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.
mama T you denier of truth absolute, rot in hell. You, follower of atheist ism, chose Indian hindus over millions of muslim children in Africas.
Take some medicine, hindu, ignorant, to stop your hind pain. hindu, ignorant from hindered gutter of hinduism, racism, india.
I DON'T UNDERSTAND...MY HIND DOESN'T HURT
YOUR MOM'S DOES THOUGH
keep my mama out you hindu skunk.
more like a Shia, in comparison? They each have a propensity for public display of loathing themselves, by going after innocent women, like Mother Teresa, and Irish Aid Workers.
No, Atheism, self center ism is not of human but of pig's, self centered, their mid set is not of human but of their own kind, called hindu Jew's, filthy self centered or secular s. for more for more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file.
Muslims do not support atheism absurdity of evolution, but existence of truth absolute Muhammed, atheism absurdity of evolution is a fundamental of atheism, pagan ism, self center ism, product of observation of animals having unprotected sX, having nothing to do with Sunni, To learn causes of mayhem among atheists please visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file. Guaranteed virus free link.
hinduism, absurdity of a hindu forgoer, way of hindu's ignorant s from hindered gutter of hinduism, racism, india.
LET MY PEOPLE GO – HILLIARY CLINTON AND hussein Obama
OBAMA. LET JONATHAN POLLARD GO NOW LET MY PEOpLE GO
LET MY PEOLE GO
LET MY PEOPLE GO
LET MY PEOPLE GO SENETOR HILLIARY CLINTON
AND PRESIDENT OBAMA. LET JONATHAN POLLARD GO NOW
LET JONATHAN POLLARD GO NOW. WHAT WAS IS AND WILL BE
IN THE FUTURE. LET MY PEOPLE GO. LET JONATHAN POLLARD GO.
LET MY PEOPLE GO LET JONATHAN POLLARD GO NOW ON HUMANITARIANISM.
HE SERVED LONG ENOUGH
NEWS RELEASE: JERUSLAEM, ISRAEL
9/3/2012, Elul 16, 5772
MKs to Discuss 'Deterioration' of Relations With US
MKs will meet next week to discuss Israel's current relationship with the United States. The special session will be held next Wednesday, and was called by Kadima MKs, to discuss “the drastic deterioration of relations between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Barack H. Obama
......... (tuvia) blasted a bunch of videos and other garbage . . .
No, keep that unstable traitor Jonathan Pollard in jail where he belongs! Sold the U.S. out!
Also check out what a nutball this Richman dude is with his need for ashes from a red cow. What a kook!
hinduism, absurdity of a hindu Jew, filthy self centered, for more for more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file.
hinduism, absurdity of a hindu Jew and a pig-dog Christian Al Ahmadinebinbad, filthy self centered, for more for more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file, but turn off virus protection first.
“the drastic deterioration of relations between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Barack H. Obama" worsened today as the United States withdrew its Ambassador from Israel and called for a voluntary evacuation of US ctizens from the country. Pressures from within the Obama Administration for a punative military strike aginst Israel have been rumored since the events of September 3.
She sounds like she had her quirks and faults, but the positives makes that stuff sound petty.
Helping the poor with heart and soul- I'm stuck in the overgrowth of vines of extracting myself from poverty at the moment, so
I appreciate her.
She helped millions of people. Regardless of her question of faith, she is a Saint if not by the literal sense but figurative. For those that are trying to demonize her in the comments section of news sites, time well spent.
but I still love hearing from you!!!
She is great for her charity. Condoms what does condoms have to do with charity. The only thing our society wants is to be FREE. No rules. no moral or values. Grow up bang who you want and have a perfect life. Don't work like that. It's called self control, virtues, dignity, and so many other things you learn from the bible and I have also learned from the Catholic Church. I am better off listening to God then to what I read in a book or see on TV. Good luck to all in the life you live, just remember God loves you.
Being "free" does not mean "no rules". Birth control is a logical way to prevent unwanted pregnency and therefore abortions. And the bibles take on s.e.xual morality is not moral in any way.
Princess Diana was actually Princess of Wales, not England
"Princess Diana of England."
Perhaps they're just meant the Princess Diana from England? Otherwise wouldn't they have said Diana Princess of England? Not sure.
Atheism: the patron saint 'remedy' for those whose self-loathing bring them here to ridicule; in hopes of feeling somewhat in control of their victimized-lives.
you have My Blessing.
Repeating the same delusional nonsense over and over does not make it true. It merely makes it repet-itive delusional nonsense.
I agree. But...sometimes atheists are so hot.
Gosh, it's another born-again fortune cookie writer!
LOL – you said it, Tom. Is it a sentence? Is it a fortune? The cats provided inspiration, evidently.
but I still love hearing your one-handed claps, too!!!
and purchase a billboard near the democratic convention, in hopes of people loving them and their cause!!!
Whaddaya saaaayyy !!!
that even the democrats aren't supporting them, in 2012.
Mensa wouldn't even allow an idiot like you to sweep floors. It's "athEist", moron.
atheists don't even merit capitalization, when they appear at the beginning of a sentence.
see: CNN.com article posts re: Mother Teresa
Allah O Akbur Praise Allah. Mama T can go to hell.
Islam, the religion of peace and love. F the prophet
You sound like those hate filled Athiests.
hinduism, absurdity of a hindu Id thief.
Used dull needles in her "hospitals" to cut costs.
Believed that,"The suffering of the poor does the World a great deal".
Her "hospitals" were little more than straw mats in gutters for "Untouchables" waiting to die.
Most of her money went to build Catholic schools for rich Americans...
Yeah, but she's so hot when she flashes that smile. Even teef, too!
Oh you poor poor soul, Please do something with your own life, before maligning some genuinely good person.
If he was maligning a good person, I'd agree with you.
The USA was built on christian principals if you're unclear, take a look at the religious beliefs of your founding fathers.
Which ones??...Jefferson?...Thomas Paine? Adams? I think you'd be disappointed. By the way, that link is for morons...
hinduism, BS of a Mithriac hindu, pagan savior ism, labeled as Christian, USA was not built on hinduism, racism of hindu's denires of truth absolute Christianity but on fundamentals of truth absolute, Mithraiac hindu's, pagan savior ism Christians deny truth absolute, foundation of USA in their hindu hinduism, pagan savior ism labeled as christianity. for more for more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file.
Sorry dude...you fail. Not true. Nice try though!
Oh, you're citing the slave-owning hypocrites?
Sorry! Seems like in the end they had to do a little thing called
ratification of the freakin Consti'tution!. I'm guessing you missed that part.
And that's why we have the wonderful ever-expanding application of separartion of church and state. Yipeee!
If you are unclear, take a look at the Consti.tution where it states clearly "...no religious test shall ever be required..."
Oops – should be "separation of church and state" – sorry, Tom. lol.
Cult of the Crazies continues unabated!
Putting a Crazy lady with a deviant fascination with crucifixion pain distributing the pain meds for cancer patients?
Hell, that’s as twisted as having thousands of child buggering men being put in charge of schools for little kids!
Even the RCC isn't that crazy.
Wait, what’s that you say?
The child bugguring men are gay people of your kind, who have infiltrated the church. The fact that they happen to be priests does not take away the fact that they are gay, so if you want to blame somebody blame your brothers.
What makes you think they're gay, you dolt? Most pedophiles are not, in fact, gay. Look it up before you make yourself look more like a pile of dung than you already do.
Not before you Kafeer, ignorant, America belong's to Muslim's, pay attention to fundamental, of American consti tution we trust. IN MOHAMMED, TRUTH ABSOLUTE OR ALLAH, AL, THE , LA, LIMIT, H, MOST HIGH OR ABSOLUTE 360*. CHRISTIANS, JEWS, HINDUS, IGNORANT TRINITY, FAKE ABSOLUTE , defiance under cover religion, of American fundamental is not permitted, kafeer deniers of truth absolute have an opportunity to follow fundamental ISLAM of, truth absolute 360* un divided or go to gutter of atheistism, illegality called America. please visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1uwOL4rB-go
hinduism, absurdity of a hindu ID thief, way of hindu's crooks to hind, fool humanity.for more for more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file.
please visit my video too at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1uwOL4rB-go
The best case of idiocy I saw so far.
Smart woman, particularly where she said there are plenty of nuns to take care of the rich and none for the poor. That certainly goes for the priesthood too.
Reading atheist comments about Mother Theresa has decimated most of the respect I had for them. Only an atheist could demonize Mother Theresa, a new low, even for them!
You could actually do the research on the criticisms against her. She was not by any means a nice person, and no amount of crying about the mean atheists is gonna change that.
You have read but not understood Hitchens. No surprise.
Jesus, Joseph & doggie-position Mary...
If you want to see the Mother Theresa that you never wanted to see- and the one that her worshippers want to suppress from public knowledge- read "The Missionary Position" by Christopher Hitchens. None of his allegations against her were ever disproven. So much for a "saint." More religious bunk courtesy of the R.C.C. Cheers, all!
Because no one dignified the absurd claims to prove them wrong you think they must be true? You give atheism a bad name.
"None of his allegations against her were ever disproven. "
Not the strongest case ever made.
Hitchens for sainthood!
The whole story behind this wonderful and selfless woman should lift us all up as Christians. Bless her and praise her. Atheists are simply hateful people who hate God. End of story.
Wrong. As an atheist and free-thinker I'm filled with anger, not hatred. As for "hating God" it's hard to hate something that doesn't exist. HTH
If you are honest with yourself you know you have God's light inside, but your pride won't let you burn God's candle. The problem with atheists' is that they don't want to believe in the Lord.
She and her ilk have caused misery with mixing religion and charity as one.
Millions of people surely suffer from HIV because of her insane thinking and teaching about condoms.
No, because of their own hinduism, ignorance, for more for more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file.
The people probably couldn't afford condoms anyway, and gee, I guess abstaining was not an option for them!
Allah O Akbur Praise Allah. Mama T can go to hell.
Let's see, Catholic Church teaches in favor of monogomous s e x which prevents aids.
CC teaches against promisuity which encourages aides.
People violate the above, they get aides.
Now your contention is that the cause of people getting aides is they don't use condoms because the CC tells them not to. Well let's see the CC tells them not to do what prevents aids, ie. not engage in risky behavior and they don't listen. Why would they listen on the condomn advice?
People are have inate desire for s.e.x. it is in our nature and by definition natural. It is unnatural to repress our s.e.xual desires. It is not as simple as you and the CC make your argument and you are being dishonest...just like the church.
@gerald: It's "AIDS" & "condom". jesus christ.
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.