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.)
Catholic nun brings her star power to DNC
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."
Opinion: Paul Ryan provokes debate on Catholic politics
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.
CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories
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.
Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter
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.
Why must people be so negitive. Just look at the things she did to help the poor and leave it as that. Who care if she was part of a cult church or sat a wooden cross in a first class seat. She did good for many others.....ask yourself, what have you done lately to help your fellow man.
I made fun of a co-worker who had a roach in his chinese food today...it helped me at least to laugh
Mother Teresa was a BIG Advocate against any form of Birth Control. In one way she helped the poorest of the poor, and on the other hand she created this horrible poverty by being ignorant to Birth Control.
I can't help but wonder Kriss if you asked the question because you actually don't do anything. There are many of us that help others every single day. Maybe it's time for you to get some new friends and get off your lazy azz.
Kriss – People are people after all. There are those that live in the shadows as trolls – only spreading negativity and cruel words. Trolls are interesting you know. They hop from forum to forum getting full of smug-self-satisfaction as they giggle and click the post/submit button. Care.... I think you stirred up a few.
Considering Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize, and that she also gave the approximate $200,000 dollar award to charity, I think people who think she was a "bad person" are clearly mentally ill.
To all supposedly "logical" and "intelligent", why don't you just count how many number of people who can testify that they have been helped and inspired by this woman and count the ones you have inspired in your lifetime or whoever "great" you think there is. Perhaps you can create a figure going about several millions like Mother Teresa????..... I even doubt your spouses or siblings can even think you are a good person and yet you dare malign her? Let me tell you what– You are all retards. Nothing more.
Long live Mother Theresa, the greatest human being of the 20th century!
Gee....a less pious type would have thought it was Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs. They each had way more of an impact on the world than Mother Teresa did
This will be difficult, as she is already dead.
That she is so well remembered as a good person is a testament to her skill at marketing....
Mother Teresa was a monster that exemplified that idea that you could commit evil and induce suffering all you wanted as long as it expanded the power base of the church. She expanded the Church so they have worked hard to paint her as a good person.. but wow did she hurt people. She didn't have a 'long dark night of the soul'... she had a black soul.
I agree, Mother Teresa was not a good person. She used the poor to enrich the church while depriving poor people of proper health care. She thought suffering was noble.
How can you can count good deeds to be deeds of darkness? She went around helped the poor and made a sacrafice for others. A sacrafice for others is noble. Jesus taught us that since he sacraficed for us so we must do. Darkness is when you become the center of your worldview. Because out of the floruishes prideful and selfish taughts. If we give that up "sacraficing" there is a greater reward and sacraficing actually becomes a gain.
Really just go and work among the lepers of India just for a few days before you give your BS. I know you are a revisionist Hindu who believes in the propaganda sold to you by the hinduunity.org folks. You can drink the cool aid., but don't regurgitate the stuff from the site.
Can you cite this material you are referencing? I'd really like to see what credible journalist wrote this about her.
Really?... How about this to be fair and factual as all these supposedly "logical" guys are stating in this forum, let us tabulate all the people that claims they have been helped by Mother Teresa, the people who have their lives inspired by her and changed for the better. Now let us tabulate that compared to yours or perhaps to the one you think as a better person than Mother T. , I hope you can come up with good numbers coz Mother T. can!!
Without the simple care Mother Theresa offered, they would have been back in the gutter, naked & starving. She was trying to provide only very basic care to reach as many as possible. Wow, seeing evil where none existed. Pitiful.
As an Atheist I couldn’t agree more, she was a wonderful woman, willing to work with the poor and forgotten. She was just a great person, wish the Despots in the Vatican would realize it, instead of trying to market her for their agenda.
But didn't she work to prevent people from using condoms and contributed to the spread of aids, and even the infection of new born children?
Mother Teresa came to America and visited a museum that was displaying religious relics and artifacts including artwork and vestments that were ornate, made of gold and jewels, and very expensive. The curator for the exhibit was a priest who when he saw her felt embarrassed and said, “These are things of great value. I am ashamed that the Church does not sell these to help your mission with the poor.” She replied to the priest, “The people I minister to in India are indeed poor and hungry but they have great faith. Here in America the people may not be poor and hungry but they are poor in faith. These beautiful things act as spiritual food to your poor. That is why they are important.”
(not word for word but based on the story)
Faith is belief without evidence.
the sinking church needed a hero, and the media obliged.
Why do lepers have kids? Arent they afraid the thingie might break off while in the middle of the session?
At last, some much needed humor interjected into this discussion!
the sinking church needed a her, and the media obliged.
A lot of people don't understand that the most pious people are the ones hit by the biggest temptations to turn away from religion. Non-pious people don't need any more temptation. They already give in to temptation easily. It's very easy to be non-religious. Being atheist is one of the easiest things you can do.
It's ok to criticize Mother Teresa if you can show that you have done much more good than her in terms of loving & taking care of the poor & sick. If you haven't done squat, then what can I say :-)
I think agnosticism is easier than atheism.
"Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' Then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; go away from me, you who practice lawlessness.'
@ Valerie – I guess I'm toast then...... cause I don't do any of that. And if I did, it wouldn't be in 'his name', it would be from my heart. I don't know if that fits, but that's where it should come from if you ask me.
Valerie: How do you know that Jesus said that? Given the amount of edited, translate hearsay in those iron age stories, how can you be sure ANY of it is true to what was said?
"It's very easy to be non-religious. Being atheist is one of the easiest things you can do."
Completely backwards. It is easy to conform, to believe what you are told, to accept whatever is given to you. It is hard to think for yourself, challenge the establishment, and to accept that you have no sky daddy, that there is no eternal justice, and that when you die, you are worm food. That is a hard life to live, but it is an honest one.
It doesn't matter if she believed or did not believe; anyone that can give like she did, speaks volumes about their character. An example of humanity's better half.
You could make her a God if you want but none of it will matter if what she stood for is forgotten along with the millions of hopelessly poor. If she were alive today and saw what the new GOP stands for it would turn her inward again asking why God has forsaken her? A "Saint"? maybe? A Good Human Being, definately. RIP.
@Newtonslaw: I was moved by how you made this story political. I have now switched political affiliation because your insightful comment.
I guess we have crazy people reading the CNN.
We have a rabid muslim hating on Hindusim for some reason.
Then we have these athiests hating on a woman who did more good and made this place a little better than she found it.
did god but Christianity is evil so being christian is evil, you cant do good on earth if you pray to the tyrant God Yahweh,
she's actually quite controversial...she turned-down pain meds, for instance and she also could have transferred many of her patients to hospitals that could cure them.
Wow you sound like a muslim. In the ME, no matter what good you do; you are still evil unless you are a muslim. And a muslim can do no evil.
Are we seeing the revival of the Atheist jihad?
not an atheist, but i still have 20 reason why Christianity is evil the most important one is
it turns people away from their mother allowing her to be abused and in most cases by them. when making humans take lordship over the lands they take all the life from this world saying god gave them the right, this makes the world a worst place to live but you don't care because you think you'll go to heaven any way. this vary environmental crisis is caused by you. Christianity is killing the world, if you have been baptized you are dead, meaning you are no longer connected to the earth, and only separation from life, is death.
Christians are "rapist"
Sam what is your stance on the existence of god?
Are you agnostic? or do you follow a theism?
I'm a polytheistic-animist
i believe in all gods but the Judeo-Christian-Islamic one is a god of hatred, destruction and lies
Mother Teresa was a publicity wh o re and didn't do a whole lot to help the poor she was exploiting. Watch the episode of Penn & Teller's BS! for the details.
This woman is not worthy of Sainthood but she did do a lot for the poor. Not as much as many here think but quite a bit.
As for the publicity, she reveled in it. Made her the important figure she wished to be known as.
what kind of person are you? You don't have to like or agree with everyone, but no reason to call names. Your posts tell people what have you become – A person full of HATE HATE and HATE!!!!
i was already digging it up
Really?... How about this to be fair and factual as all these supposedly "logical" guys are stating in this forum, let us tabulate all the people that claims they have been helped by Mother Teresa, the people who have their lives inspired by her and changed for the better. Now let us tabulate that compared to yours or perhaps to the one you think as a better person than Mother T. , I hope you can come up with good numbers coz Mother T. can!! Any logical person who is up to that? oh common you really think you can come up with better numbers?....shame on you all. retards.
A publicity wh#%$, really? Clearly you have never volunteered nor dedicated any of your useless time to a non profit cause. How do you think they raise money to sustain them? By living in the shadows of their work, never stepping foot out into the world to discuss and promote what they have created and merely hoping by wod of mouth that their cause spreads by word of mouth? No, you need to "promote" and speak on behalf of your cause to continue to raise awareness. I would venture though that you love the kardashians and follow their tweets. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that, it's just entertainment. By the way, when was the last time you volunteered your time?
You would condemn her for knowing that using the publicity would help more people. Her focus was to help as many as possible. Basic care. Pain medicines are very expensive. It was probably a choice between feeding the person or giving them pain medicines. A live person in discomfort beats a smiling corpse in my book.
Well, I see the whiny little 2%-ers in here giving their opinions on religious matters
when they themselves have no religion other than their belief system otherwise
known as evolution.
Yes, they worship at the altar of evolution and Charles Darwin is their prophet.
They hate religion and anything to do with it and go out of their way to be insulting
and contentious. They are a vocal minority and would be better off to leave this
country and find one that believes the way they do.
Uh, oh...THERE IS NO SUCH COUNTRY.
I guess they are out of luck and reduced to crying in the CNN forums.
Fred, you are a member of the Christian Taliban, it seems
Yes there is N Korea. But hell no they would not move there, they would rather live in a christian country where they know they will be safe and protected.
We don't hate religion. We just don't care unless you can prove any of the magic is true. Otherwise, keep it to yourself. Science is true and real. If you disagree, you're gonna have a hard time justifying using the internet or benefiting from modern medicine. Keep your fairy tales away from reality.
Exactly; believe whatever you want to believe & hell, pass it on to your children for all we care. Just stop trying to force your beliefs and morality system on us in the form of legislature. #ChristianJihad
swordfor500: Taliban killed how much 100,000 people?
Radiacal Athiest have killed more 50 millions. Pol pot, Stalin, Hitler etc
So a christian taliban is much better than an athiest. Thankyou
Sammy: Please tell us why Christianity is the truth and Judaism and Islam are wrong. Go ahead... sell us on the religion.
The past seven years have seen a fivefold increase in people who call themselves atheists, to 5% of the population, according to WIN-Gallup International, a network of pollsters. Meanwhile the proportion of Americans who say they are religious has fallen from 73% in 2005 to 60% in 2011.
non of those are atheist Stalin was a Stalinist and a selfish he believed he was a god
Pol pot was a Stalinist he believed Stalin was god
Hitler was a Christian/Catholic hes favorite play was the passion of the Christ and he blamed the Jews for murdering him, as well as all the worlds evils.
ECT. as in,...who
Danno: I am agnostic. I like people who do good no matter what they belive in. I dont care about christianity or other religion. What I do care is when people like you fail to acknowledge good works done by people of faith and instead try to prove they are evil. What good have you done lately?
What an insane world we live in now.
Fred...do you truly have your head that far up your a$$? We do not worship evolution
Sam yaza: You made me laugh LOL
Etc?? How about the chinese commies killing the Tibetans
North Korea killing even today. Soviet commies killing millions when conquoring central asia.
Athiest only had 100 years of history and yet they were the most devastating and brutal. Even the dark days of Islam and Christianity did not kill this many people.
Doesn't take much to be a better person than Mother Teresa....take a sick person to a hospital?
i tried to open up a Kaifuku; a community center for mental, spiritual, and physical healing. but following Christin protest i got beaten nearly to death, shot, kidnapped, and stoned, 4 of my friends are still missing. regardless i do recognizes good things done by religious people actual; right no I'm working with a Christians to build a human rights sanctuary for the homeless; but even she knows that a lot of Christians are evil almost 90% she said; in fact in my opinion she lets her pagan out more then anything. she takes commune by drinking water and eating a leaf, and she does find nature sacred,.. i like heretics!
but Teresa is definitely not a good person
no f them are athiest
Mao is a Stalinist (Chinese)
Kim Il-sung was ruptured to heaven were he lives this day and rules, NK as a god
their not atheist they worship a Demi-God
now if you said the Huns who marched to Rome, killed thousands as atheist you would be right (the only truely atheist society) (no anthropomorphism, no theism, no animism, no gods)
or if yo said tao china (but only if you don't count ancestral worship as non theist) you would also be right but this pales in comparison to the dark ages
wake up!!!! It's a LOT MORE THEN 2%, who don't believe in the Religion crap.
but you know im pretty sure atheist don't worship evolution, some pagans do because that Life
Christianity is definitely the way to go....wish I could blind myself so easily...do whatever you want on earth and face the consequences after you die...sweet
Tough sell to convince us that them crusades and inquisitions weren't too bad...that dark age thing was something of note, as well.
Sam Yaza: Your spell check is making you look a bit uneducated: Who gets "ruptured" to Heaven? And "rapture" is a uniquely Christian concept, people being brought bodily off the earth and into Heaven. So I really doubt that anyone who has had a state funeral was "raptured" at all...
I would like to see all of the faithful Bible thumpers be moved to a deserted island without any antibiotics, indoor plumbing, heating, and other wonderful gadgets that science had given them and that they use on a daily basis for their own comfort and convenience. Lets take away all that from you and your kind and then see what you have to say about Charles Darwin and his "religion". In the very least atheists are honest about what they don't believe, and you sir, are a hypocrite.
What is surprising though is that the anti-religion, anti-catholic all here are posting comments, insisting that this woman is of the worst person who ever lived, convincing as that there is no god and the religion is crap.....To remind you his news is simply about Mother Teresa's bio, it never tried to convince you about god, religion or Catholicism....How are you supposed to convince me about atheism when all of the atheist here are retards???..really the likes of you will convince me about atheism and anti-religion?? If this woman would convince me that I don't exist I probably believe her, coz she has done more than anyone of us could ever do. And all you here are just retards.
"If I ever become a Saint – I will surely be one of 'darkness,'" she wrote. "I will continually be absent from Heaven – to the light of those in darkness on earth."
It's not very hard to be absent from a place that does not exist...
I am absent from Hobbiton, Valhalla, Hyperborea, Camelot, Eden, HeII and lot's of other places that don't exist. Or since they don't exist anywhere but in our minds, does that mean we are all present in them for without us they do not exist?
Funny how this arrogant pr ick came to the bible belt, in USA to die.
You can call a dead guy names if you want, but you still provide no evidence that your views have any basis in reality.
nah.. I bet he must have had more pain that a christian doctor treated him than his cancer. LOL!
She was indeed great in marketing!. How many people know that her helping the poor was far more for religious conversion of the helped? Not just noble prize, but the catholic church would make her a saint for her role in increasing christian population!
Exactly. She disproved of contraceptives and birth control. She had millions of dollars of assets, yet none were sent to the poor for helping them. She once said that 'poverty is a gift from God.' Why, when these people live in absolute misery, crowded about hospitals and whispering dying words! So many of her patients died of curable, yes, curable, diseases. I'm not calling anyone here a retard, like so many other brash people are.
she was a sadist, who raised money for the suffering people in India and gave it to the Vatican to stuff their pockets.
Unfortunate but true. Plus she required her subordinates to suffer just like the starving and sick people they were trying to help. She was remarkably cruel (not talked about much) to her fellow nuns and managed to make the Vatican a lot of money.
Danno and Sam very good responses noting she was a cruel dictator of a mother superior. She forced her group to live just like those they helped out and when all was said an done she had made the Vatican millions of dollars.
as far as i see she came to India as a christian missanary to convert Indian Hindu to christianity
as you know it has been going on since last 2000 years
so much attack on Hinduisam
but there is no servival for human without HINDUSAM
Hey patel: treat your lower caste hindus as equals then maybe we will see less conversions to christianity?? You think?
there is also no demon hipster chicks
Ms. Bojaxhiu no doubt did a lot of good for the poor. Too bad she belonged to a cult, called the Catholic Church. When she received a large cross as a token of thanks and was flying home, she made sure to give it a seat of its own in first class. Her response: "My Lord flies first class". Yeah, that was her lord – a wooden cross.
What is surprising though is that those who believe in the "real" Lord have not even help his neighbor next door, and yet the woman who thinks the cross is her lord helped millions....surprising isn't it?
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.