Vishva Hindu Parishad, against the proselytizing focus of her work including a strong stance against abortion, a belief in the spiritual goodness of poverty and alleged baptisms of the dying. Medical journals also criticised the standard of medical care in her hospices and concerns were raised about the opaque nature in which donated money was spent.
Following her death she was beatified by Pope John Paul II and given the title Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
Agnesë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu (Gonxhe meaning “rosebud” in Albanian) was born on August 26, 1910, in Üsküb, Ottoman Empire (now Skopje, capital of the Republic of Macedonia). Although she was born on August 26, she considered August 27, the day she was baptized, to be her “true birthday.” She was the youngest of the children of a family from Shkodër, Albania, born to Nikollë and Drana Bojaxhiu. Her father was involved in Albanian politics. In 1919, after a political meeting, which left Skopje out of Albania, he fell ill and died when Agnes was about eight years old. After her father’s death, her mother raised her as a Roman Catholic. According to a biography by Joan Graff Clucas, in her early years Agnes was fascinated by stories of the lives of missionaries and their service, and by age 12 was convinced that she should commit herself to a religious life. She left home at age 18 to join the Sisters of Loreto as a missionary. She never again saw her mother or sister.
Agnes initially went to the Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, Ireland, to learn English, the language the Sisters of Loreto used to teach school children in India. She arrived in India in 1929, and began her novitiate in Darjeeling, near the Himalayan mountains. She took her first religious vows as a nun on May 24, 1931. At that time she chose the name Teresa after Thérèse de Lisieux, the patron saint of missionaries. She took her solemn vows on May 14, 1937, while serving as a teacher at the Loreto convent school in eastern Calcutta.
Although Teresa enjoyed teaching at the school, she was increasingly disturbed by the poverty surrounding her in Calcutta. A famine in 1943 brought misery and death to the city; and the outbreak of Hindu/Muslim violence in August 1946 plunged the city into despair and horror.
Missionaries of Charity
On September 10, 1946, Teresa experienced what she later described as “the call within the call” while traveling to the Loreto convent in Darjeeling from Calcutta for her annual retreat. “I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith.” She began her missionary work with the poor in 1948, replacing her traditional Loreto habit with a simple white cotton sari decorated with a blue border, adopted Indian citizenship, and ventured out into the slums. Initially she started a school in Motijhil; soon she started tending to the needs of the destitute and starving. Her efforts quickly caught the attention of Indian officials, including the Prime Minister, who expressed his appreciation.
Teresa wrote in her diary that her first year was fraught with difficulties. She had no income and had to resort to begging for food and supplies. Teresa experienced doubt, loneliness and the temptation to return to the comfort of convent life during these early months. She wrote in her diary:
||Our Lord wants me to be a free nun covered with the poverty of the cross. Today I learned a good lesson. The poverty of the poor must be so hard for them. While looking for a home I walked and walked till my arms and legs ached. I thought how much they must ache in body and soul, looking for a home, food and health. Then the comfort of Loreto [her former order] came to tempt me. ‘You have only to say the word and all that will be yours again,’ the Tempter kept on saying … Of free choice, my God, and out of love for you, I desire to remain and do whatever be your Holy will in my regard. I did not let a single tear come.
Teresa received Vatican permission on October 7, 1950 to start the diocesan congregation that would become the Missionaries of Charity. Its mission was to care for, in her own words, “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.” It began as a small order with 13 members in Calcutta; today it has more than 4,000 nuns running orphanages, AIDS hospices, and charity centers worldwide, and caring for refugees, the blind, disabled, aged, alcoholics, the poor and homeless, and victims of floods, epidemics, and famine.
In 1952 Mother Teresa opened the first Home for the Dying in space made available by the City of Calcutta. With the help of Indian officials she converted an abandoned Hindu temple into the Kalighat Home for the Dying, a free hospice for the poor. She renamed it Kalighat, the Home of the Pure Heart (Nirmal Hriday). Those brought to the home received medical attention and were afforded the opportunity to die with dignity, according to the rituals of their faith; Muslims were read the Quran, Hindus received water from the Ganges, and Catholics received the Last Rites. “A beautiful death,” she said, “is for people who lived like animals to die like angels—loved and wanted.” Mother Teresa soon opened a home for those suffering from Hansen’s disease, commonly known as leprosy, and called the hospice Shanti Nagar (City of Peace). The Missionaries of Charity also established several leprosy outreach clinics throughout Calcutta, providing medication, bandages and food.
As the Missionaries of Charity took in increasing numbers of lost children, Mother Teresa felt the need to create a home for them. In 1955 she opened the Nirmala Shishu Bhavan, the Children’s Home of the Immaculate Heart, as a haven for orphans and homeless youth.
The order soon began to attract both recruits and charitable donations, and by the 1960s had opened hospices, orphanages, and leper houses all over India. Mother Teresa then expanded the order throughout the globe. Its first house outside India opened in Venezuela in 1965 with five sisters. Others followed in Rome, Tanzania, and Austria in 1968; during the 1970s the order opened houses and foundations in dozens of countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the United States.
Her philosophy and implementation have faced some criticism. David Scott wrote that Mother Teresa limited herself to keeping people alive rather than tackling poverty itself. She has also been criticized for her view on suffering: according to an article in the Alberta Report, she felt that suffering would bring people closer to Jesus. The quality of care offered to terminally ill patients in the Homes for the Dying has been criticised in the medical press, notably The Lancet and the British Medical Journal, which reported the reuse of hypodermic needles, poor living conditions, including the use of cold baths for all patients, and an approach to illness and suffering that precluded the use of many elements of modern medical care, such as systematic diagnosis. Dr. Robin Fox, editor of The Lancet, described the medical care as “haphazard”, as volunteers without medical knowledge had to take decisions about patient care, because of the lack of doctors. He observed that her order did not distinguish between curable and incurable patients, so that people who could otherwise survive would be at risk of dying from infections and lack of treatment.
The Missionaries of Charity Brothers was founded in 1963, and a contemplative branch of the Sisters followed in 1976. Lay Catholics and non-Catholics were enrolled in the Co-Workers of Mother Teresa, the Sick and Suffering Co-Workers, and the Lay Missionaries of Charity. In answer to the requests of many priests, in 1981 Mother Teresa also began the Corpus Christi Movement for Priests, and in 1984 founded with Fr. Joseph Langford the Missionaries of Charity Fathers to combine the vocational aims of the Missionaries of Charity with the resources of the ministerial priesthood. By 2007 the Missionaries of Charity numbered approximately 450 brothers and 5,000 nuns worldwide, operating 600 missions, schools and shelters in 120 countries.
In 1982, at the height of the Siege of Beirut, Mother Teresa rescued 37 children trapped in a front line hospital by brokering a temporary cease-fire between the Israeli army and Palestinian guerrillas. Accompanied by Red Cross workers, she traveled through the war zone to the devastated hospital to evacuate the young patients.
When Eastern Europe experienced increased openness in the late 1980s, she expanded her efforts to Communist countries that had previously rejected the Missionaries of Charity, embarking on dozens of projects. She was undeterred by criticism about her firm stand against abortion and divorce stating, “No matter who says what, you should accept it with a smile and do your own work.”
Mother Teresa traveled to assist and minister to the hungry in Ethiopia, radiation victims at Chernobyl, and earthquake victims in Armenia. In 1991, Mother Teresa returned for the first time to her homeland and opened a Missionaries of Charity Brothers home in Tirana, Albania.
By 1996, she was operating 517 missions in more than 100 countries. Over the years, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity grew from twelve to thousands serving the “poorest of the poor” in 450 centers around the world. The first Missionaries of Charity home in the United States was established in the South Bronx, New York; by 1984 the order operated 19 establishments throughout the country.
The spending of the charity money received has been criticized by some. Christopher Hitchens and the German magazine Stern have said Mother Teresa did not focus donated money on alleviating poverty or improving the conditions of her hospices, but on opening new convents and increasing missionary work.
Additionally, the sources of some donations accepted have been criticized. Mother Teresa accepted donations from the autocratic and corrupt Duvalier family in Haiti, and openly praised them. She also accepted 1.4 million dollars from Charles Keating, involved in the fraud and corruption scheme known as the Keating Five scandal, and supported him before and after his arrest. The Deputy District Attorney for Los Angeles, Paul Turley, wrote to Mother Teresa asking her to return the donated money to the people Keating had stolen from, one of whom was “a poor carpenter“. The donated money was not accounted for, and Turley did not receive a reply.
Colette Livermore, a former Missionary of Charity, describes her reasons for leaving the order in her book Hope Endures: Leaving Mother Teresa, Losing Faith, and Searching for Meaning. Livermore found what she called Mother Theresa’s “theology of suffering” to be flawed, despite being a good and courageous person. Though Mother Theresa instructed her followers on the importance of spreading the Gospel through actions rather than theological lessons, Livermore could not reconcile this with some of the practices of the organization. Examples she gives includes unnecessarily refusing to help the needy when they approached the nuns at the wrong time according to the prescribed schedule, discouraging nuns from seeking medical training to deal with the illnesses they encountered (with the justification that God empowers the weak and ignorant), and imposition of “unjust” punishments, such as being transferred away from friends. Livermore says that the Missionaries of Charity “infantilized” its nuns by prohibiting the reading of secular books and newspapers, and emphasizing obedience over independent thinking and problem-solving.
Declining health and death
Mother Teresa suffered a heart attack in Rome in 1983, while visiting Pope John Paul II. After a second attack in 1989, she received an artificial pacemaker. In 1991, after a battle with pneumonia while in Mexico, she suffered further heart problems. She offered to resign her position as head of the Missionaries of Charity. But the nuns of the order, in a secret ballot, voted for her to stay. Mother Teresa agreed to continue her work as head of the order.
In April 1996, Mother Teresa fell and broke her collar bone. In August she suffered from malaria and failure of the left heart ventricle. She had heart surgery, but it was clear that her health was declining. Another controversy surrounding her is that when she fell ill, instead of being treated at one of her clinics, she opted to be treated at a well-equipped hospital in California. On March 13, 1997, she stepped down from the head of Missionaries of Charity and died on September 5, 1997. The Archbishop of Calcutta, Henry Sebastian D’Souza, said he ordered a priest to perform an exorcism on Mother Teresa with her permission when she was first hospitalized with cardiac problems because he thought she may be under attack by the devil.
At the time of her death, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity had over 4,000 sisters
, an associated brotherhood of 300 members , and over 100,000 lay volunteers, operating 610 missions in 123 countries . These included hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, soup kitchens, children’s and family counseling programs, personal helpers, orphanages, and schools.
Global recognition and reception
Reception in India
Mother Teresa had first been recognised by the Indian government more than a third of a century earlier when she was awarded the Padma Shri in 1962. She continued to receive major Indian rewards in successive decades including, in 1972, the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding and, in 1980, India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna.
Her official biography was authored by an Indian civil servant, Navin Chawla, and published in 1992.
Indian views on Mother Teresa were not uniformly favourable. Her critic Aroup Chatterjee, who was born and bred in Calcutta but lived in London, reports that “she was not a significant entity in Calcutta in her lifetime”. Chatterjee blames Mother Teresa for promoting a negative image of his home city. Her presence and profile grated in parts of the Indian political world, as she often opposed the Hindu Right. The Bharatiya Janata Party clashed with her over the Christian Dalits, but praised her in death, sending a representative to her funeral. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, on the other hand, opposed the Government’s decision to grant her a state funeral. Its secretary Giriraj Kishore said that “her first duty was to the Church and social service was incidental” and accused her of favouring Christians and conducting “secret baptisms” of the dying. But, in its front page tribute, the Indian fortnightly Frontline dismissed these charges as “patently false” and said that they had “made no impact on the public perception of her work, especially in Calcutta”. Although praising her “selfless caring”, energy and bravery, the author of the tribute was critical of Mother Teresa’s public campaigning against abortion and that she claimed to be non-political when doing so. More recently, the Indian daily The Telegraph mentioned that “Rome has been asked to investigate if she did anything to alleviate the condition of the poor or just took care of the sick and dying and needed them to further a sentimentally-moral cause.”
Mother Teresa lay in state in St Thomas, Kolkata for one week prior to her funeral, in September 1997. She was granted a state funeral by the Indian Government in gratitude for her services to the poor of all religions in India.
Reception in the rest of the world
In 1962, Mother Teresa received the Philippines-based Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding, given for work in South or East Asia. The citation said that “the Board of Trustees recognizes her merciful cognizance of the abject poor of a foreign land, in whose service she has led a new congregation”. By the early 1970s, Mother Teresa had become an international celebrity. Her fame can be in large part attributed to the 1969 documentary Something Beautiful for God, which was filmed by Malcolm Muggeridge and his 1971 book of the same title. Muggeridge was undergoing a spiritual journey of his own at the time. During the filming of the documentary, footage taken in poor lighting conditions, particularly the Home for the Dying, was thought unlikely to be of usable quality by the crew. After returning from India, however, the footage was found to be extremely well lit. Muggeridge claimed this was a miracle of “divine light” from Mother Teresa herself. Others in the crew thought it was due to a new type of ultra-sensitive Kodak film. Muggeridge later converted to Catholicism.
Around this time, the Catholic world began to honor Mother Teresa publicly. In 1971, Paul VI awarded her the first Pope John XXIII Peace Prize, commending her for her work with the poor, display of Christian charity and efforts for peace. She later received the Pacem in Terris Award (1976). Since her death, Mother Teresa has progressed rapidly along the steps towards sainthood, currently having reached the stage of having been beatified.
Mother Teresa was honoured by both governments and civilian organizations. She was appointed an honorary Companion of the Order of Australia in 1982, “for service to the community of Australia and humanity at large”. The United Kingdom and the United States each repeatedly granted awards, culminating in the Order of Merit in 1983, and honorary citizenship of the United States received on November 16, 1996. Mother Teresa’s Albanian homeland granted her the Golden Honour of the Nation in 1994, which had also bestowed citizenship upon her in 1991. Her acceptance of this and another honour granted by the Haitian government proved controversial. Mother Teresa attracted criticism, particularly from the left, for implicitly giving support to the Duvaliers and to corrupt businessmen such as Charles Keating and Robert Maxwell. In Keating’s case she wrote to the judge of his trial asking for clemency to be shown.
Universities in both the West and in India granted her honorary degrees. Other civilian awards include the Balzan Prize for promoting humanity, peace and brotherhood among peoples (1978), and the Albert Schweitzer International Prize (1975).
In 1979, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, “for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitutes a threat to peace.” She refused the conventional ceremonial banquet given to laureates, and asked that the $192,000 funds be given to the poor in India, stating that earthly rewards were important only if they helped her help the world’s needy. When Mother Teresa received the prize, she was asked, “What can we do to promote world peace?” She answered “Go home and love your family.” Building on this theme in her Nobel Lecture, she said: “Around the world, not only in the poor countries, but I found the poverty of the West so much more difficult to remove. When I pick up a person from the street, hungry, I give him a plate of rice, a piece of bread, I have satisfied. I have removed that hunger. But a person that is shut out, that feels unwanted, unloved, terrified, the person that has been thrown out from society—that poverty is so hurtable [sic] and so much, and I find that very difficult.” She also singled out abortion as ‘the greatest destroyer of peace in the world’.
Towards the end of her life, Mother Teresa attracted some negative attention in the Western media. The journalist Christopher Hitchens has been one of her most active critics. He was commissioned to co-write and narrate the documentary Hell’s Angel about her for the British Channel 4 after Aroup Chatterjee encouraged the making of such a program, although Chatterjee was unhappy with the “sensationalist approach” of the final product. Hitchens expanded his criticism in a 1995 book, The Missionary Position.
Chatterjee writes that while she was alive Mother Teresa and her official biographers refused to collaborate with his own investigations and that she failed to defend herself against critical coverage in the Western press. He gives as examples a report in The Guardian in Britain whose “stringent (and quite detailed) attack on conditions in her orphanages … [include] charges of gross neglect and physical and emotional abuse”, and another documentary Mother Teresa: Time for Change? broadcast in several European countries. Both Chatterjee and Hitchens have themselves been subject to criticism for their stance.
The German magazine Stern published a critical article on the first anniversary of Mother Teresa’s death. This concerned allegations regarding financial matters and the spending of donations. The medical press has also published criticism of her, arising from very different outlooks and priorities on patients’ needs. Other critics include Tariq Ali, a member of the editorial committee of the New Left Review, and the Irish-born investigative journalist Donal MacIntyre.
Her death was mourned in both secular and religious communities. In tribute, Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of Pakistan said that she was “a rare and unique individual who lived long for higher purposes. Her life-long devotion to the care of the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged was one of the highest examples of service to our humanity.” The former U.N. Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar said: “She is the United Nations. She is peace in the world.” During her lifetime and after her death, Mother Teresa was consistently found by Gallup to be the single most widely admired person in the US, and in 1999 was ranked as the “most admired person of the 20th century” by a poll in the US. She out-polled all other volunteered answers by a wide margin, and was in first place in all major demographic categories except the very young.
Miracle and beatification
Following Mother Teresa’s death in 1997, the Holy See began the process of beatification, the third step towards possible canonization. This process requires the documentation of a miracle performed from the intercession of Mother Teresa. In 2002, the Vatican recognized as a miracle the healing of a tumor in the abdomen of an Indian woman, Monica Besra, following the application of a locket containing Mother Teresa’s picture. Monica Besra said that a beam of light emanated from the picture, curing the cancerous tumor. Critics including some of Besra’s medical staff and, initially, Besra’s husband insisted that conventional medical treatment eradicated the tumor. Dr. Ranjan Mustafi, who told the New York Times he had treated Besra, said that the cyst was not cancer at all, but a cyst caused by tuberculosis. He insisted, “It was not a miracle…. She took medicines for nine months to one year.”
An opposing perspective of the claim is that Monica’s medical records contain sonograms, prescriptions, and physicians’ notes that could conceivably prove whether the cure was a miracle or not. Monica has claimed Sister Betta of the Missionaries of Charity is holding them. The publication has received a “no comments” statement from Sister Betta. The officials at the Balurghat Hospital where Monica was seeking medical treatment are claiming that they are being pressured by the Catholic order to declare the cure as a miracle.
Christopher Hitchens was the only witness called by the Vatican to give evidence against Mother Teresa’s beatification and canonization process, as the Vatican had abolished the traditional “devil’s advocate” role, which fulfilled a similar purpose. Hitchens has argued that “her intention was not to help people”, and he alleged that she lied to donors about the use of their contributions. “It was by talking to her that I discovered, and she assured me, that she wasn’t working to alleviate poverty,” says Hitchens. “She was working to expand the number of Catholics. She said, ‘I’m not a social worker. I don’t do it for this reason. I do it for Christ. I do it for the church.’” In the process of examining Teresa’s suitability for beatification and canonization, the Roman Curia (the Vatican) pored over a great deal of documentation of published and unpublished criticisms against her life and work. Vatican officials say Hitchens’ allegations have been investigated by the agency charged with such matters, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and they found no obstacle to Mother Teresa’s beatification. Due to the attacks she has received, some Catholic writers have called her a sign of contradiction The beatification of Mother Teresa took place on October 19, 2003, thereby bestowing on her the title “Blessed”. A second miracle is required for her to proceed to canonization.