September 10th, 2012
10:16 AM ET

My Take: The Mother Teresa you don’t know

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

By David Van Biema, Special to CNN

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

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

A lot, it turns out.

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

1. She was born a rich girl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. She changed our view of the poor.

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

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

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

4. She was a marketing guru.

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

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

5. She cultivated her celebrity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • India • Leaders • Opinion

soundoff (1,499 Responses)
  1. Jim P.

    I will simply note that while her "beloved poor" languished in "hospitals" that the west would condemn as slums, she herself had not the slightest problem being flown first class to the best hospitals in the world for treatment

    You might also want to inquire as to the bank balance for her "sisters". I understand it's a pretty good chunk of change and it's just sitting there since poverty and suffering is good for the soul according to the medieval views of this 'saint".

    Simple facts, easily checked.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  2. cd

    David what gives you the right to do this study,the school you attended or a the rich family that paid for your LIBERAL education. You might go back and research those who make fun of GOD and those who do there find work. God has a way of getting EVEN @ some point on his time frame!

    September 10, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  3. Bill

    Ahh. Reminds me of Michelle.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
  4. mary

    I second the thank you to Harvey after reading the garbage that people wrote. You don't have to believe – but what she accomplished was/is amazing and as Harvey stated, she is the Miracle.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • Carosi

      Mother Teresa was a horrible woman. Just do your research. Here, I will get you started: http://www.fitz-claridge.com/Articles/MotherTeresa.html

      September 10, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      Amazing in the sense that she deprived innocent people of needed medical care and allowed them to die in horrible conditions??? This female doesn't deserve respect of any form!

      September 10, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  5. James

    She was just a kind caring woman and that's where it ends... would have been even better if she was working undercover executing deviant pedeohile priests. Mother Theresa is "The Terminator". Coming this fall.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • Miriam

      Funny! 🙂

      September 10, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • ObjectiveGuy

      B L O W M E L O S E R ! ! !

      September 10, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
  6. person

    In one great story early in the video, Mother Teresa said she told one cancer patient that pain means Jesus is near to you and that suffering is “an opportunity to share in the passion of Christ.” She said she compared suffering to kisses from Jesus. She said the person replied, “Please tell Jesus to stop kissing me.” - From the Nation Catholic Registry. Yeah, sounds like a real sane individual.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • ObjectiveGuy

      Yes, and how many people have YOU helped in their darkest hour?

      September 10, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  7. Carlin123

    Christopher Hitchens called it right.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • rjp34652

      Hitchens didn't have enough class to wipe Mother Teresa's shoes. Hitchens was a loser who could nothing but denigrate the fine work of a magnificent human being.

      and that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

      September 10, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      Yet Mother T. allowing people to die in squalor and deprived them of needed medical attention while praying to her imaginary friend means she is deserving of respect...wow, you need to check your morals!

      September 10, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  8. sanjosemike

    A more interesting question of the MT and the Sisters of Charity is: "Where did all of those hundreds of millions donated go?" It has never been disclosed either by the Church of Sisters of Charity. For all we know it could be going to pay costs of maintaining disgraced priests, or to settle lawsuits of same.

    Please read Christopher Hitchen's funny and timely attack on MT. Even if you are a believing Catholic, he will raise some very interesting points you might want to ask your local church: The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.

    If you look up MT on Youtube you will find records of her mistreatment of dying people, and denying them medical care. She was NOT a nurse. Yet, she gave the impression (fraudulently) that she was.

    She is considered a saint. Mostly, she was an opportunist. There are other people and charities you don't hear about, who do great things. But they are not theatrical.


    September 10, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • ObjectiveGuy

      It is really a SAD commentary when the haters have to come out and attack one of the most selfless, caring, and compassionate individuals of our time. Just what do you hope to gain by trying to tear down this paragon of virtue?

      I'll also go on record and SPECULATE that just about every single MT hater on this blog is an Obama supporter. Seems like they just cannot STAND to see a person of virtue, and must try to tear them down by creating outright lies about them, to try to put doubt in the minds of the gullible. I am NOT comparing Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to Mother Teresa, BUT again, I would SPECULATE that the same haters on this blog trying to defame Mother Teresa are the same haters who are pulling the same crop with Romney/Ryan. No, I don not have proof, but the writing styles and the type of attacks being leveled do seem to be remarkably similar, as is the nastiness and pettiness. Really uncalled for.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • Ruby

      Objectiveguy: Your speculation is both petty and wrong. The haters on these blogs, yourself included, are quite simply weak egos attempting to inflate their diminished self esteem by talking down notable people who make them feel inferior. They are present on both sides of the political divide.
      As for your chosen heroes, be not deceived; the politicians in this country are rich men living lives of privilege, they are making no honorable sacrifice in what they do.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
  9. open minded person

    Do you really want to know more about M. Teresa? Check out this link.... http://muslimmatters.org/2007/08/29/what-to-make-of-mother-teresas-crisis-of-faith/

    September 10, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  10. Chuck

    I am neither a religious person nor one who usually comments but I refuse to bear witness to an outright lie and remain silent. I had the opportunity to do voluntary work with the sisters of the poor and believe me they are the definition of extreme altruism. These nuns live in immense poverty without even the most basic of possessions. I can vouch that I have witnessed these nuns hand out food donated to them while they themselves ate rotten food for weeks. I remember that on one occasion they spent a whole week eating pasta made with rotten tomatoes while the fresh produce was given to the poor. If only we could be more like them and use our energies to do good and not waste it to criticise the good done by others.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • sanjosemike

      Chuck, I appreciate your post. Another MORE important question than supplying food to the dying is: Do the Sisters of Charity DENY available medical care to the suffering?

      Most people who donate to this charity think they are donating to nurses and physicians. Yet, MT herself DENIED terminal care to patients, and at times even allowed them to die unnecessary. It's not coming from me. There are many dissolutioned volunteers who reported this in disgust.


      September 10, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • stormchaser

      You make no sense. Millions of dollars were donated so that these people could help the poor and not live in poverty...people of calcutta are still poor, the nuns are sill poor and the money lies with the vatican

      September 10, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  11. DC

    The real Mother Teresa smoked pot and delivered over 6 million abortions. Oh yeah, she was a lesbian too.

    September 10, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
    • Konno

      She did more for this world than you ever will. You are pathetic.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • Daniel

      i love seriously good, sick dark humor. LOL! to hades all who will cry and further jamb that stick up their wazoos. the woman did a saintly job but is not above being poked fun at.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • ogre12

      please feel free to cap the ignorant ramblings spewing forth from your pointy little head. what good have you done in your pathetic existance for anybody but yourself hmmm?..OH I KNOW...NOTHING. I recommend you look deep into your black heart and look at Mother Teresa's life and hardships and turn to HIM who is greater than all.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
  12. JAL

    Its time we all stopped bickering and get help to those that need it. I am talking about Africa. It wouldnt hurt if Iran and Israel could make amends and support a major aid effort instead of pointing missles at each other. There is a great plan in place. Mecca is prepared to receive millions in throughput and we have the tech to make significant progress within 2 years. Is it wrong to want to compete with Mother Teresa in trying to help more people? She is our benchmark.

    September 10, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      F.uck Africa, and all parasitic nations/continents. Africa is the most mineral rich continent on the planet. Tough s.hit for them if they can't exploit it.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:57 pm |


    September 10, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  14. Rebel4Christ

    D.S Clarke: "A little proof may show that there is a God, while no amount of proof that man can gather can ever prove that there is no God. The imprint of a bird's foot on a rock would prove that sometime a bird had visited the Atlantic Seaboard. But before anyone can say that no bird has ever been there, he must know the whole history of the coast since life began on the globe. A little evidence may show that there is a God; before any man can say that there is no God he must analyze all the matter in the universe, he must track down all forces, mechanical, electrical, vital, mental, and spiritual-he must hold converse with all spirits and understand them thoroughly; he must be in all points of space at every moment lest God somewhere and somehow elude his notice. He must be omnipotent, omnipresent and eternal, in fact he must himself be God before he can dogmatically affirm that there is no God.

    September 10, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • Chewbacca

      There is as much evidence for the existence of Yahweh as there leprechauns.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      D.S Clarke is a dick.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Actually, who the f.uck is D.S Clarke?

      September 10, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • jake

      "amount of proof"?

      September 10, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • Rebel4Christ

      What you dont understand is that there is evidence of God but none for Atheism, and also why do all atheist's resort to anger when they are proven wrong, anytime and atheist is backed into a corner it always goes to name calling ha thats not a very rational debate tactic!

      September 10, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • Guester

      That's simply because it's logically impossible to prove non existence. That in no way makes the existence of anything any more probable. The best tack is to assume nonexistence unless there is proof. Same for Bigfoot, the lockness monster, UFO's., and anything else people would like to believe.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • sosume

      That's absurd. That is the same as saying that to prove there are no flying pigs the seeker "must be in all points of space at every moment lest the [flying pig] somewhere, somehow elude [the seeker's] notice." The seeker must himself be a flying pig before he himself can dogmatically affirm there are no flying pigs.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
  15. therealpeace2all

    Reblogged this on peace2alldotme.

    September 10, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  16. Me

    Being a saint has nothing to do with being voted in. Anyone who is born again is a saint because all their sin has been paid for and therefore is blameless in the sight of God, that's a saint.

    September 10, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • Chewbacca

      Its wonderful that america is made of a large percentage of willfully delusional freaks like yourself.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      I've known plenty of "born again" Christians who resembled devils in the way they behaved and treated other people. . .biggest hypocrites in the world.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Peter

      James 2:26 "For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also." Remember that 'works' does NOT equal 'works of the law.' Works means good works like love, patience, etc. Works of the law is culture laws like wearing a veil, etc. James 2:24 "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified and NOT BY FAITH ALONE." Paul said 'works of the law' is an error to rebuke with as it is a straw man fallacy.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • ogre12

      you are so correct "ME".

      September 10, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • Not a Scholar

      "Born Again" is more brainwashing. And certainly does not make anyone a saint. Plenty of people are firm believers and followers without have to reconfirm a lost faith. It's just another way to sell you on something. Oh yeah. Saints are chosen by God. Not someone here on Earth.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  17. Chewbacca

    Its amazing that otherwise rational people are able to believe in a bronze-age, middle-eastern, murderous deity named Yahweh and his son, Jesus, who is actually Yahweh too.

    September 10, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • darth vader

      y don't you keep sucking lightsabers chewie?

      September 10, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  18. Tom

    God never "flips a switch" to turn a bad person into a good one. Saul was doing bad things but he sincerely thought he was doing good. Saul's heart was open to God, so God rushed in, knocked him down, and showed him the right path. God won't do that if you have closed your heart. Saul was mistaken, but he was intent on the Lord. God changed Saul into Paul because Saul was striving to serve God.

    September 10, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      The story of Saul's unification of Israel is just more proof of how bulls.hit the whole Yahweh thing is.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • askjdhfa

      Athiests have no knowledge of the Bible proven by Rational Libertarian who did not even realize that Tom was talking about a different Saul not the Old Testament one... dur

      September 10, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
  19. Joe

    Manuel J – Facts please.

    September 10, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  20. Harvey

    I don't know if any miracles can be attributed to Mother Teresa She was the miracle..

    September 10, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • Te

      Thank you Harvey for a civilized, rational, kind and uplifting response.

      September 10, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • SirBobowe

      Harvey, that is a refreshing, civilized response....I agree with Te

      September 10, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
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