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.
Didn't she OD in the back of Stewie's car?
PUSH THE B TCH OUT!
omg. THAT was funny.
It takes a lot of balls to take a shot at a dead person. When your Mom dies and people say s ht about her enjoy!
Now we know what she did "A great mission", - now we know what you do "mocking on the other's life"
HOW can there be such hatred as to imply such filth against one such as Mother Theresa, as stated in some responses below? Such comments very much demonstrate that in the void of God in one's life, there is so much hatred. Mother Theresa truly is a Saint, and an inspiration for everyone. Wonderful article Mr. Van Biema. Thank you.
If she was exactly as she was remembered from back in the 80s and 90s then you'd be a terrible person indeed to degrade her, but her image has slipped, people question her miracles, where all the money she raised actually went (she sure didn't spend it on helping the poor) and what her real motives were (starting branches of her order, and converting dying Hindus).
is sainthood to be decided by men? Or by God?
Oh the haters come in drovers to tear down the good that was done. Haters and thier pathetic lives of nothingness that have nothing to offer the world that is good except their death.
What good did she do exactly?
Wow – if you have to ask that question, you obviously don't know very much about the topic, the person, the region or the people who benfitted from her work. You are a mo ron.
"Oh the haters come in drovers to tear down the good that was done. Haters and thier pathetic lives of nothingness that have nothing to offer the world that is good except their death."
pot meet kettle, kettle meet pot
I know she wanted people to suffer to be "closer to god" and she accepted money from the Duvaliers in Haiti.
So willing and apt are you to point out sins and wrongs. We all have them and commit them. Do you dare to speak of any good someone has done?
@. – "pot meet kettle" your statement is non-sequitur
Apparently, she raised many millions of dollars on the premise of building hospitals in India that were never built (thus the Catholic church spent the money elsewhere in the 80s and 90s, hmmm...) only to start many chapters of her order of nuns and gather dying Hindus onto cots where they could be converted into Christians. If it's true then she was quite the opposite of "selfless", wouldn't you say?
"@. – "pot meet kettle" your statement is non-sequitur"
using fun words doesn't mean you really understand the concept. DUH!
Think about what the person wrote idiot.
Teresa created the "poorest of the poor" by opposing reproductive rights for women in India, including birth control. She is not a saint but an enemy of the people.
Now we know what she did "A great mission", – now we know what you do "mocking on the other's life"
Wow, the trolls are swarming out of their holes.
There are two sides to this story of who she was. Is telling the other side being a troll?
It's not trollish to question the claim that she had any effect on a specific tumor.
The catholic church? If the catholic church is a church of the True God, I would want to know why the catholic mass which is one day per week only reads about 5 minutes from the bible? I ask th is because catholics are not "knowledgeable" of the Truth of the Word. And yet, anyone catholic or otherwise will read that God says 'many of my people will perish for lack of knowledge" Hos. 4:6-
If you do not 'know' the Word, you are blind to God's Truths and Ways and also what He commands of us and this is not just 10 commandments.. but this is also 'repentance', sacrificing, not loving the world, not having money as the master because if money is your master you have chosen money over God... There is the parable of the 10 virgins and many will knock at the door of heaven expecting the Lord to let them in. But dangerously so Jesus tells us that our lamps were not filled with knowledge and faith.. but was rather lacking and in this the door was shut. Jesus lets us know that many of these will have even healed in Jesus name and even prophesied.. nonetheless their hearts were lacking True Faith in the Lord Jesus and perhaps they did their good deeds in the name of pride and profit. God knows our Truths.
God must be praised completely and Honored and we must surrender to the Lord Jesus. On our knee before the King, who is the Merciful Savior. Fully knowing our position as undeserving and far far from a place of being forgiven.. and yet if Jesus forgives us.. we must surely be in complete and utter dismay and our hearts must pour out of the True Love that Jesus had for us whom He Saved.
The catholic church with its gawdy churches and fancy altars of gold and marble.. are not the focus of any thing but of wordly adornments. But Jesus Christ wouldn't care if your faith was of the kind that is of 'Saving Faith' if you lived in a cave in utter poverty. Jesus was born in a barn. And who does God look upon of all the people? The poor who tremble at His Word.
I am certain you know nothing of substance of the Catholic Church to comment in any fashion. Typically the biggest haters know nothing of what they bash.
I went to Catholic school for 12 years and I hate the Catholic church more than the OP.
Then you are the worst kind of hater – becasue you are also a betrayer. Not o tbe trusted
You said something, but you only expressed a reaction.. but from what thoughts did your reaction come?
In other words complete all you thoughts and feelings in your expression so we all know where you are coming from, not just you.
And... here we go... with the ongoing 'my version of christianity is the *truth* wars'
I was a "catholic" for 42 years, but I had left the church and had even been denied preisthood more than once for no given reason just they seemed uninterested in me for some reason. I am a typical, irish man. Nothing odd about me, normal in appearance, was athletic.. the priests who knew me simply did not like me, again for no reason given.
And yet, at 42 years of age, in a very ill state and near death.. the Lord Jesus came upon me of the Holy Spirit and Saved my Soul, healed me completely and I was born again of the Truth. And the Word is the Truth. And Judgement is the Word.. the very Word that many have laid down as 'not to worry about so much' and yet that Word will bring forth much death beyond belief. Should you fear God? Of course God said "to fear God is the beginning of Wisdom" and fear every single letter of every single Word of God. And repent, and live in repentance but not in 'the ease that everything will be alright for me' because the Truth is nothing at all will be alright, at all.
O.K... I get it... Catholics didn't want you, and then 'miraculously' Jesus came to you and now you're an evangelical protestant, 'battling' it out with the Catholics. Got it.
And... the same old "fear" message. Got that too.
my message is that catholics are not receiveing the Truth. This is the worst possible thing that could happen to a soul. And what is that thing? To think you are getting the Truth in a place that you go to, but the place that you are going to is giving no Truth, out.
What a deception.
Who is the Deceiver?
That is what I am saying.
Dear, I am sorry you don't really know about Catholic. Mostly catholic church in New York open everyday. On Sunday, there are few mass and celebration every other hours. That means, church welcomes everyone, no exception. We celebrate eucharist, remember the last supper of Jesus Christ. I wasn't born catholic but I really had the spiritual experience where Jesus invited me to the mass. Lord has mercy songs touch me deeply and the humble of catholic people when they celebrate the last supper everyday. Everyday, everytime when we come to the mass, we hear gospel. We are listening not reading gospel. After all, the most important, love one to another as I love you said the Lord. I love you to as my brother. May God bless you always.
Don't forget how she gave all the money to the Vatican while her desolate hell house for the dying received nothing. Her "hospital" was a disgusting rotting place of death.
If there was a hell, she would be one of the kingpins there.
"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."
You won't, there is no such thing just a state of mind.
these words she spoke were of being absent of the Truth. What child of God would rather leave heaven and God to be with men on earth the place of sin and filth? What was she talking about here? You are right, these words were of pride.
Now we know what she did "A great mission", now we know what you do "mocking on the other's life"
That Albanian dwarf wanted and enjoyed seeing people suffer, thinking that suffering brought them "closer to god".
Also, she accepted money from the Duvaliars in Haiti.
Theresa was a corrupt soul and a disgusting human being.
I see you are quoting Hitchens, the man said everything that ever needed to be said about that woman.
I remember after she died and thousands packed the streets to see her body laid out on a block of ice....reminds me of my high school days as when somone's parents would be out of town ....we would have a little blue nun on ice!
being laid on ice probably warmed her
The devil keeps transforming into an angel of light to miss lead many all you really have to do is look at the doctrines of the false religions and try to confirm them with the bible to see if there true or not, Trinity,hell,nuns,idolitry,murder,greed, these are all taught by the Catholic faith all one really has to do is open their Bibles and see the confliction of their teachings.
I am going to go with you are not intelligent enough to understand true Christian teachings based on your horrible grammar and sentence structure. Catholic and Orthodox Christianity is very complex to understand if you are an uneducated protestant.
Obviously, RCC you don't understand the basics of Christianity for passing such judgments on another.
Passing judgements means that you either pass judgement on thier worthiness to enter heaven or hell, not behavior. You obviously have no idea on Christian principles either since you don't even know what passing judgement means.
"Passing judgements means that you either pass judgement on thier worthiness to enter heaven or hell, not behavior."
LMAO – thanks for proving my point. What an idiot.
For a better understanding of the life and works of Mother Teresa, what spirit she served (Luke 9:55; 2 Cor. 11:13-15) and by what authority she was pronounced a ‘Saint’, we invite you to read the articles ‘Sainthood by the Pope’, ‘The Mystery Babylon’, ‘Popes and the Princes of This World’ and ‘CNN Belief Blog – Sign of the Times’, listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca
All of the other pages and articles listed on our website explain how and by whom this whole world has been deceived as confirmed in Revelation 12:9.
She was deceived by RC priests and others of the Church who encouraged her to believe delusions. In particular, delusions that she was having direct communication with Jesus Christ.
What sort of bug are you AvdBerg?
This poster is a TROLL on this site they are only here to try and sell their book and website that is full of lies associated with their cult. Click the report abuse link to get rid of this TROLL! !
CNN!!! Please make this a moderated forum. Instead of providing a forum for informed discussion between the religious of multiple faiths as well as the irreligious, it has degenerated into childish rantings against any religious belief. "You Xtians and your invisible ghost are ignorant bigots," et al., does nothing to inform anyone on what could be a lively, intelligent discussion.
Yeah, I gave up that a long time ago.
Yes, I agree! No matter who she is/was, it's amazing how people will talk about another human being, losing the point of the article completely. CNN, please consider keeping posters on task!
Would you consider it childish to acknowledge tooth fairy as fantasy?
Even if I did, I would do it with respect, rather than the rhetorical equivalent of a chimp throwing feces.
@David in Cincinnati
I've heard the "MT exploited the poor" argument a lot.
And I wonder... how many people have thanked YOU for the only bowl of rice they've eaten in a week? Any?
So the score is:
Mother Theresa: 198,155,822
gg son. The scoring doesn't matter though because you never f– king played. Go start your own missionary and help a few million people. THEN come back and show us how MT screwed up.
Yep – good call. The only comments here should be how lucky we had someone do so much. She was human and made mistakes like all but she gave to the world as few people can. The atheists and haters will make thier comments to validate their lazy, non-cntributing selves – way of the world.
@RCC: i agreed with your comment until you mentioned atheists. I am an atheist but highly admire Mother Teresa and many other nuns for the work they do with the less fortunate.
Clapping for your answer! She saw suffering and tried to help- unless you have walked a mile in her shoes, please, quit berating her and her works. You don't have to be Catholic to appreciate her sacrifice and the way she helped.
Some of her statements are misleading in translation- in English we say "jump in the lake"- we don't mean it literaly- give her a break!
Obviously you have read little of the many independent and verified accounts of her cult of suffering, instead you believe in a lie because the truth while easy to research, would likely be too upsetting for you to handle.
I too am an atheist. Didn't notice your pathetic back-handed support of my comment.
Mother Theresa did a lot of good that, imho, outweighs her b.s. Christianity as a whole though... no. It and its followers need to find a nice burning stake to tie themselves to.
And the ones that claim atheists are immoral or haters need to go first.
No, Rodney. I believe the first-hand accounts of people that sat down and ate the bowl of rice she gave them.
But you, being perfect, having never hurt anybody in your entire life, and helped absolutely every single human being you've ever met by donating absolutely everything you own to their cause, are definitely in a position to judge MT's actions.
Why do I bother, you're still missing the point. Typing on your $1000 computer while people starve world-side... WHO says you can feed people for ~ $2.50 / day... Yet you're still browsing CNN instead of selling your computer.
Are the poor less poor now? In India? Haiti? In our own country?
Have we addressed the root causes of poverty, or only solaced our own conscience through admiration for one energetic Macedonian nun?
Yeah!!! What good is helping some people if you can't solve the entire, insoluble problem? Fail!
N.B., my last post was sarcasm.
How many of you who are trashing her will dare to touch a young or old person laying helpless in the street? She was a true CHRIST-BEARER in real life. We have not seen GOD, but when we have GOD in our life, then we will love other people irrespective of their religious-political affiliation or social status, because GOD IS LOVE. She simply displayed that love. Her life is an inspirtation of my life, whom I greatly admire and respect along with the billions of people around the world from all walks of the society, representing different social and religious backgrounds.
Notice... the ones trashing her and giving examples of what she did or did not do.... offer no citations to lend credibility to their accusations...
She was proud to be albanian, and the journalist does not say she comes from an Albanian family living in Skopje. She had Albanian passport and her mother and sister died in Albania.
Was this article written by Rick Warren? Is he trying to get himself put into the race for sainthood? How pathetic.
Actually – by bringing the focus to you – you bring the focus to what it is you are trying to accomplish. People then did not want to see what was going on in the world, or much less care. This is one reason why the famous lend their voice to supporting nonprofits ... to bring attention to it. Regardless of the reason why you feel she brought the spotlight on herself the end is only what matters – that more people began to see the world of the poor through her eyes – and stepped forward to offer monies and assistance.
Dude, you actually have something BAD to say about Mother Teresa??? A woman who dedicated her life to helping the poorest of the poor, herself living in abject poverty alongside of them, and garnered publicity so a to help the cause of bringing attention to the plight of these people. She helped them, fed them, cared for them, helped them to die with dignity, and formed an order of nuns to do this work on a larger scale. Her public relations efforts were to help raise awareness and money, so that she could help more people. And you want to degrade this saintly woman? Seriously–what is WRONG with you? Are you envious that she did countless good works for people who could never repay her, and founded and left a still active organization to continue her good work, OR are you just screwed in the head??? Try to have a little human decency, and to exercise some degree of good judgment.
I see you guys typed a bunch of words.
the words say: blah blah blah...........
Care to answer the devastating and well-supported charges laid out in Hitchens's book "Missionary Position"?
Got some more "blah blah blah" for me?
Their are always believers and non-believers.she might have done something right or why are we talking about her ?.Nobody is perfect .
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.