MOTHER TERESA, the world-famous “apostle of the outcast” in Calcutta, died on 5 September, aged 87.
She was bom Gonxha (Agnes) Bejaxhiu in 1910, being the daughter of an Albanian grocer in Skopje, Serbia. From the age of 12 she knew she had a vocation to the religious life; and when she heard of the Roman Catholic Irish Order of the Sisters of Loreto working in India, she knew that India was her goal, because it was “a missionary country” where she could serve.
In 1928 she joined the Order, and became a teacher of rich young girls in Darjeeling. She taught for 20 years, in a community which was as yet untouched by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
It was not till she was transferred to the Order’s convent in Calcutta that the impact of India’s tragedies hit her full in the face. Over the convent wall she had her first glimpse of the narrow bustee streets, the shacks, and those rubbish-dumps of unwanted things, and of unwanted people, which make up so much of modem Calcutta.
She knew now that she wanted to be a servant of the poor. It was the beginning of a life of saintly devotion, and a variety of selfless service of the poor under God, unparalleled in this generation.
Malcolm Muggeridge’s documentary Something Beautiful for God picked up the spirit of this work, and enabled a generation of Western Christians to become familiar with her teaching. The influence of Mother Teresa has spread far beyond the confines of India to pervade universal religious thought.
She was professed as Sister Teresa in 1937. In 1948 she put in an application to Rome to be “decloistered”, so that she could start her life again in a new order. It is reported that she said that her Sisters, if they came, “would subsist only on what the poorest of the poor could eat: on Monday rice and salt, on Tuesday salt and rice, and so on”.
She was told that most of her ideas were criminal nonsense. It proved that what was nonsense with men was the wisdom of God, as the vision of one woman spread, till now Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity are all over the world.
But the work started slowly, with excruciating birth-pangs. Mother Teresa, after a brief medical training at Patna, roamed the streets of Calcutta alone, carrying a little bread, some bandages, iodine and simple medicines given by the Little Sisters of the Poor. She had abandoned the black habit of her original order for a coarse white sari with blue bands and a crucifix on the left shoulder.
She was scorned, and sometimes pelted with rubbish. She walked from bustee to bustee, giving from what she had, eating the little that was left at the end of the day—- if there was anything left. She did not know where she was going nor what would be her future. She left that absolutely in the hands of God, with a simple faith that was to pervade her work.
She founded a little school in 1948. She had just five rupees (25p) as capital; her only equipment was a stick; the dust of the streets was her blackboard.
ISTOCKISTOCKOther like-minded women began to join her: Sister Agnes, a young Bengali girl, was her first recruit in 1949. They lived in very rough constricted quarters. A mother house was established in Lower Circular Road in 1950.
It became obvious that Mother Teresa must have a place of refuge for the poor. The streets of Calcutta have always been littered with the wrecks of humanity — those with tuberculosis and leprosy, sick mothers giving birth to wizened babies on railway stations, men and women with no hope of work lying debilitated or dying on the pavements.
A woman pavement-dweller was the immediate cause of making Mother Teresa’s mind up about the absolute need for a refuge. “I picked her up from the street,” she said later. “She had been half-eaten by rats and ants. I took her to hospital, but the hospital refused to do anything.”
At last, “they took her in, only because I refused to move until they accepted her. From there I went to the municipality and asked them to give me a place where I could bring these people, because, on the same day, I found other people dying in the Streets.” She was granted an empty rest-house by the temple of the Hindu goddess Kali, where the work was begun for the dying.
Since then the Missionaries of Charity have picked up innumerable dying people from the streets of Calcutta. “We wanted them to know”, she said, “that there are people who really love them, who really want them; at least, for the few hours that they have to live. To know human and divine love; to know that they too are the children of God, and that they are not forgotten, that they are loved and cared about, and that there are young lives ready to give themselves in their service.”
Her order was recognised by the Vatican as a Pontifical Congregation in 1965.
Those joining the Order of the Missionaries of Charity never had an easy time under Mother Teresa. She was hard on herself and she demanded hardness from those who worked for her — long hours of prayer, long hours of work, little food, no luxuries.
Many honours were given to Mother Teresa, among them the John F. Kennedy International Humanitarian Award, the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize, the first Templeton Prize, and the Indian Padmashree Award. But none was so memorable as the Nobel Peace Prize given to her in December 1979. When she received it at Oslo, she said that the money which the prize entailed would be for the poor, the unwanted, the sick and the dying.
The appeal of Mother Teresa’s Calcutta work spread throughout the world, and requests for branch houses came thick and fast. But the founder was “very fussy” about places where her Sisters should go. Their work must be for the poorest, whether it concerned physical poverty or dire need owing to drugs, or alcohol, or mental distress, or imprisonment. Such work must be done also in a place where a priest was available: holy communion every day was a sine qua non.
Her relationship with Pope John Paul II was a close one, and hers became increasingly the voice of orthodoxy.
Branch houses sprang up in Sri Lanka, the slums of Rome, Tanzania, Australia (for the Aborigines), Bangladesh, Wales, and Peru. They now number 566, in 122 countries. A Society of Brothers, founded in 1963, now numbers 350. There are 3700 Sisters, inspired by Mother Teresa’s work to tend dying destitutes, lepers, juvenile delinquents, drug addicts, and mentally ill patients.
Mother Teresa was not specially gifted intellectually: but her character was one of great and simple faith mixed with mental stubbornness and physical strength and resilience. Few other women could have bom the strain and stress of the administration of a great international order — nights spent in writing, and days filled with menial work for others which she always persisted in carrying through.
She has had her critics. There were those who questioned the sources of funding for her charitable works, and commented on the amateurishness of some of her projects, and her lack of political acumen; though, of course, there are others who maintain that she worked the system to maximum advantage for the benefit of the poor and needy. Initially hers looked like a contentious vocation; the irony is that she has become an icon for traditionalist Catholics.
She had to do it, for she said: “I see Christ in every person I touch, because he said ‘I was hungry, I was thirsty.’ It is as simple as that. Every time I give a piece of bread, I give it to him. That is why we must find the hungry one and the naked one. That is why we are totally bound to the poor.”
The whole of her philosophy was enshrined in a daily prayer which she wrote:
Dearest Lord, may I see you today and every day in the person of your sick and, while nursing them, minister unto you. Though you hide yourself behind the unattractive disguise of the irritable, the exacting, the unreasonable, may I still recognise you and say, “Jesus, my patient, how sweet it is to serve you.” O God, while you are Jesus my patient, deign also to be patient Jesus, bearing with my faults, looking only to my intention, which is to love and to serve you in the person of each of your sick.
A last, fitting memorial to Mother Teresa is her own simple meditation on death.
“Death is going home. Very often as we live, so we die. Death is nothing but a continuation of life, the completion of life: the surrendering of the human body. But the heart and the soul live for ever. They do not die. Every religion has got eternity: another life. This life is not the end: people who believe it is, fear death. If it were properly explained that death was nothing but going home to God, then there would be no fear.”