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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 • Opinion

soundoff (1,499 Responses)
  1. miengineer

    she will always be an angel of the 20th century to me. What she gave nobody can do today, the humility, just everything,
    about her was what I wish I could do before I die, the world misses he;r speciallly today in this crazy times
    her 4 hrs of funeral services was not enough she will always be in my heart. Anyone who speaks badly about her kind soul should burn in hell and stay in hell specially this writer blowing fire off his mouth. like the davil

    September 10, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
    • Beauty

      become catholic and I'll feed you..

      September 10, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
    • Fat Sean

      She also practiced a pretty severe triage when deciding who she'd help

      September 10, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Don't be silly. People give all the time. It's one thing to say "she was a saint" but if you haven't been touched enough to do good for others by giving of yourself even if it's only a little here and there, then I don't think you've been truly "touched" by her life.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  2. Kevin

    It was Obamas fault that Mother teresa and Princess Diana died so close together. He planed it to make the Democrats look better and also to help medicare.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      I agree! Oh that jerk ! ! !

      September 10, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
  3. Satan

    Stop criticizing my lady. She did a lot to help my Church!

    September 10, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • Beauty

      It's not your church. You are a customer who buys the invisible they sell you. A customer is all, no more

      September 10, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
    • Argle Bargle

      You do realize it is your church referred to Revelation 17:5, don't you? It is the "Mother" responsible for all the apostate churches that have sprung from it over the centuries (the ones referred to by the "H" word in that verse. True, there are many whose belief is real, but the organizations they belong to are dead, dead, dead.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
    • Kevin

      The church didn't help people Mother Teresa did. Its about her contribution. If it was about the catholic church then Mother Teresa would not have been so important. My point it people do good not God. People do good not a church. When a Church takes credit for something one should question that church and its motives.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
  4. John Lawrence

    Re: Her "long night of the soul has a parallel in C.S. Lewis' Screwtapes Letters. Screwtape is teaching his nephew Wormwood how to corrupt a human soul. Included is advice concerning what subject matter to avoid. Screwtape says,
    "Remember Wormwood, our cause is never in more danger than when a man, looks round a universe from which all trace of Him has vanished, and feels forsaken, yet still obeys.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • Fat Sean

      Yup. Because then you're dealing with an imbecile who wants so much to believe a bunch of fairy tales that he or she will ignore the complete lack of evidence fo any of the claims of religion.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
  5. Puckles

    DAMN! She was an ugly midget!!

    September 10, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • Argle Bargle

      Stop looking in the mirror, you idiot. The monitor's to your left!!

      September 10, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  6. Beauty

    This pic will turn any atheists into a believer. Dare you to look at it. http://imgur.com/gallery/iX6GP

    September 10, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • Argle Bargle

      What is it, a picture of your bum?

      September 10, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • Beauty

      you afraid to look at it?? Try, then I'll accept whatever you say

      September 10, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • Argle Bargle

      Nope...cardinal rule of Internet...you don't click on links provided by strangers without knowing where they go.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  7. Mark

    I dont know what she did. But I can gather tthat she sacrificed a lot to help people that created their own problem. Good for her. We all should do that when we can. It doesnt make us a saint, it just makes us good people.

    That being said, God helps those that helps themselves, and I have no sympathy for those that dont try and are looking for handouts generation after generation. Waste of time and resources.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • John

      "God helps those that helps themselves"...(i.e.....don't wait around for an invisible, nonexistent being to do anything Get off your knees and do it yourself).

      September 10, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • Argle Bargle

      "God helps those that helps (sic) themselves" ... that's not scripture, nor is it correct.

      See James 1:5-8

      September 10, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • Fat Sean

      Miracles never grew back limbs...

      September 10, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Mark you're totally ignorant. Why do you even bother posting? Are you saying that the lepers, blind grandmothers, paraplegic grandfathers, abandoned children and others who had been rejected by society and oftentimes by their own families brought their suffering on themselves? People like you creep me out. You're so out of it, I find it hard to imagine any human being with a frozen a heart as you have would ever know the real meaning of love. You're a sad sad case.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
  8. GAW

    The atheists here are like muggers...they like to prey on little old ladies (esp dead ones)

    September 10, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
    • nutz

      and catholicks pretend they drink blood and eat human flesh as p[art of their cult rituals

      September 10, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • Mark

      Um, no.

      Atheists are people that arent hypocrites, dont rely on fairy tales to get them through life, and have no other excuse other than their own sense of self worth and responsibility.

      This being said, Mother T did what ever she did on her own. If God was out there, he didnt do anything to help her.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • Argle Bargle

      Mark, Um, no.

      Atheists are just as ignorant and ridiculous as Theists. They're nothing special and they lie and cheat and pretend and fantasize just like everyone else. Peddle your fantasies somewhere else.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • ted williams

      atheists are often hypcrites – they are some of the most judgmental people on earth

      September 10, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
  9. DG

    All the non-Catholic commenters criticizing Theresa here do not understand that she has done faaar more than any of you can even imagine. I am a non-believer, who doesn't think she was a saint. I hate her religion, but I have a lot respect for the lady. She did the most she could in her set-up (Catholic church). Yes, she might have taken money from scoundrels and thugs. She might have protected a pedophile or two. She might have used the garb of charity to convert thousands or millions to Christianity (remember her work was mostly in a non-Christian country). But, at the end of the day, her good deeds far outweigh all those.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • nutz

      Not true,, I help the children abused buy the catholic church while the catholic church lobbies to stop laws that would expose the truth. What a dishonest sick bunch of perverts

      September 10, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • John

      Lol...I'm not sure if you're being sarcastic or not but just in case you are not being sarcastic....Yeah...Adolph Hitler did a lot of horrible things too but at the end of the day he did a lot of positive things and had Germany's best interest at heart.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • Time for Tea

      You are one sick freak to think is is okay that this hypocrite covered and PROTECTED pedophiles , allowing them to continue on RUINING THE ENTIRE LIVES OF THEIR VICTIMS. With you mentality, I am really surprised that you are NOT Catholic.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
  10. Pepou27

    All I know about her is that she preferred the missionary position.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • Darkheart

      You've shown the world you can oink. Now give us a grunt.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • ishiibrad

      You are all class, that`s C – L – ASS !

      September 10, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
  11. Thank You Satan

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7mhY-CfyL-w&w=640&h=390]

    September 10, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  12. John

    She was a sicko hag who relished in the suffering of others as she jetted about the world and hoarding money with world leaders using her to their own benefit as well. Only the most ardent delusional kool-aide drinkers find any redeeming qualities in this most horrid of creatures.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • Darkheart

      What have YOU done to remedy suffering in this world? Not much, I wager.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • ug

      I bet you are an atheist huh.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • nutz

      hey John, looks like the catholics are bragging again. Let them know that catholic charities is paid for mostly with our tax dollars. And the catholic church would shut it down if it didn't make a profit

      September 10, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • Lynam

      If this is the language and tone of those who think they are the opposite of her, I think a reasonable assumption is what she had is more likely loving and genuine than what you have.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • rose

      You are sick! She could have lived a great life and chose to be with the poor.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      John, we all know your mom was a $10 wh ore when she got pregnant with you; now quit taking it out on others!

      September 10, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • Pragomatic

      You spelled Kool-Aid wrong. Thus, you suck in a grand way.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
  13. Ron

    I only hope and pray that the rest of us could be so strong in their faith and be blessed by the LORD as the one to help soooo many poor children in the world...she will always be my hero....go ahead and keep beating her up...it only makes us stronger.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • nutz

      The catholic church is an organization of pervs..

      September 10, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • ug

      @nutz...so you like to do the bumhole ridem thing...

      September 10, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
  14. Alex Rothschild

    The froth of hatred for Catholics has no end. It's a pity, too, that people have nothing better than to quote Christopher Hitchens, that pathetic little worm of a man who couldn't abide the thought of anything greater than himself.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • nutz

      The RCC needs to be held for crimes against humanity, Arrest the pope

      September 10, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • John

      You pedophile supporters are more disgusting than the child rapists you support. You're revolting.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  15. keyser

    DeeCee1000, I hate tell you this but Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin did not drink champagne or eat caviar all day. In fact neither one of them was even close to being rich but they had what Mother Theresa had and craved, which was power over others.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      omg. You're such a tool. lol. I'm sorry. It's just hard to take someone like you seriously. I don't even know how to respond to you without laughing at you. . . .forgive me.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • ug

      ANother atheist devil worshipper.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • ted williams

      you're insane

      September 10, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
  16. nutz

    Mother Theresa.. "Become a catholic and I'll feed you." Another note,, her mentor she worked with was a known pedophile priest.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
  17. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    September 10, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • keyser

      Prove it. Every scientific study on the subject says you're wrong.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • ug

      @keyser...you prove it doesn't...science is for the devil worshipping fools like you.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
  18. Fraud!

    What a scam artiste she was! Absolute fraud! She loved poverty, not the poor.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
    • nutz

      no doubt, a deceiver

      September 10, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • Darkheart

      You stink, mister.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Blah blah blah. Her critics are sounding like a broken record playing the same tired old cr ap over and over. What a bunch of dumb azzes.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • ted williams

      you and timmy c should go bowling together lol

      September 10, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
  19. GAW

    Normal person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Jerk

    September 10, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
    • liz

      I completely agree except honestly I would take "normal person" out of the equation for most of these people.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      They're like spoiled brats who have no idea. I can't stand the pope or the idea of having a Vatican which is why I don't practice Catholicism or any religion but to be attacking a woman who helped people in their suffering that had been usually rejected by society and had no other place to go, really does nothing to help society. . .or themselves for that matter.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  20. TimmyC

    Her main priority was converting people to Christianity, and she focused on the most vulnerable and suggestable – the poor, the uneducated, the sick and the dying. I'm sure her motives were good (she believed she was giving them the opportunity for an eternity in Heaven), but to someone who's not religious, her missionary work looks like opportunistic brainwashing.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Actually she and her sisters bathed, fed, clothed and comforted people who had been rejected by society, many times even rejected by their own families. You don't even know what you're talking about and your heart is too hardened to even understand what I'm saying to you. Someone like you would not even dare approach most of the people Teresa and her Sisters cared for on a daily basis, even providing them with shelter and a place to sleep. You're a jerk.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • ted williams

      Timmy C thinks we should only help ourselves – you are just another angry, judgmental atheist timmy – so typical

      September 10, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
    • Pragomatic

      As opposed to your missionary work, which simply does not exist.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
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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.