Most of us know the story’s basics: Mother Teresa, born Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu, grew up in what is now Macedonia and joined the Sisters of Loreto in Ireland when she was eighteen and prepared to become a missionary.
She arrived in India about three months later and served as a schoolteacher until just before her 36th birthday when she heard what she termed a “call within a call” that two years later would result in the founding of the Missionaries of the Charity Sisters, an order ministering to the poorest of the poor, initially in the slums of Calcutta. Their work was humble, simple, one on one.
They went into homes, and also comforted those who were dying alone in the streets.
They provided tender nursing care. They fed those who were starving. The stream of humanity they encountered was seemingly unending. But they just kept helping the next person, and the one after that, and the one after that, rather than focusing on the enormity and impossibility of their calling.
The order grew rapidly, eventually including more than six hundred orphanages, leper colonies, nursing homes, and clinics in more than a hundred countries, and its work brought Teresa much attention and acclaim, including the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize. Ironically, its founding roughly corresponded with the beginning of a dark night of the soul for Teresa, one that continued until her death. It was a deep spiritual drought, but she eventually came to see it as a blessing that her thirst for the Lord was not being quenched, much as Christ thirsted on the cross.
As so often happens when we are doing the best we can for the Lord, Teresa’s leadership of the order and her life in general came under attack in this world. She said artificial contraception leads to abortion, and called abortion the greatest destroyer of love and peace in the world, which resulted in criticism that these views keep people impoverished.
She encouraged baptism of the dying, which led some to say her ministry was more about converting people to Catholicism than about healing them. There were also allegations of poor medical care; chumminess with oppressive regimes in India, Haiti, and Albania; and incomplete financial disclosure.
Teresa had her defenders, as articulate as those who sought to tear her down. They responded that she was simply espousing the views of the Catholic Church, and that many of those who came to the sisters were dying and had no hope of healing, only of being treated with dignity and compassion in their final hours. As for her chumminess, it was noted Jesus dined with prostitutes and tax collectors.
What did Teresa say about all the allegations? It’s said her response was something along the lines of “No matter who says what, you should accept it with a smile and do your own work.”
Except Teresa didn’t say that, anymore than she said or wrote all kinds of other things we’re told she said. In fact, the Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center has a whole list of lovely “Teresa” quotes that don’t belong to her. When it came to her critics, Teresa didn’t go to a respected newspaper or magazine or news channel to refute them or come up with pithy aphorisms.
No, she just kept on with those corporal works of mercy, helping one person, then another, then another. And if she thought much about her critics, perhaps it was during her prayer time, a time when for many years she heard nothing from the Lord. Perhaps she prayed for mercy for them as well.
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