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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. spottedsharks

    "The Missionary Position" - by Christopher Hitchens.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
    • jacmac10001

      I tire of people like Hitchens – jealous of those actaully trying to bring positive change in the world due to insecurity and selfish ambition ... what a little man.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
    • Quid Malmborg in Plano TX

      jacmac10001: If you would actually read some of Hitchens' works you would realize that he was bringing positive change to the world.

      One question for you: Do you think for a moment that "Mother" Theresa would've had herself waterboarded to determine for herself whether or not that was torture, like Hitchens did? IMNSHO, that makes old Hitch more "Christ-like" that Mama T could ever have hoped to be. Cheers.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • jacmac10001

      Quid Malmborg in Plano TX

      I truly feel sad for you. I believe we have quite different definitions of what 'bringing good into the world means'. It is always easy to sit in an ivory tower and judge then it is to roll up ones selves and do something .... please, keep reading in your ivory tower of those sitting in their ivory towers.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
  2. Matt

    Dear Heavenly Father we offer to you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of your dearly beloved Son our Savior Jesus Christ in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.

    For the sake of His sorrowful passion.
    For the sake of His sorrowful passion.
    For the sake of His sorrowful passion.
    For the sake of His sorrowful passion.
    For the sake of His sorrowful passion.
    For the sake of His sorrowful passion.
    For the sake of His sorrowful passion.
    For the sake of His sorrowful passion.
    For the sake of His sorrowful passion.
    For the sake of His sorrowful passion.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • stories

      ^^ another terrorist

      September 10, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • Matt

      Have mercy on us and on the whole world.
      Have mercy on us and on the whole world.
      Have mercy on us and on the whole world.
      Have mercy on us and on the whole world.
      Have mercy on us and on the whole world.
      Have mercy on us and on the whole world.
      Have mercy on us and on the whole world.
      Have mercy on us and on the whole world.
      Have mercy on us and on the whole world.
      Have mercy on us and on the whole world.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • stories

      wow, just like the muslim terrorist who chanted..

      September 10, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
    • Matt

      Still offering up your hate and bigotry and our suffering of it for your Salvation. Even though you are a hateful little person you are still a perfect creation of God and therefore due my love and respect. God Bless. These are only prayers by the way. This one is called the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. No matter how great our sins God's infinite Mercy is much much Greater.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  3. sasss31

    "Many more people are poor and sick because of the life of Mother Teresa: Even more will be poor and sick if her example is followed. She was a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud, and a church that officially protects those who violate the innocent has given us another clear sign of where it truly stands on moral and ethical questions." -Christopher Hitchens

    September 10, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
    • Raoul Duke, Jr.

      Word.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • JT

      I'm sure all the people she helped would have a slightly different opinion.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • jacmac10001

      I am not sure who is more delusional – Hitchens or you for quoting him. There will always be evil people, with evil intentions looking to take away from the good done in this world ... what purpose/good does Hitchens serve? Oh yeah, he doesn't

      September 10, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
    • Wake Up

      No foolish words can take away from this little lady what she has done. I know where she is. Blabber away fools and still she remains untouched by it all. Just vain words.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
    • Quid Malmborg in Plano TX

      Amen.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
  4. Matt

    Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and Blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God PRAY for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • nutz

      you have the makings for a terrorist

      September 10, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
    • Matt

      I'm still offering up you hate and our suffering of it for your Salvation. God Bless.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
  5. sasss31

    "A thieving, fanatical Albanian dwarf."

    September 10, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • Quid Malmborg in Plano TX

      "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people." ~~~ "Mother" Theresa

      September 10, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
  6. Raoul Duke, Jr.

    The Missionaries of Charity is a cult which has promoted suffering to further its own financial ends and does not help those in need. Teresa's own words on poverty proved that her intention was not to help people. At 1981 press conference she was asked: "Do you teach the poor to endure their lot?" She replied: "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people." What a crock that she is considered a "saint."

    September 10, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • nutz

      profit for the RCC,, get those donations. Just as the tsunami, the RCC collected a billion dollars – 1/3 to parishes that raised it, 1/3 to vatican and 1/3 to victims. the givers and the victims scre-wed again by this organization

      September 10, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • jim

      The Christians enjoy watching children starve to death, why do you think they're against the use of condoms.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
  7. sasss31

    Fact is Mother Teresa was corrupt and received money willingly from corrupt warlords and despots.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • walkthtalk2

      she would pray for you and the darkness you embody

      September 10, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • Willyboy

      Proof, please...

      September 10, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
  8. sasss31

    I highly recommend the Christopher Hitchens book on this subject, "The Missionary Posit ion: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice"

    September 10, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
    • withoutgod

      I second that, it is a very revealing look at "mother" Teresa. It's probably way too honest for most people who don't want to have their image of her as a paragon of virtue shattered, but it is an important work. RIP Christopher Hitchens

      September 10, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
    • Tom in ATL

      And Christopher Hitchens is the authority why?

      September 10, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
  9. Bob Hobbs

    To get to the main topic:

    God Bless You, Mother Teresa. You helped your fellow man.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
    • nutz

      yes,I'll feed you if you convert to ccatholic. Agenda was all

      September 10, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
  10. Matt

    To all the anti religious bigots posting hatred and vitriol about Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

    We as Catholics are taught to offer our sufferings up to God for his Church or our prayer intentions. Given the hate and bigotry being spewed here, I just want all of you to know that the more you hate the more of God's Grace is being showered on His Church and all mankind. I specifically prayed for your conversion and salvation as well as the poorest of the poor both in material and spiritual weath. God Bless.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
    • nutz

      the catholic church is criminal.. child abuse and they lobby to stop laws that would expose the truth. Yet the truth is the greatest healer. Sounds like a dishonest bunch for sure

      September 10, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • blanketjackson

      man o manichewitz. are you serious? and, answer this...why does the catholic church need so much money? to keep the pope clothed in gold threads? catholicism is such a hypocritical religion. your church changes to meet its own financial needs. when you see your membership dwindle, you change your tolerance.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
    • walkthtalk2

      Well said, Matt. So many of these posts confirm that God created evil as well as good but his Grace overcomes all.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
    • withoutgod

      Please explain then how she was simultaneously able to have the best possible healthcare, while ensuring that other people suffered needlessly in order to strengthen HER relationship with God.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
    • Matt

      No matter how non factual, hate filled, and bigoted your comments are you are still a perfect creation of God and therefore due my respect and love. Any suffering your comments are causing here are being offered up to the Lord for your conversion and salvation. No matter how great your sins are, God's infinite Mercy I much much greater. God Bless You All.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
  11. b4bigbang

    Mother Thereas was a perfect 'old school' Roman Catholic. According to some biographical info I read that was written by some of her assistants, she bought in heavily to the Catholic idea that 'through much suffering we must enter heaven'.

    Therefore it comes as no surprise that her fellow-workers wrote of occasions when a dying cancer patient was begging for pain-killers and Theresa withheld them from the patient, instead telling him that "the pain that you feel is Jesus kissing you". Apparently there were pain-killers available – she just wanted the man to suffer so that he's earn a better reward in heaven.

    Another worker in her charity who kept the financial books said that there were very large sums of donation money in accounts that just sat there never being used for the work with the poor. This agrees with the other accounts of Theresa allowing what we would consider needless suffering on the part of the poor in the belief that their suffering would somehow earn them a better afterlife.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • nutz

      some one should have treated her for the mental illness first. Or had her committed

      September 10, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @b4bigbang

      You speak of the "suffering" that MT caused as a result of holding back pain meds, etc... and yet... you are one of the first to espouse a world-view of 'eternal/infinite' torment beyond our understanding, should one just not believe that Jesus is our savior, etc...

      I don't know... for some reason, you bringing up MT and what she did, when in comparison to your_belief_ of eternal torture seems absolutely bat- sh it crazy to me, IMO.

      Peace...

      September 10, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
  12. Colleen

    Enough is enough!!!! Mother Theresa was a SAINT, case closed. Who ever says she wasn't, doesn't know what they are talking about.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • nutz

      sounds like it's you who doesn't know what they are talking about. You believe the garbage the RCC tells you. You are part of the filth

      September 10, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      This isn't about what the officials of the Catholic Church say. In fact, to most of the people who know about Mother Teresa, this has little to do with the Vatican, the pope or any other Church official. I can't stand the pope and his bishops but that doesn't mean I'm going to hate a woman who took in human beings that everybody else rejected and shunned away. To me, this is about an extraordinary human being, even if she had some faults (such as being obedient to the pope no matter what).

      September 10, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • stories

      deflection.. all about cash.. sell mother theresa and get vatican cash

      September 10, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • nutz

      I'm just kidding. I love Catholics and all people of faith. Forgot to take my meds on time today!

      September 10, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
  13. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    September 10, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • nutz

      I prayed you would go away and your still here. proof prayer doesn't work.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
    • just sayin

      The first prayer God will hear from you is the sinners prayer of repentance. After you are born again you will talk with God on many things, opposing prayer will not be one of them. God bless

      September 10, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • nutz

      I also prayed that my mother had that abortion but here I am! Prayer doesn't work.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
  14. gort01

    you left out the part where she died availing herself of all the modern American medical treatment, while :the wretched refuse" she cared about so deeply, wallowed in filthy places she set up. She thought being poor and sick was their lot in life and made sure they stayed sick and poor...

    September 10, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
    • Veronica13

      koo koo........koo koo

      September 10, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • nutz

      hey gort01, they won't buy it. They're in denial and the RCC loves that. More cash for the vatican.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
  15. Bryce

    "...before receiving a series of startling visions and locutions (verbal communications) from Jesus"

    This just shows that she was yet another psychotic whose focus on the poor elevated her to the status of a saint.

    None of it is true, just what people want to believe...people want to believe in magic.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
    • Veronica13

      Bryce, Why are you so afraid of a person who did so much good in this world?

      September 10, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
    • Tom in ATL

      Where exactly did you get all your knowledge? Try answering GOD's questions when he asks this:
      3 Brace yourself like a man;
      I will question you,
      and you shall answer me.
      4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
      Tell me, if you understand.
      5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
      Who stretched a measuring line across it?

      BTW, it's in your Bible in Job 38:3-5. Good luck when you're face to face with him after you've taken your last breath.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • stories

      and this beautiful picture of the pope helping http://imgur.com/gallery/iX6GP

      September 10, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
  16. Jon

    Mother Theresa was no angel. Not even close. She felt that suffering made you closer to god. Those that she claimed to be interested in helping were left to suffer in terrible conditions without proper medical treatment in facilities that had her name on them. People would go there for help and hope, and would lay there on a cot and die.

    She took all of the money that was donated to her "cause" and used it to promote her "brand", instead of using it to actually help anyone.

    She's a charlatan and a crook and a liar. In other words, a typical religious "do-gooder".

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

      and not to forget that her boss was a proven pedo and she did nothing to help those children harmed<– fact

      September 10, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
    • Voice Of Reason

      ... and they never have disclosed how much their charity has taken in, yet even with all the celebrity publicity, they never seemed to be able to have adequate care for the sick and dying. So, where did that money go? I agree – charlatan.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • Veronica13

      Jon, Some kind of evidence on those statements would give them more weight. You are aware of the difference between fact and opinion true?

      September 10, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      John, we all know your mom was a $10 who re when she got pregnant with you. . . you can stop taking it out on Mother Teresa. Perhaps a visit with a mental health professional would do you some good.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
  17. stories

    Mother Thersa would have set a better example if she dressed normally and didn't mention god or religion. Agenda was her's

    September 10, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • jacmac10001

      What's your agenda for your post?

      September 10, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
  18. blah

    blah...

    September 10, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
  19. stories

    Mother Theresa offer food to those who became catholic. A hitch.

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

      Liar, the Missionaries gave food to anyone who was in need when I worked and lived with them. Don't be lying or you'll go to he77.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
  20. stories

    God created the universe in 6 days, he became tired and had to rest on the 7th day.. now if that hasn't got man's writings all over it. Sounds like god isn't so powerful

    September 10, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      What does that have to do with the work this human being did?

      September 10, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
    • b4bigbang

      The word "rested" simply means ceased activity, not rest due to tiredness. In physics we use the word 'rest' to refer to an object no longer in motion, so you see there are more than one idea involving 'rest'.

      But good try stories – maybe study the Bible first before making yourself look ignorant.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • Tom in ATL

      No, I actually think GOD's logic is better than yours. Maybe GOD did it that way to teach us that we should rest one day a week. GOD has laid it out pretty simply in the Bible if you'd just give it a chance. Start reading in the book of John. It will change your life forever.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:00 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.