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. Episcopal Layman

    Whoops! Sorry for the double post. [Ook]

    September 10, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  2. Jason

    Of course hell bound morons hate her! If any of you haters had an ounce of the goodness she had, you wouldn't say those horrible things about her.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • Tom

      Amen, Jason. And I'm not a Republican, I'm a Democrat. I'm the first to admit I'm nothing compared to her.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • GAW

      Well what can I say we need our Westboro Baptist Church folks and angry atheists to keep us entertained.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • keyser

      Oh, so you knew her then?

      September 10, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
  3. Ella

    "Despite her humanitarian reputation and 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa had set up a worldwide system of "homes for the dying" that routinely failed to provide adequate care to patients, Hitchens argued — an appraisal shared by The Lancet, a respected medical journal. Mother Teresa also associated with, and took large sums of money from, disreputable figures such as American savings-and-loan swindler Charles Keating and the dictatorial Duvalier family of Haiti."

    September 10, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
    • Tom

      What did Christopher Hitchens ever do to help people in need (except to insult people who sacrifice their life in attempt to help people in need)?

      September 10, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • Ella

      Google Donald McGuire. Truly sickening.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • Tom

      Agreed. Very sickening. But to say all Christians or Catholics are this way is sickening to me (not that you said that–but people do). If you meet some genuine people who have love in their heart (whether they call themselves Christian or not), I pray that you will see a different side of the story.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • Tom

      Agreed. Very sickening. But to say all Christians or Catholics are this way is sickening to me (not that you said that–but people do).

      September 10, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • Ella

      You are right that I did not say all Christians of Catholics are this way. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that I am myself Catholic–that is why I feel so very strongly about this issue. I want to be a PROUD Catholic again, I want the Church to be strong, honest, a refuge for the lost. I hate what has happened and can not tolerate those who would cover it up; unfortunately, that includes Mother Teresa. I am angry because I once admired her. I feel deeply hurt and betrayed by what I have come to know about her true actions.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • Tom

      I think you have the wrong idea about what Christianity is all about. I don't blame you after the stuff you hear on the news about these priests. Mother Theresa was just a human being, though. Please don't insult someone who dedicated her entire life to helping poor people (even if she made a few mistakes, as you point out). Here. Read this article and tell me what you think of this guy. Is the following guy really a bad person, or does his behavior actually seem genuine? It is an article from a few years back on CNN:


      September 10, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • Tom

      Cool, well then I agree with your sentiments. Let's just remember what the church really is. The Catholic Church did awful, awful beyond disturbing things, but let's remember that paradoxically it is the church that has tons and tons of hospitals, feeds homeless people all over the world, etc. Many anonymous Catholics are genuine and close to God–far from what you hear on the news. Just be like one of those Catholics and don't worry–it will get better...

      September 10, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
  4. Tom

    The Catholic Church has made disturbing mistakes, but please do believe that most Catholics or Christians are part of organized pedophilia or any other terrible thing. From personal experience, prayer and the sacrements of the church are very transformational. I know many good atheists, and I know some messed up Christians, but to be honest, MOST of the most charitable, loving people I know are Christian, not Atheist. If the Atheists are gonna bash Christianity, they need to start loving their neighbors more, giving to the poor, being humble, and smiling. Then, actually, they would be acting Christian, but seriously you gotta be very ignorant and limited to insult Mother Theresa or think that the Catholic Church is all what you hear on the news.

    Oh heavenly king, the comforter, the spirit of truth, who art everywhere and fillest all things. Treasury of blessings and giver of life, come and abide in us and cleanse us from all impurity for thy namesake oh good one.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • The Flamingo Kid

      The Catholic "church" have not made just "disturbing mistakes." It is a way of life for this organization. They are an organized ring of pedophiles and thugs who are perverting the true word of God. Her time is almost up. Get out of her if you do not want to share in her judgments.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • Ella

      She actively SUPPORTED a KNOWN pedophile priest!!!!!

      September 10, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
  5. Ella

    Ummm..She helped cover up pedophile priests. Strange no one mentions that side of this wonderful "saint." When told of a pedophile priest who happened to be one of her pals, she pushed to have him TRANSFERED rather than removed. And he went on to molest more innocents. Saint indeed.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
    • truth be told

      You mentioned it without first hand knowledge or were you in the know so to speak. Pretty low end bearing false witness on second or third hand information isn't it?

      September 10, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      TBT: You'd support any person who committed a crime as long as they said they believed!! You're no better than Mother T or the peds of the catholic cult of peds!!

      September 10, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  6. The Flamingo Kid

    truth be told:
    The Catholic "church" is PLAGUED by pedophiles. That is why they are going bankrupt and are soon to fall. Just watch and see. The Catholic Church is an abomination to the face of the earth. It is the den of Satan himself. Anyone who supports this church is going to experience the wrath of God, just like this Church is soon to experience.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  7. Muslim lady

    Until reading comments here.... I've got very disgusted of bigot, intolerant and IDIOT atheits/nonbelievers.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • GAW

      Intolerance and idiocy can be found among believers and non-believers alike.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
  8. GAW

    The atheists who come to comment here are so kind and generous. I am sure that all of them will pursue acts of charity that will rival those of Mother Theresa.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • Tom

      Right on. That's all that needs to be said.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  9. Daniel

    There was a joke that went around after her death about someone's greatest nightmare.

    I dreamed I died and went to the pearly gates. St. Peter was speaking with the person in front of me and said "I'm sorry, you simply didn't do enough to gain entry". The person turned around, and it was Mother Teresa.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
  10. Johnny

    All Fycking atheists on this blog should burn in hell....

    September 10, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • Daniel

      With that statement, it's obvious you aren't a Christian, so what are you?

      September 10, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • The Flamingo Kid

      Yeah, you've really captured the spirit of Jesus. FREAK.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:37 pm |

      You buffoon!! You sound like the worst of the worst religious zealots. I would also suggest you burn in hell, but I don't subscribe to whatever lunatic religion you belong to. Whatever it is, I want no part of it you moron!!

      September 10, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Oh, please. How many Christians do you know of in the real world who actually like atheists? Their hatred for atheists and oftentimes people of other religions, is disgusting. They've been taught to look at other people not as fellow human beings but as belonging to another club or group.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
  11. Tenkins

    I believe Christopher Hitchens wrote a book or two about what you don't know about her as well! If you can read that and still believe she is good, that is just further proof that there is no god. Hitchens was more of a "Saint" than she will EVER be!!!

    September 10, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • chris hitchens

      Would that be the same blasphemous drunkard whose throat rotted out of him at an early age, rendering him as useless as the filth he spewed?

      September 10, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • Tenkins

      His body was his property, he had every right to destroy it. The catholic church could learn something from that. It's not like he just made stuff up about mother teresa, his writings about her are all based on history that is readily available to anyone willing to actually look for it. You can call it blasphemy all you want, that is a term invented by religion. What I'm talking about are facts.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      chris hitchens: What??? You are a clueless dolt!! What Christopher Hitchens spoke was based on facts and evidence...to call him blasphemous makes you quite the hypocrite considering you believe in an imaginary deity that is not based on facts or evidence!

      September 10, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
  12. Vino

    In the name of Mother Teresa, CNN gays are bringing in the politics to support GAY president.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      You got a problem with that?

      September 10, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  13. John

    Every women on Earth should be like her.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      We can only hope not.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • Sanguine

      An ugly midget that supports the largest ring of pedophilia in the world? NO THANKS.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      Nope...I don't think I could live with myself if I was such an uncaring cold hearted bitch! I respect humanity and life. This old lady didn't...she respected the mighty dollar while fabricating lies.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
  14. OMG


    September 10, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • Daniel

      DON'T YELL!!!!

      September 10, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
  15. citizen bob

    I liked her.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
  16. Puckles

    DAMN! She was an ugly midget!

    September 10, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      So is yo mama.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • shvillalba

      She, obviously, was a great human being. The problem I have is the idea that, in order to feel goodwill for another, one has to believe in this silly mythical notion of "God", or whatever you call it. That only assumes we are, basically, "BAD" by nature ... and only behave humanely under the threat of fire, or the promise of idiotic heavens. Of course: there are some among us who need this threat/pay ... others, like myself, strive our best to be good simply because we care. GOD HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH IT!!

      September 10, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  17. Jim P.

    "t 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?"

    The truth.

    To tear down a false idol built of sand whose idea of "compassion" was to allow pain and suffering to continue largely unabated while her order sat/sits upon huge piles of money that could be used to really aid the poor.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • GAW

      Remember when cowards can hide behind the veil of anonymity they will say anything.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    September 10, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • Eric

      Helping others without a Religious agenda would have provided these poor women with family planning, contraception, and an education. MT is one of the main reasons why Calcutta 2012 = Calcutta 1970.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
    • nope


      September 10, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • Reason Warrior

      If prayer changes things, then why have no amputees ever been able to grow back limbs with prayer? Prayer can supposedly cure other ailments, including cancer, so why not grow back a limb?

      September 10, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
    • truth be told

      @reason warrior
      Based on your statement it appears you have complete knowledge of everyone who ever lived. Would you be good enough to tell us who the first amputee on earth was and if they were healed or not?

      September 10, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      If an amputee was healed, don't you think it would have been big news? Wouldn't it have been reported far and wide? And if it occurred once, then why does your imaginary pal decline to make it happen again, especially considering that there are far more amputees now than there ever were at any other point in history?

      Honestly, TuBeTop, why do you even post here? You never have a single rational thought.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • keyser

      prove it.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • fred

      Tom Tom
      Do you suggest that the only thing that exists is that which you can verify with your 5 senses? Stated differently reality is only that which you can verify with your 5 senses. This would make reality a function of what a small group of people (non believers) are capable of experiencing while excluding the vast majority that can and have experienced spirituality that by empirical evidence does exist. In short God and the things of God (prayer) do not fit your limited view of reality.
      The issue with prayer and an amputee is not the physical limitation rather the limitations imposed by a non believing on reality. The reality is that life is more than physical it is God if there is a God. Based on that assumption prayer was answered regarding the limb and the limb or lack thereof is part of the eternal reality for individual not the temporal physical reality which non believers limit themselves .
      Now, if there is no God then by your own argument reality is relative to your own temporal perception which we have proven false. This being the case the reality of the situation is that the limb was only missing for temporary period and prayer was answered for the believer when God wipes away every tear.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
  19. Sanguine

    This woman is a JOKE. She was such a wonderful person that she supported the Catholic "church" (the largest ring of organized pedophilia in the world) down to her dying day. HYPOCRITE.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • Puckles

      I totally agree! She claimed to want to help people, yet she stood by this cult of pedophiles. God is NOT happy with her.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • truth be told

      The most dangerous place for child abuse is not the church it is the home at the hands of trusted family members and friends. To blame the church because a few devious ho mo se xuals lied their way into the priesthood is like blaming a bank for bank robbers. To discredit Mother Teresa on such grounds is the height of injustice and ignorance.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Don't be so judgmental. She came from a different generation and different culture. She made a vow to be obedient to the pope and had to abide by whatever he said as far as she was concerned. She must have also felt that she owed the pope her obedience since it is the pope who grants women and men permission to start their own religious order, in her case, the Missionaries of Charity. The point of her life, whether she had been a religious person or not, is that she cared for the rejected of society. The people that no one wants to bother with or even touch, Teresa took them in and cared for them like fellow human beings. I think it's hard for the average American to realize how she helped others. The only reason I know is because I lived and worked with the Missionaries. I can definitely tell you that most if not all Americans I know would run away from the people Teresa, her Sisters, Brothers and Fathers were used to helping every day of their lives.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
  20. tateman

    The spirit of Mother Teresa transcends all religions and philosophies.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
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