home
RSS
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.)

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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • India • Leaders • Opinion

soundoff (1,499 Responses)
  1. Toby

    Mother Teresa rules!!!

    September 10, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      She rules? What????

      September 10, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Toby

      I’m saying she was an amazing individual.

      BTW, since you’re a college admissions guru, can you advise if a state college would accept the credit from a class someone would take from a community college? Thanks a bunch!

      September 10, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Truth of her deeds, truth absolute God, rules the world. for more visit for more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Rufus T. Firefly

      Although the guru may well know the answer, that is really more of an Academic Advising question. In general, yes, as long as the school is accredited and the course meets university standards and fulfills some requirement. Core courses in your major may have to be taken at the university.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • Toby

      Thanks and I love Duck Soup.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  2. glades2

    Mother Teresa was as all saints are – humanly vulnerable in every sense, but in the end their life was changed and in the process changed other lives, too...

    September 10, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      However, all along the road, MT left the bodies of the poor who suffered unmeasurably, on her way to changing the world. Yeah, she changed it, by taking in billions of dollars for the Catholic Church and spending nearly NOTHING on the poor and sick in India.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Snow

      @guru.. proof?

      September 10, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  3. Pravin Banker

    My daughter wrote as her essay in a submission to Boston College "How I found Mother Teresa"... she was attending the Convent of the sacred Heart in Greenwich, CT., at the time and she journeyed to Calcutta in 1992 at the age of 10 to "find the Mother". In the year 2000, at the age of 17, she applied to Boston College...... the essay included a photo of her alongside Mother Teresa as well as a prayer that the Mother gave her...she was admitted in the top 10 tier.. if Mr Van Biema is interested, I could scan and send it to him..

    September 10, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  4. Steve

    They didn't go into detail about the purported "miracle" but this woman prays to her and a beam of light comes out of a picture of Theresa and heals her tumor. It is amazing that an entire organization like the Roman Catholic church would not only believe such nonsense but use to advance someone's status. What a throw back to the dark ages.

    And those who will decry that "how do I know it isn't true?", we are under no obligation to disprove anything. Fantastic claims require fantastic proof. Even someone who has had a tumor disappear (and many have) would need to prove that it was their specific religious experience that caused the disappearance. Simply saying "I prayed and my tumor disappeared" means nothing.

    September 10, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Snow

      Also interesting is, Mother Teresa never claimed herself that she prayed for the woman and made the tumor go away.. It was only others who attributed that "miracle" to her name..

      September 10, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Josh -- Denver, CO

      Steve, I am sometimes left speechless by the lack of cohesive thought by people like yourself. 1) By definition, a miracle is a supernatural phenomenon, in other words it requires that God interact with the world in a way that is "unnatural" at least in terms of the laws of nature. The point is, believing in miracles a priori requires belief in God. If you don't believe in God then miracles for you are simply impossible. 2) To the charge that this is stuff from "the dark ages", you might be surprised to know there is a medical bureau consisting of atheist, agnostic, Jewish and Catholic doctors charged with the task of explaining how those who had terminal illnesses were instantly and irreversibly cured of their terminal illness. All the doctor can do in his capacity is state there is no natural explanation for what occurred. For the modern mind, it remains "unexplained". The Church is then the one who can either accept or reject these cases as bona fide miracles. There are 72 or 76 such cases that happened at one place (Lourdes, France). Maybe you should read up before sounding like a such a fool in public.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      The beatification process is fascinating. Rather than condemn it out of hand why don't you study it and see how rigorous it is?

      September 10, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Josh, I'm astonished that grown people are willing to believe things that are not supported by evidence. At what point do you intend to take possession of your adulthood and start to question these "miraculous" tales?

      September 10, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Josh -- Denver, CO

      talullah, apparently you stopped reading my post halfway through it. There is evidence, you just choose to ignore it since for you it cannot be otherwise your worldview would come tumbling down. Do you understand the words "terminal illness"?

      September 10, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  5. Mike

    I opine that the world is a more interesting place because of MT, just look at all the thought she has provoked.

    September 10, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  6. Loki

    "the dead only know on thing...it's better to be alive." – "Full Metal Jacket"

    September 10, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  7. Loki

    Ole Mother Teresa finally found out late in life she was hoodwinked. Spent her entire life converting lepers to Christianity. HA. Jesus actually said render on to Caesar which is Caesar's. Proverbs says "God helps those who help themselves". I like that in Jesus. He was also a practice being. All this pius BS about who is the most moral and loving is ridiculous. The best course of action we can take in this world is said best by "Welcome to the Jungle".

    September 10, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • JECD

      Wow. I'm agnostic and I find your comment cynical and cold hearted.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Loki

      Practical and efficient is the best way to run the world. Many govt sponsored humanitarian efforts should be discontinued. MT threw her life away. Just read her later works.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Best course for humanity is to follow truth absolute in life and dump hinduism denial of truth absolute God, for more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  8. The Atheist Pope, Stephen Hawking, may say Mother Teresa...

    is in no "Heaven," BUT

    Stephen Hawking's just critically-thinking into his diaper.

    September 10, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • .

      seek help for your low self esteem issues.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • huh!

      if even for a second you could not look past stephen hawking's view of faith and focus on his contributions to the understanding of the world around, you can be classified as a word that starts with "R" and ends with another word that defines you..

      September 10, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Tax Damned Churches NOW

      Unfortunately for YOU he was not mostly "critically thinking"... he was REPORTING the truth bout MT... her manipulative self-aggrandiing and blatant theft. She did good works but moire harm than good perpetuating your catholic ignorance, anti-science inducement of unnecessary disease and misery, planet-suicidal opposition to birth control, and subjugation of women.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • tallulah13

      ALS is a devastating disease. By mocking a man who has done more for this world while crippled and slowly dying from ALS than you will ever accomplish in perfect health, you simply reveal yourself to be a petty malicious jerk.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  9. Jon Matthew

    Her faith was truly amazing. Thank you for teaching us poor souls true love for humanity and may we all be as courageous as you and pick up our crosses for the life of the world. May you be close to our precious Lord in Heaven. Thank you sweet Mother.

    September 10, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
  10. Rufus T. Firefly

    I don't see any reason to argue that Mother Teresa didn't do some wonderful and selfless things, but in her own words she expressed that she was doing them without any emotional or intellectual connection at all with God or Jesus. While her personal integrity may have led her to great works, it was religion that forced her hand in her shortcomings (withholding contraception, promoting ideas about "miracles," not being honest and forthcoming about her doubt in God).

    If anything, her legacy should not be one of laughable claims to miracles, but one of how behaving selflessly and morally does not require any sort of belief in God.

    September 10, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Jon Matthew

      Rufus, you have know idea what it means to walk in the path of our Lord and what that truly means. If you did you would not question her profound faith for the Logos. You speak of which you do not understand.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Ach! Yuir no Scotsman, ya silk wearin' poodle walker!

      September 10, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  11. Alger Dave

    One other thing left out of this article – she was also a stalwart defender of the life of the unborn. As mentioned above, she developed homes for the pregnant mothers of the homeless. It would have undoubtedly been much cheaper to provide abortions, but she took the much harder road. In fact, she regularly entreated politicians and celebrities alike to reconsider pro-abortion policies in the West, and return to a strong defense of the unborn. This may not be popular today (and wasn't really in her time either), but it was what she was about.

    September 10, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • SirToYe

      She limited the choice of women, and if you want to put a society into the poor house, repressing women is a requirement.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      and by doing so she encouraged overpopulation in countries all ready plagued by it and facilitated the spread of AIDS.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Dood

      @SirToYe: I think quite the opposite. Can you imagine living a lifetime with the guilt that you killed your own unborn child? I certainly couldn't. At least these women were able to have the child and give it up for adoption if being a parent wasn't for them. I think it was probably liberating, actually. Morally, I could never subscribe the the "choice" thing. No way is a "decision" greater than a life.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I wonder how many children are being adopted in India. I know that in the United States there are over a half-million children in foster care right now, and the great majority of them will never be adopted. Many of them will end up with unwanted children of their own, and some of them will end up in jail, or abused or killed by foster parents.

      Of course, the best way to prevent abortions AND unwanted children is birth control, but the catholic church is opposed to that. You kind of have to wonder why they think their brand of child abuse warrants them supernatural reward.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      She could have promoted birth control as a pro-active solution (as could the church). She took a more difficult and a much less logical approach.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  12. Les Too

    This is a good story about a woman who followed her ideals. It has nothing to with Hinduism, atheism, Islamic or Xtian beliefs. If everyone put in just a thousandth of the effort Theresa or Diana put forward, this world would be a far better place for all. As a practicing pagan, I am a bit surprised that Hindu shrines dedicated to Theresa are not already being built..

    September 10, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  13. Manmohan A Dhar

    Islam is a poorly concocted mock up of Judaism and early Christianity. It's an embarrassment even by the embarrassing standards of religion. Muslims, grab a clue.

    September 10, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Tax Damned Churches NOW

      ,,,and yet you religionists are about to elect the King of the Mormons... a "religion" more hilariously fantastical than Scientology, built on lust, greed, and subjugation of women (ask if Mrs Mitt wears holy undergarments sometime why dontcha?) Religion is both obsolete and a marketing triumph at the same time... exploiting the least intelligent, least educated, least sophisticated,most frightened, most desperate.... You can be a much better kinder more generous person without religion. Tax churches as the commercial businesses they are.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  14. Enlightened Snail

    Wow..shame on these crazy people posting vile comments on this page. I don't care what religion you are you can't deny this lady did wonderful amazing things for people that have absolutely no (zero) hope the sick, the lepers, and the extreme poor. I hope you all take a minute to think could i do the same.. not would you but could you.. do you have the capability in your heart to do so. You don't neither do I.. we would be doing it right now if we could. Stop messing with Mother Theresa you wack job republicans.

    September 10, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      "I don't care what religion you are you can't deny this lady did wonderful amazing things for people that have absolutely no (zero) hope the sick, the lepers, and the extreme poor."

      Well apparently one can deny it because someone did, and wrote a book about it.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Missionary_Position_(book)

      September 10, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Vinnie

      Nice sentiment

      September 11, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  15. Debster

    No one is perfect, Mother Teresa was a real person with real feelings which would include doubt, despair, darkness, etc. However, she didn't use it as an excuse to do nothing.... Regardless on whether you believe in God or not, she helped people who couldn't help themselves. That counts for something. It's disturbing that a woman can spend her whole life helping people and 15 years after her death, she is reduced to being called the c word. Where is the respect? Where is common decency? I fear for this world.

    September 10, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  16. rizzo

    I wasn't a giant fan of Chris Hitchens, but he really did some good work exposing MT for the hypocrite she was. I'd advise everyone to check it out before taking this article at face value.

    September 10, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Johnny 5

      Agreed. Hitches did a great job on exposing MT. MT didn't wasn't who everybody thought she was.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Mother Theresa would have exposed Hitchens but she had more important things to do.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  17. FAIZA MIRZA DAWN NEWS SEP 10 2012

    En route to a strange country, crossing the all too familiar roads of Karachi, I saw a poster featuring Jinnah with a small line stating “Pakistan needs you”. Mr Singh, never before did I feel such fierce emotion. The words struck me and for the first time in my life, made me realise that we all have failed Jinnah and the Pakistan he envisioned.

    Like many others before and after me, I am running for safer pastures where my life will be valued and respected, leaving my fellow countrymen behind to fight with the demons that dictate the order of the day in Pakistan, my home.

    I don’t know what would I have done if was given an option to move to India. Perhaps, I would have moved but this is a question that will remain unanswered unless your government starts treating dejected Pakistanis on equal footing as HinduS

    September 10, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  18. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    Muslims do not support Catholics absurdity of evolution, but existence of truth absolute Muhhamed, Catholism absurdity of evolution is a fundamental of Christianity, pagan ism, self center ism, product of observation of animals, having nothing to do with physical science,

    To learn causes of mayhem in your country, please visit my video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1uwOL4rB-go and click on Like.

    September 10, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "product of observation of animals, having nothing to do with physical science, "

      er, observation of the world around us is the very epitome of 'physical science'.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      hinduism absurdity of a hindu, Id thief from hindered gutter of hinduism, racism india.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • me me

      You are a horrible person and a racist. Take you hate somewhere else perhaps your family if you have got one.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Drink my Kool-aid

      Dude drink some of my look aid, it will calm you down...to death.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  19. FAIZA MIRZA

    En route to a strange country, crossing the all too familiar roads of Karachi, I saw a poster featuring Jinnah with a small line stating “Pakistan needs you”. Mr Singh, never before did I feel such fierce emotion. The words struck me and for the first time in my life, made me realise that we all have failed Jinnah and the Pakistan he envisioned.

    Like many others before and after me, I am running for safer pastures where my life will be valued and respected, leaving my fellow countrymen behind to fight with the demons that dictate the order of the day in Pakistan, my home.
    DAWN NEWS SEPT 10 2012

    I don’t know what would I have done if was given an option to move to India. Perhaps, I would have moved but this is a question that will remain unanswered unless your government starts treating dejected Pakistanis on equal footing as Hindus.

    September 10, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  20. Alan

    After reading some of these posts, I have to ask why the hatred and anger? No one can argue that she helped thousands
    of poor people and should be remembered as someone who made a difference.

    How many of us can say that?

    September 10, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • TC

      Alan – if one is a cowardly atheist they must come on here because they can't deal with it in the real world. Also, lots of haters out there – they need to tear down people that actually do something so they can feel validated in their pathetic non-contributing lives.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • .

      "vAlan – if one is a cowardly atheist they must come on here because they can't deal with it in the real world. Also, lots of haters out there – they need to tear down people that actually do something so they can feel validated in their pathetic non-contributing lives."

      pot meet kettle, kettle meet pot.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "cowardly atheist"
      "pathetic non-contributing lives"

      yep, a lot of haters here certainly..... you for example.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • Snow

      The biggest idiot and hypocrite I have seen all of today on these comments blog is the guy who goes by the nick "TC".. his comment here being the prime example for the reason.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • TC

      God, atheists are so hot.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Eric

      You have certainly drank the cool-aid on this issue. MT was a women who helped many stay exactly where they were – sure she fed them and helped them have children they couldn't afford and in the end that was fine with her – poverty = nobility in her mind. What the women of Calcutta needed was freedom, access to birth control, and yes, access to abortion – none of which they could get with the Sisters of Charity. All the while she did this she enjoyed fame the world over and she used this fame to publicly support any criminal who gave her enough money (Charles Keating and Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier come to mind). I am not a believer in Religion but I have known many who have done truly noble services to mankind and my family was personally touched by a group of Catholics working in China and we owe them much – she did not make such contributions
      .

      September 10, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24
Advertisement
About this blog

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.