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Remembering Mother Teresa
September 10th, 2012
10:16 AM ET

My Take: The Mother Teresa you don’t know

Editor's note: David Van Biema, the chief religion writer at Time Magazine for ten years, is author of the illustrated biography "Mother Teresa: The Life and Works of a Modern Saint," now being reissued and made available in Spanish as "La Madre Teresa: La Vida y las obras de una santa moderna."

By David Van Biema, Special to CNN

Fifteen years may be less than an instant in celestial time, but here on earth it's a lot of news cycles.

Mother Teresa departed this Earth on September 5, 1997. What more can we say about the woman who became synonymous with love for the "poorest of the poor," picking up a Nobel and tweaking the conscience of millions? What do we know about her now that we didn't know then?

A lot, it turns out.

Here's a quick Blessed Mother Teresa primer, emphasizing the stuff that you probably don’t know, some of which we only learned recently.

1. She was born a rich girl.

Born in 1910, Mother Teresa came from money at least by the standards of her native Skopje, Macedonia. Her parents were so well-off that there was a local saying "as generous as the Bojaxhius." (Her last name was Bojaxhiu; her given first name was Agnes.)

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Agnes was cultured and well-educated: She wrote poetry and played the mandolin. Her family took in orphans and she tagged along as her mother went out to tend to the destitute. All of this challenges the notion of pre-saints as nasty, or no better than average, until God flicks a switch (think Paul, pre-Damascus).

In Agnes’ case, if God flicked a switch, he had clearly laid the circuitry carefully beforehand.

2. For a long time, it was hardly obvious that Teresa would end up who she became.

She emigrated to India to become a nun at age 18, but worked as a teacher another 17 years before receiving a series of startling visions and locutions (verbal communications) from Jesus. The experience, wrote her confessor at the time, was "continual, deep and violent."

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She later recalled it as a dramatic dialogue taking up pages: Jesus calls her "my little one" and demands that she "carry Me into the holes of the poor. I want Indian nuns … who would be my fire of love among the poor, the sick, the dying and the little children." She hesitates. He asks impatiently, "Is your generosity gone cold?"

It had not. After two years spent convincing her local bishop, she was released from her previous vows and founded her Missionaries of Charity.

3. She changed our view of the poor.

"There are plenty of nuns to look after the rich and well-to-do people, but for my very poor, there are absolutely none," Teresa wrote, describing communication she got from Jesus.

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That seems a bit exaggerated. But Teresa redefined the concept of "working with the poor" in the modern age. For poor she substituted "poorest of the poor," a new category with a corresponding moral imperative. She understood the word "with" as obliterating the line between benefactor and beneficiary, plunging her nuns deeply into the world of the slums.

As for "working," Teresa combined case-by-case spontaneity with an organizational genius. In Calcutta she developed institutions schools for poor children, homes for pregnant homeless women, orphans and lepers, and hostels for the dying that became a template for her ministries the world over.

4. She was a marketing guru.

"Billions know about her compassion," says evangelical megapastor Rick Warren. "But what is not so well known (were) leadership skills, evident in the multiplication of what she did to other parts of the planet."

Teresa instinctively leveraged her growing renown, cultivating a United Nations of world leaders and donors and paving the way for the Missionaries. Four decades after her solo start in India, her order was in over 100 countries, making her one of the church's truly great founders. "If there are poor on the moon, we will go there, too," she joked sort of.

5. She cultivated her celebrity.

Teresa was famous first in India, then worldwide, partly through the efforts of British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge and partly due to another gift. "The way she spoke to journalists showed her to be as deft a manipulator as any high-powered American public relations expert,” noted Irish rocker/philanthropist Bob Geldof.

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That that gift seemed to be unconscious did not make it any less effective. After winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she became part of a Mt. Rushmore of greatest-generation religious icons including Pope John Paul II, Billy Graham and the (relatively youthful) Dalai Lama that has no successor generation.

Of them, Teresa attained the purest pop-culture status, capped by her touching friendship with then-Princess Diana of England. When the two died within a week of one another (Diana in a car wreck, Teresa by heart attack), a T-shirt immediately popped up showing both with halos.

6. Teresa had a long, dark night of the soul.

In 2007, a cache of newly released private letters introduced a startling unknown side to Teresa: a 39-year period, coinciding almost exactly with her Missionaries career, during which Jesus, previously so present, seemed utterly absent to her, in prayer and even in the Eucharist.

"The silence and the emptiness is so great," she wrote, "that I look and do not see– the tongue moves (in prayer) but does not speak."

Critics like the late Christopher Hitchens said the correspondence proved Teresa was just a "confused old lady." But the letters were issued by her postulator, the Vatican-appointed advocate for her sainthood.

Her church regarded her perseverance in the absence of a sense of divine response as perhaps her most heroic act of faith. Both her torment and underlying faith were evident in another letter: "If I ever become a Saint I will surely be one of 'darkness,'" she wrote. "I will continually be absent from Heaven to (light) the light of those in darkness on earth."

7. She’s not a saint yet – not officially.

Not as recognized by her own Roman Catholicism, where validation of sanctity is a multi-step process.

A year after Teresa's death, the Vatican waived a five-year-delay to allow her "cause" to begin early. In 2002, it announced her "heroic virtue," and in the same year credited her with the disappearance of a tumor affecting an Indian woman who had prayed to her.

This first miracle led to her beatification, for which 250,000 people flocked to Rome. But canonization awaits a second miracle. Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, her advocate, says reports of her "supernatural favors" to believers currently total 4,200. He is currently investigating a case in Colombia.

Of course, the church freely admits that saints are saints before it recognizes them, and many Catholics fervently believe Teresa is one. So do others, including Rick Warren, who defines a saint as "a true hero" who "sacrifice(s) for the benefit of others." Suzie van Houte, left in infancy with Mother Teresa and now an Episcopalian living in Washington state, says simply: "A saint is a person who's gone out of her way."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Van Biema.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • India • Leaders • My Take • Opinion

soundoff (1,499 Responses)
  1. mvoci

    I find nothing more disgusting then a reference to the "nun" who spoke at the DNC smack in the middle of the article on Mother Theresa.

    September 10, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  2. Angie

    I wish someday that people all over the world will be as giving as this woman. She may not have been perfect (as most of you firing off your angry little outburts obviously are) but she did the best she possibly could every single day with the resources she had available.

    Non-believers, I'm sorry her personal experiences – both quantifiable and qualifiable – are not enough for you. Bottom line, and act of God could come up and kick you square in the face and you'll still choose not to believe. I'm okay with that. Good on you. I just really wish the majority of you weren't so angry that you feel it necessary to go out of your way to try and break the faith of others.

    September 10, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • Gerry

      If she wasn't perfect, like the rest of us aren't, why is she considered a "saint"? For every media darling like this woman there are hundreds of tireless charity workers who do what they can to help, but are never recognized. Her main goal wasn't to help the poor of India; it was to establish an order of sisters, raising money that was never spent where she said it would, and probably went to help fund the legal defences of pedophile priests.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • Joe

      Angie, she was FAR from perfect – she deliberately inflicted unnecessary suffering on others, while carefully cultivating an entirely different image of herself.

      I suggest that you read more about her.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
  3. Frank

    Did you just put Rick Warren's name in an article with Mother Teresa? Disgusting.

    September 10, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Gerry

      Disgusting for whom, Rick or the sister?

      September 10, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  4. JFritz

    Why do we need humans who sometimes do extraordinary good to be "saints?" Is it because we also need to demonize them when their all-too-human foibles assert themselves? If Mother T did nothing more than draw our attention to the "poorest of the poor" while we bask in what must seem to them to be our insane opulence, it would be enough. She was human, and it seems to me that her human judgment was sometimes skewed. But she went where I wouldn't go, probably doing good more often than not. For me, that's good enough.

    September 10, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • Gerry

      The question however is whether she was just helping them die, or was she more interested in converting Hindus when they were at their most vulnerable? Also, where did all that money she raised go? She sure never spent very much on the poor, so what could the Catholic church do with all those millions?

      September 10, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  5. Conversion Was Her Purpose

    all she wanted to do was convert poor Indians to Christianity...... cause they are easy targets

    September 10, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  6. sparky

    People putting down Sister Teresa need to just back off!.... And I'm not even Catholic. I give respect to her memory now, just as when she was alive ....
    And there was this little old lady getting up in business people's faces' making demands and they give. She got things done.

    September 10, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • Manuel J.

      Amen Sparky. Glad to see there are people in the world who recognize goodness for what it is and can be.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Joe

      What about the people who merely recognize evil as masquarading as good, and then claim it as good "for what it is and can be"? How do you educate people like that?

      September 10, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
  7. Joe

    This woman did not love the poor; rather, she loved poverty. I don't think that she was simply a confused old woman as Christopher Hitchens did; I actually think that she was worse. She reveled in keeping the recipients of her charity mired in poverty, while she herself undertook medical procedures in the finest US hospitals. Read more of Christopher Hitchens' books to learn more facts about this woman's life that most people miss.

    September 10, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • Manuel J.

      There's nothing more to say.... YOU ARE a sorry, sad individual!!

      September 10, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  8. Mother Teresa = Worst Caregiver Since Josef Mengele

    rest in p!ss, heartless money-grubbing witch

    September 10, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • barlowc

      he he

      September 10, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • GetOffYourHighHorse

      you are an @sshole!

      September 10, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • Manuel J.

      There's nothing more to say.... YOU ARE a sorry, sad individual!!!

      September 10, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  9. jamest297@yahoo.com

    CNN forgot to report that Mother Teresa also talked to imaginary friends and invisible personalities.

    September 10, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  10. ruth

    She deserves sainthood

    September 10, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • Consequence

      biblically speaking, all christians of good faith are saints. It is just that Mother Teresa stands out among the others..but, i am sure, among the others we will find countless stories of self-less giving and great faith.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  11. jholland27

    She should not be made a saint – she was a woman who profited from the poor – the millions of dollars in money she raised never benefited the people who needed it most – "her poor"; instead it went to further the Catholic cause. She simply ran a wretched place in Calcutta the poor could get a shaved head and a cot and share one hole in the floor toilet – forced to use in front of everyone as they lay dying in squalor. Many needing nothing more than antibiotics or simple surgery to save their lives. They died alone without a hand to hold as family were not allowed in to be with their loved ones in their final hours. If this is the definition of a saint – we could all attain sainthood. Mark Twain said "a man who has the reputation as an early riser can sleep til noon" –Mother Theresa cultivated the reputation as a selfless woman who gave her life in service to god and lived her life only to help the poor and we bought it all.

    September 10, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  12. davejjj

    She was a horror. She withheld pain medication from her patients. I am sure she is in hell now.

    September 10, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • ensense

      I know where you got this. but the author who wrote that piece contradicts herself. first she says for the last 50 yrs of her life mother Theresa did not feel the presence of god and had lost faith in god and then in the same tone says she did not give pain medication to the patients because all she was interested was in converting them to Christianity. Now how can a person do that if they themselves do not believe in the religion. India was and is still a place where there are too many people and even today if you go to any govt hospital it is the same even today. so to expect mother Theresa so give high tech care in those days is absurd. She did what she could lets leave it to that rather than trying to spin it.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  13. Rebel4Christ

    Hey atheists just wondering how many of you go out of your way to help poor people (sarcasm)

    September 10, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • Olsonic

      many many atheists do just that. They just don't believe they do it because an invisible ghost tells them to do it.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Rebel4Christ

      Oh so in other words there is no purpose to an atheists life I get it!

      September 10, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • Jesus

      Nothing in my teachings indicated it was ok for you to be an asshole. Go do some praying.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • ron

      Only if they try to help themselves....

      September 10, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • Remarque

      I volunteer at the Mother Theresa hospital in third world Albania 20 days every year. It's as much vacation time as I can take from work without it cutting into the week I take for myself. But, my personal reply to your question would be roughly 5% of the year.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I contribute a good portion of my income to SOME (So Others Might Eat) and to UNICEF. I also donate to the Red Cross.

      Just because you have a limited imagination to go along with your limited intelligence, Rebel without a Brain, is no reason to suppose everyone else is just as incapable and dumb.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • Blessed Are the Cheesmakers

      Many atheists volunteer time and money to help others. We just don't feel the need to advertise.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Rebel4Christ

      Atheists cannot go five seconds without insulting somebody else's intelligence can they?

      September 10, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • old ben

      Looks like the Rebel set himself up well for TOTAL FAILure while thinking a little too hard about his own qualities.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • Chuck

      We do plenty a$$hat. We just don't need to say we were told to do it by a fairy.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  14. Christopher Hitchens

    Mother Theresa? Hah! Just a confused old lady!

    Hey, is it just me, or is it really hot down here?

    September 10, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • fail

      you fail at humor.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • jholland27

      Christopher Hitchens was more of saint- in the true definition of the word – than Mother Theresa (and if there were a hell to go to could certainly tell you how hot it was) ...

      September 10, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • Blame the deserving

      fail? no. funny? yes.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • Decent American

      Its not hot or cold Christopher. There is no heaven or hell. When you die, you are DEAD, something the wacko Christians can't wrap their head around. it is too hard for them to accept that Christianity is a LIE and that they have been getting scammed for thousands of years and billions of dollars

      September 10, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  15. Mike

    Re: point 4. She was a marketing guru

    Billions remember her for her "compassion." You know why? Because she was a marketing guru. It certainly wasn't because she was compassionate in any sense that we would use the word.
    The Sisters of Charity, under her direction, provided a place for the indigent to die. While this is an honorable thing and noble in its own right, what numerous volunteer doctors and nurses report is that Teresa's order made no distinction between the terminally ill and the treatable. Nor was there any attempt at alleviating pain and suffering. Teresa is on the record as championing suffering as a spiritual purifier.
    If you went to the Sisters with a treatable but fatal condition such as a ruptured appendix or something like advanced syphillis, you went untreated and died. Even things as simple as a bacterial infection often killed. Many doctors and nurses resigned over the non-existent care provided to the supplicants.
    Teresa did not care. Her goal was not the curing of ills, the easing of suffering, or the mending of bodies but the conversion of souls. And she did not hide it.

    But... alas, because she was a genius marketer, she is remembered as a "charitable and compassionate" person. This memory is a great disservice to those words.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  16. alice

    "All of this challenges the notion of pre-saints as nasty, or no better than average, until God flicks a switch (think Paul, pre-Damascus)."

    Where did you get that idea?

    September 10, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Jesus

      Go read up on Paul, pre-Damascus. He told you right there!

      September 10, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  17. HeavenSent

    You must trust in God, in the truth of his word, the bible, and his son our Saviour Jesus Christ all mighty, trusting in any other is a fools parade. Like the little mother I was betrayed by my neighbours and the National Guard showed up and told me if I did not clean out the trailor, it would be declared a chemical dump and blown up. I turned the cats loose on them and they left, agents of Satan are afraid of herds of pi*ssed off cats, don't worry God and Jesus will provide for me as always and my faith in Jesus will pervail.

    Amen.
    PS: Billy-bob let me pick out some guns and ammo if they come back, Praise the Lord.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  18. Mother Teresa was an Armenian Tranny!

    S/He was!

    September 10, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  19. TheyNotHim

    "In 2002, it announced her "heroic virtue," and in the same year credited her with the disappearance of a tumor affecting an Indian woman who had prayed to her."

    Oh really? There is evidence (meaning independantly confirmed scientific proof) that this prayer was responsible for the tumor going away? Yeah, no, there isnt, nor can there be, since she is dead and buried and thats it, shes gone forever. Checkmate xtians!

    They want to sanctify a woman who didnt even believe in the tenets of her own church? Im flabergasted, but not surprised...

    September 10, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Kevin

      The procedure for the investigation of miracles cannot, by definition, verify that a miracle has taken place. Rather, a panel of experts (a majority of whom are non-Catholic, non-Christian, or non-religious) examines the evidence and, in the case of medical cures, merely pronounces that there is no scientific explanation for the cure: given what they know about the pathology, it shouldn't have been resolved in the way it was.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • obsthetimes

      sick people under her charge were prayed on everyday, but were provided little or no medication.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Pinewalker

      flabergasted? really? who even says that anymore

      September 10, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • barlowc

      Pinewalker – people with vocabularies. Oh, sorry about that Pinewalker let me try again: people who know some words. There, is that better?

      September 10, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  20. Cush

    This editor apparently has not read what Christopher Hitchens had to say about this not so saint-like exploiter of the poor.

    September 10, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • GetOffYourHighHorse

      !diot

      September 10, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
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