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

My Take: The Mother Teresa you don’t know

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

By David Van Biema, Special to CNN

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

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

A lot, it turns out.

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

1. She was born a rich girl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. She changed our view of the poor.

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

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

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

4. She was a marketing guru.

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

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

5. She cultivated her celebrity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- CNN Belief Blog

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

soundoff (1,499 Responses)
  1. john

    for more on the "real" mother terry, i recommend THE MISSIONARY POSITION" by Christopher Hitchens you will Truly be Enlightened

    September 17, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Chuck M.

      What a tremendous article! Mother Theresa, we miss you!! Tell us that you've left successors behind. Please?

      September 17, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Chuck M.

      John, why are you so threatened by this beautiful, small woman, that you feel the need to do as you've done? If you choose not to believe, fine, but her work cannot be denied.

      September 17, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Kyle

      For more on judgmental, annoying atheist zealots, I recommend this and other messageboard posts! Love how you guys, advocates of stuff like free thought and critical thinking, automatically buy into every single thing your demigods like Hitchens or Dawkins tell you.

      September 17, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  2. Mahmoud Ghaffari

    did Jesus speak in Greek, Indian or English to her, when the messages were relayed to her? Which begs the question, where they sent electronically or via snail mail? Postal service in India is notoriously slow and inefficient. Grow up people, religion is just a business for a few to rule over the many.

    September 17, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • redd

      @Mahmoud Ghaffari – She gave up riches to help the poor in India, and in return she asked for nothing. Where is your hate coming from?

      September 17, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • redd

      For the record, the religion of HATE is Islam.

      September 17, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  3. Lilly Munster

    She was a fanatical catholic ghoul. She stated "it is more righteous to die in poverty than in the sin of using contraception."
    She celebrated the death spiral that results when Free Choice for Women, contraception, and sanity are honored. Like catholic doctrine, she would rather see people dead than violate church doctrines. She was NOT a saint, she was just another deranged theological idealogue. She also repudiated her "faith" in declaring it "empty." EMPTY. Says it all.

    September 16, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • Damocles

      Yes, well, some people use poor people as a way to feel better about themselves.

      September 16, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • TheZel

      ...and that folks, was a word from the Devil. ignore.

      September 17, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  4. Peter

    This woman was a mother? I didn't think nuns were allowed to mar

    September 16, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  5. Bobby Dias

    Mother Teresa was an inspiration to many BUT she did not have much, if any, organization sense to put togeteher the work that is credited to her- her mind kept going on to other subjects without developing the original whatever. She had a great bunch of organizers that supervised the different programs that she was supposed to have created- I say supposed to have created because it was more like her overlooking the activities so much that she did not know where much of anything had come from. Do not get me wrong- she did great in going around checking on things but it was her helpers that started much and kept things going. Mother Teresa continually forgot the dozens of small centers I raised donations for outlying districts of Calcutta and other cities, but that was ok with me because the helpers kept those centers stocked with supplies that I and many wealthy of India that contributed to that system.

    September 16, 2012 at 8:38 am |
  6. annafr

    Isn't this the lady who would not allow birth control and the poor women would have children who would then die of disease and starvation in this nun's 'saintly' arms?

    September 16, 2012 at 6:47 am |
    • tomasa

      Yes. She believed life God allows is worthwile because of the heavenly origin of life. We do not get to choose what the life looks like, if it is pleasant to think about. If you are concerned with those who die unloved in the dirt become someone who helps, not merely someone who critcize a woman who, with all she was, served both frail humans and the Immortal God who created them-and you-up.

      September 16, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Bobby Dias

      Mother Teresa believed in the woman having her choice of birth control or not- not have some so-called doctors strap a woman to a table and rip out her insides so that she would not have a baby. A favorite trick of some so-called pro-choice activists is to go to a woman who uses condoms and say to the world that the woman is not using the pill. Then the activists go to a woman who uses the rhythm method and says to the world that she is not using condoms- then the activist asks for money to teach these women to use birth control. Knowing that the women are using their choice of birth control the activists go home with pockets full of donated money made by their fraud.

      September 16, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • David

      Sorry to be off subject, but annafr comments are an example of attacks on Christians ( our lord told us to expect this and forgive) can happen but we don't launch rockets into embassays and murder people, nor do we run in the streets burning flags like maniacs. We can all learn from mother Teresa's compassion and the human touch to all those who are in any kind of pain.

      September 16, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • sam stone

      I see the vaunted persecution complex is still alive and well within David

      September 17, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • redd

      @sam stone – Don't get upset at David because he speaks the truth.

      September 17, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      Amazing how people can be so willfully ignorant about what Theresa actually advocated, or know and think it's a good thing.

      September 17, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  7. Nick

    Not exactly a ballanced article was it? One doesn't have to have met this woman in order to form an opinion of her agenda and the methods she employed to promote it. The best you can say is that she was a good catholic, if there can be such a thing.

    September 16, 2012 at 2:06 am |
    • Mel

      It was meant to be an article, it is an opinion piece. Opinion being the key word here!

      September 19, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  8. Atheism is Great for Kids and Grown-Ups Too!

    It's really best for all people including children to have an agnostic approach to god, and an atheistic approach to all religion. It keeps things simple for kids, and lets them be all that they can be. They just need to be taught that some things, like all religion, were just made up by salesmen and politicians from long ago**; and that other things, like god, we really don't know a damn thing about.

    Atheists have strong minds and don't need a religion. Sometimes, religious folk run and hide their misdeeds within their religion (and by doing so, they disserve society). Sometimes, religious folk are easily offended when someone mocks their make-believe characters – and, as we can see they can get really CRAZY!

    Religions are just big old evil clubs – each trying to out do each other and inspiring hate and division along the way (disguised as love).

    So instead of praying to make-believe people, get a good cup of tea and go on and sit down and collect your damn thoughts. My goodness.

    ** (yes, charlatan spam started long before the Bible; what would make you think it hadn't?)

    mama kindless

    September 15, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Arvoasitis

      As Albert Einstein is said to have retorted when pressed for a simpler explanation, "An explanation can be as simple as possible, not any simpler." Agnosticism seems to make everything simpler than possible.

      September 15, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
    • Teresita H. Gebhard

      And that is why radical Muslims extremists ( who do not represent the Muslim world) go 'CRAZY' when we mock their religion. If people, like Mother Theresa, do good things in the name of her chosen faith – what is so wrong with that? I respect the thoughts/ rationales of my Agnostic and Atheist friends. Please respect mine; I am Catholic.

      September 16, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • David

      It appears from you comments you have made a religion of atheism.

      September 16, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Who me?

      @ David yes it is now a religion,so where is the tax free status?

      September 16, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
  9. Iann

    Oh, and by the way, that cancerous tumor (supposedly), that Mother Teresa was credited with making disappear? It turned out not to be cancerous, and it was removed by a doctor! Never mind, they're going to make her a saint anyway. Reminds me of the Catholic church's hanging on to the idea of the Shroud of Turin as the shroud that Jesus was buried in, in spite of the science showing that it dates from a much later century. It's all part of the whole world of religious mythology, the scourge of modern life. Might as well be a Scientologist. Great article in the latest Vanity Fair about that fraudulence, or is it flatulence?

    September 15, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  10. Askmehow

    THERE IS NO MANUAL FOR LIFE.

    People need to stop bsing No one is born with the bible or the koran attached to the umbilical cord.

    September 15, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  11. Iann

    Christopher Hitchens said "Mother Teresa wasn't a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty." For a view of the real Mother Teresa, read his book "Missionary Position."

    September 15, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • Dave

      a fine piece of reading material, friend.

      September 16, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  12. David in Tampa

    I am only talking about the writer spewing silliness...... not The good old lady

    September 14, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
  13. David in Tampa

    I referred to Herod's daughter as a nasty word and got censored....free speech indeed. Can you imagine if there was a person to shoot at you in the village square in times past when you spoke the wrong word? Thomas pain would have been killed

    September 14, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
  14. David in Tampa

    We Will try this again.... What blasphemous malarkey. Sort of like the pope in charge referring to himself as "WE". Are you really comparing this woman to St Paul. formally known as Saul? really? Paul was made a Saint by Jesus the night before he got his head cut off to satisfy the whim of Herod's nasty daughter.

    September 14, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
    • Mel

      "Paul was made a Saint by Jesus the night before he got his head cut off to satisfy the whim of Herod's nasty daughter." Take another look at the Scripture before you use it to lambast Christians if you want people to take you seriously. Jesus did not make anyone a saint. Saul was converted and it was several years and many journeys before he ultimately died at the hands of Salome and Herod.

      September 19, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Mel

      Actually, it was John the Baptist that died at the hands of Herod and Salome. My bad!

      September 19, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  15. David in Tampa

    oh jeese more censorship

    September 14, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
  16. Pietra

    Mother Teresa did not help the poor, she exploited them. Her hospitals were awful. When she was ill, she flew to LA for healthcare. She was a money-maker for the Catholic Church, a hypocrite among hypocrites. The money she brought in went to building convents, not helping patients in those horrible facilities. Now, I guess David Van Biema can make money off this hogwash.

    September 14, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • wms

      As I an Indian and having seen the work that her order (The Missionaries of Charity) carry out, all I can say that you are misguided and ill informed. You have obviosuly no justification for your accusation because its untrue. When somebody does good, appreciate the work and try to emulate the good deeds the person has done rather than criticise and slander the person. At the end of day, she will have her reward in heaven and richly deserved as well. Peace!!

      September 14, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • Roberto

      Who are you to judge Mother Teresa? Do you know her heart? She dedicated her whole life,gave up everything to be with the poor and minister to the poor.Did you do that? Did you give up your comfort to go to afar away land of desease and filth and help and love and bring the love of God to the poorest of the poor? No doubt you're a liberal fool who believe's Obama is helping the poor by making them dependent on the government so he could gain more power for himself...Who's exploiting the poor...FOOL!!!

      September 14, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
    • Pietra is ugly

      And Pietra, wonder what you've done in your life other than get fat and suk donkey dik.

      September 14, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
  17. mzh

    You know its unfortunate that human recognizes death human more than recognizing their Creator... The Creator heals human and human give thanks to these dead human... don't they think that the death has no access to this earth any more... once you are gone from this earth, means you are gone from this earth... and you had your chances to do good but you did not... or you did what you did... there is no way to come back and do good and go back again... The Creator of heavens, the earth and anything between them takes care of us and we submit ourselves to other human who also can not survive without the help of The Creator.... who gives authorities to these poeple?

    Quran teaches in one of the chapters (chapter # 100) and also some other places... that The Almighty made the horse to be dutifule to its master where most of the human are ungreatful to their Master The Creator... how? by doing this action... I am being healed by The Almighty and I appreciate human who is also part of the creation who has no power over anything unless the power comes from his Creator....

    I pray to The Almighty that show us all the straight path and not to associate any human/objects/creation with HIM.... amin

    Peace!!!

    September 14, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    September 14, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • hal 9000

      I'm sorry "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things", but you assertions regarding atheism and prayer are unfounded. I see that you repeat these unfounded statements with high frequency. Perhaps the following book might help you overcome this problem:

      I'm Told I Have Dementia: What You Can Do... Who You Can Turn to...
      by the Alzheimer's Disease Society

      September 14, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • annafr

      Why do you say the samething over and over in every opinion blog on cnn?

      September 16, 2012 at 6:49 am |
  19. TexanSwagger86

    Like if you go to belief blog only to laugh at comments

    September 14, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  20. Mr Rational

    Great Article. You can't stop the Truth. This woman dedicated her life to working in situations where nobody else wanted to work, with the poorest street people – proof exists, and yet still there are nasty critics. Why? Because they can't stand the fact that a Catholic Nun did the most for all these poor people, the atheists, the new agers, some of the non Catholics – can't stand to give her the truthful credit she deserves. No Matter God has. To the critics and liars, what you say and do is between you and God and you'll face that someday. Good luck.

    September 14, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • mzh

      There is no question about what she did was noble... giving up the luxeries and live with poor and help them... of course not everyone can do this...

      The teaching of Catholic is not to read the bible but to listen what pope tells you... so what if pope tells you something which is not there in the bible.... wow i wondered when i heard from my uniterian friend's catholic wife that she told not to read bible but just to listen... and too many things she discovered that they are not in the bible but was being taught by the priest....

      Human have to take initiatives to discover the truth by using their gift which is brain to be able to differentiate the wrong from correct ones.... i pray for the entire mankind to acknowledge the truth and not to run behind untruth....

      Peace!!!

      September 14, 2012 at 3:01 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.