The power of a smile
Marking the centenary of the birth of Mother Teresa, 26 August , a Salesian priest and former editor of 'The Herald, Calcutta' (Estd. 1839), outlines the saga of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
The birth of Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Agnesë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu (Gonxhe means "rosebud" in Albanian) was born the youngest of three children on 26 August 1910, in Üsküb, Ottoman Empire (now Skopje, Capital of the Republic of Macedonia). Agnes considered 27 August, the day of her Baptism, to be her "true birthday". She was brought up in a very devout Catholic home by Drana Bojaxhiu, her mother, from age 9 when her father Nikollë Bojaxhiu an Albanian patriot died in 1919.
In her early years, Agnes was fascinated by stories of the lives of Jesuit missionaries in Bengal and by age 12 was convinced that she should go to India. She left home at age 18 to join the Sisters of Loreto who worked in Calcutta. After a brief period at Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, Ireland, to learn English, she arrived in Calcutta in 1929 and began her novitiate in Darjeeling, North Bengal. She made her first religious vows as a nun on 24 May 1931 with the name Teresa after Therese de Lisieux, the Patroness of missions. She took her solemn vows on 14. May 1937, while serving as a teacher at the Loreto St Mary's convent school in the neighbourhood of Entally, Calcutta.
The socio-political scenario of Bengal (the famine of 1943 and the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1946) which plunged Calcutta into despair and horror disturbed Mother Teresa. On 10 September 1946 on a train journey to Darjeeling, Mother Teresa experienced what she later described as "the call within a call". In 1948, replacing her traditional Loreto habit with a simple blue-bordered white cotton sari and adopting Indian citizenship, Mother Teresa ventured out into the slums and founded the Missionaries of Charity [MC] in 1950.
Today, 60 years later, there are 19 MC institutions in Calcutta and about 5,000 Sisters working in over 130 countries.
Mother Teresa and the media
The Indian media took notice of Mother Teresa from early 1950s, soon after she started working in Mothijhil slum, close to her former convent Loreto Entally. Here was a white, western, Roman Catholic nun showing compassion and providing support for those typically impoverished and abandoned by the society left behind by 300 years of British governance. Mother Teresa was the new face of mother India rising from the humiliation of the partition of Bengal into West Bengal and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Unlike some of her Calcutta-born detractors who now live overseas and have not stooped to serve in the horrid Calcutta slums, Mother Teresa walked her talk working in the slums.
In 1962 she received the Padma Shree (highest civilian national award) as well as Magsaysay international award. Pope Paul VI gifted to Mother Teresa the car he used on his visit to Bombay in 1964 which she gave away in a raffle. In 1979 she received the Nobel Peace prize, was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in 1985 and a hundred other awards in her lifetime.
It was Mother Teresa's encounter with British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge which brought her global attention. He interviewed her first in 1968 for BBC television and subsequently shot a documentary film on her life in Calcutta in 1969. The by-product of that two-part television film, nearly an hour long, was his 1971 book entitled Something Beautiful for God: Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Muggeridge was originally sceptical towards Mother Teresa, yet when he returned from filming in Calcutta, he zealously promoted her.
No saint in the 2,000 year history of the Catholic Church ever had three International film festivals dedicated to her name. The Mother Teresa International Film Festival (MTIFF) Calcutta 2003, 2007 and 2010 began with 10 international films, including both feature and documentary, highlighting her mission and work. This year, MTIFF has 16 films and is going global for the first time, reaching some 15 Asian countries.
Mother Teresa's contribution to Church and society
It is difficult to judge the impact Mother Teresa had on the Church and society. It would be true to say that her dedication to helping those who couldn't help themselves has been an inspiration to the world. I know of a young man who volunteered in her Kalighat home for the dying. Inspired by her philosophy of service, he made a film entitled "My Karma" which won several international awards. Not only, this Hindu Bengali youth quit his job as an officer in the Indian Navy and now works in a Muslim slum in Narekeldanga area of Calcutta, calling Mother Teresa his mother and Mahatma Gandhi his father.
Mother Teresa did more than inspire. She taught that the greatest way to show God's love is to meet the needs of others, one person at a time, here and now. She offered no magical solution to the problems and injustices in the world. But, she showed how we can make a difference in the life of one person at a time!
The Nirmal Hriday (home for the dying), her first institution started in 1952 in the temple precincts of Calcutta's presiding deity, Kali, is still the hallowed spot which makes her friends and foes stand in awe. It was the place where Mother Teresa met every journalist who interviewed her for the first time. Since its creation, some 50,000 men, women, and children taken from the streets have been transported to this home. Of these, one half died surrounded by love and kindness. For those who survived, the Sisters helped to find a job or they were sent to homes where they could live happily.
Her Shishu Bavan (home for babies), as well as other orphanages have offered shelter and hope to countless children around the world. Many of the children that were raised in them went on to become productive citizens and some even joined her mission.
The leper colony which Mother Teresa founded with monies from her 1971 Pope John XXIII Peace Prize has offered a place where the outcasts can find acceptance. When she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she convinced the committee to cancel the official banquet and use that money to buy meals for 15,000 poor.
She opened houses for alcoholics, drug addicts, AIDS patients, and the homeless and destitute even in Rome. Mother Teresa also supported the rehabilitation of women prisoners with the help of late West Bengal Marxist Chief Minister, Mr Jyoti Basu.
Mother Teresa and her critics
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 (World Hindu Council), against the proselytizing focus of her work including a strong stance against
contraception and 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.
The radical-atheist assaults on Mother Teresa are the intellectual equivalent of mugging an old woman, says Brendan O'Neill, editor of Spiked-online. He says, cowardly muggers target little old ladies because they're usually slow, frail and unlikely to fight back. Attacking the wrinkled, hunched-over Sister of Calcutta, accusing her of being a goggle-eyed fanatic and a mad and disgusting celebrator of poverty, is the atheistic equivalent of mugging an old woman. And a dead one, to boot!
To take us into Mother Teresa's world, celebrated British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge sets up a contrast between his commonplace perceptions of the world and those of Mother Teresa. Early in his book Something Beautiful for God (Harper & Row, 1971) Muggeridge mentions a brief stay (as the assistant editor of The Statesman newspaper) in Calcutta in the 1930s during which he became disgusted by the slums and wretched social conditions. He remembers self-righteously asking people, "Why don't the authorities do something?". And he quickly left.
Mother Teresa, by contrast, saw the same squalor and stayed — armed, as Muggeridge puts it, only with "this Christian love shining about her". Muggeridge remarks, "As for my expatiations on Bengal's wretched social conditions —I regret to say that I doubt whether in any divine accounting, they will equal one single quizzical half smile bestowed by Mother Teresa on a street urchin who happened to catch her eye (p. 22)".
Mother Teresa had a short response to her critics: "No matter who says what, you should accept it with a smile and do your own work".
Mother Teresa's spirituality
A British journalist (now living in the U.S.) Christopher Hitchens was a witness which the Vatican called to give evidence against Mother Teresa's Beatification and Canonization process. "It was by talking to her that I discovered, and she assured me, that she wasn't working to alleviate poverty", Hitchens told the tribunal. He quoted Mother Teresa, "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".
Turn that statement around and it becomes the raison d'être of Mother Teresa's life and mission. Her vowed critic Hitchens got it right — Jesus, Church and the poor were her topmost priorities! As much as she believed in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, she believed that in the bodies of the poorest of the poor, she touched the body of Christ!
Mother Teresa had absolute belief in providence. She did not depend on monies from any body not even the government. She believed financial dependence becomes financial enslavement. She often said, "If ever people stop supporting the apostolate of the Missionaries of Charity, they will simply cease to exist".
Her spirituality was one of "Regularity in the Daily Order" — sanctification of the daily grind! Rising in the morning at 4.40 (on feast days at 5.10) was only the beginning of this Spartan lifestyle. There are set times for prayer, set times for meals, set times for apostolic work. No doubt this regularity has produced extraordinary fruitfulness in the service of others.
After 35 years of serving the poorest of the poor, Pope John Paul II told Mother Teresa "I would like to change your Constitutions. I want the Missionaries of Charity to become missionaries not only of poor bodies but also of poor souls" — catechesis and evangelization! When Mother told the Pope that her Sisters were not trained for this apostolate, he told her, "train them!"
On Sundays, every able-bodied Missionary of Charity Sister is out teaching catechism... In their Fidei Donum programme in Tengra (Calcutta), each year some 50 Sisters from around the world go through the 10-month updating course which has also a weeklong catechetical module.
Mother Teresa was gifted with extraordinary prudence. It is said that she told Cardinal John Joseph O'Connor (1984-2000) of New York how deeply she appreciated his support of her community. She added, "However, I want to make sure that our Sisters have only the best priests in the Archdiocese as their chaplains, confessors, spiritual counsellors and retreat directors".
Maintaining constant union with God was the hallmark of her spirit of prayer. Have you seen any of her photos without those gnarled hands clutching on to her Rosary beads? For she knew there was no other way to know what God wanted every moment of the day except by asking Him for the grace to know His divine will and then to do it with all her heart!
The striking aspect of Mother Teresa's spirituality is that she never did anything more than what she insisted with every Missionary of Charity Sister — the spirituality of the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, and the fourth vow, to give "wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor".
Love her or hate her, Mother Teresa has left an indelible mark on the psyche of Calcutta's common folk. Hundreds of them irrespective of caste or creed still visit her tomb daily to seek a darshan before they set out for their daily grind.
Mother Teresa died in Calcutta on 5 September 1997 and Pope John Paul II declared her Blessed on 19 October 2003.