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. FifthApe

    She was evil. She stood in the way of the only thing that helps the poor the empowerment of women. She wanted women kept on an animal cycle of reproduction – no birth control. And the blood and misery on her hands due to no condoms and aids in Africa, well this women is no saint, shes evil.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Now now, just because your mom was a $10 wh ore when she got pregnant with you doesn't mean you have to take it out on poor Mother Teresa.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  2. The Dude


    September 10, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  3. Sanguine

    Mother Teresa should have taken Donovan's advice! LOL


    September 10, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
  4. Saleem Kazmi

    Indeed She was a Great Person!

    September 10, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
  5. Sanguine

    The Man under the Umbrella:

    You are a POINTLESS human being. Go away! No one wants to hear from you, except maybe your butt hole lovin' boyfriend.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
    • Mark

      S, this isnt twitter. If you are going to rip someone a new hole please reply to the m so the rest of us know what it is you are talking about..

      September 10, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
  6. Satan

    You haters need to stop taking about Mother Teresa this way. She did a wonderful job for my church!

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

      Hey kid go back and watch your Star Trek re-runs

      September 10, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • FifthApe

      She was evil. She stood in the way of the only thing that helps the poor the empowerment of women. She wanted women kept on an animal cycle of reproduction – no birth control. And the blood and misery on her hands due to no condoms and aids in Africa, well this women is no saint, shes evil.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • Time for Tea


      September 10, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
  7. glenview0818

    After reading the comments here, I am really feeling sad that we have no heroes, anyone that does good must be dragged down in any way possible to make sure no one looks better than the lowest common denominator. This is very sad, I am not Catholic or particularly religious, but this person is responsible for tremendous good and should be respected. Some people posting here are so sad and I am sorry for them.

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

      Do some real good with your life and be a real hero, not just a fund raiser for the rich pedos at the Vatican.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
  8. inex

    It seems that anyone who has done any good, there are always those who look for ways to demonize them. God or no God, she helped many from the streets of India. How many of those who criticize her or those like her, have done any good to others,(other than to themselves).?. People seem to become more cynical and nasty as the years go by.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  9. Sams

    The Man under the Umbrella:

    You are a POINTLESS human being. GO AWAY. No one wants to hear from you. You are unwanted – except maybe by your butt hole lovin' boyfriend.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  10. Deborah

    Learn from her and the good she did; as for her special gift of messages from Jesus, I have met other people with gifts like hers; God gives great spiritual gifts sometimes to those who will give there lives to His cause. I'm not talking about a partial effort, but an everyday committment to try to do Gods agenda; something it seems few people are willing to try (at least thats my opinion from the people that I have met). Basically, if you know more about any topic other than God agenda this says where your time has been spent; and you most likey have reaped what you sowed.

    As for Atheist who are firm in there lack of belief; you do your own thing; you find your own way.....I've wished so often I could help others who lacked spirtual knowledge realize that God limits the time that He alots us to learn and practice His agenda (I have tried to gain spiritual knowledge for more than eight years and found so much proof of Gods existiance and special gifts) but I know I can't help.....

    September 10, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
  11. Tera

    This woman did absolutely NOTHING to empower or educate women.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
    • Kevin H

      When we examine Mother Theresa within the confines of her order and their orthodoxy we find a women who both fought convention and went along with it. Did she pick the wrong battles? Perhaps? Did she take on certain "pet" causes while ignoring larger ones within her sphere (women's reproductive rights, abuse of women, misogyny, botched abortions) perhaps. But was she evil? Did she intentionally set out to do harm? I don't think so. What we have I believe is a Catholic ideology that dogs some of its followers. Where does life begin? If we favor the right of a women, if we save her from her baby factory "calling", what about the unborn child? The aborted fetus? What about preventing birth – are we preventing life from occurring, playing God? Are the men who beat their wives and treat them as chattel evil? When society abandons lepers and other outcasts are those issues in a larger 1930's and 1940's culture in India greater than some other issues? Profound questions aren't they? None of them are cheap, frivolous, unimportant. How can we love children and treat them with such contempt? How can we love women and treat them as objects, kill them, mutilate them in the name of religion? But how can we place naked women on the cover of magazines and encourage objectification of them as human beings? Are there clear moral rights and wrongs – sure there are? Did Mother Theresa engage in Kantian ethics? Perhaps. Was she evil? No.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
  12. Hateaters

    I'm not a christian and I love and respect this old woman for what she had done before she left this mother earth....for those haters go screw yourself. She is residing in heaven now.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • Rev. Charles

      You should convert to Christianity to be saved.

      Jesus is the way, the truth, the love and nobody enters kingdom of heaven except thru Christ.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Christianity is for the poor. All you rich guys are outta luck if you're thinking you're somehow "going to heaven". As far as I know, Christianity and Wealth/Money are contradictory.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
  13. The Man under the Umbrella

    Mother was not friend of the poor. She was friend of Poverty ~ Christopher Hitchens

    September 10, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  14. The Flamingo Kid

    truth be told:

    Just watch as this filthy ring of perverts falls to the ground. It is happening before our eyes. God will NOT be merciful to those who support this ring of perverts.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • The Man under the Umbrella

      Your Imaginary is so wise.. oh wait he exists in your head LOL

      September 10, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  15. !

    There are hundreds of thousands of Catholic priests around the world – just because few of them were sick and peddos doesn't mean all Catholics are.

    There have been Rabbis and Imam peddos too

    September 10, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
    • Damien

      I do not know either one lol.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  16. sasss31

    "Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.” -Christopher Hitchens

    September 10, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
    • Tera

      Awesome, Awesome, Awesome quote!!!

      September 10, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • chris hitchens

      Would that be the same blasphemous drunk whose throat rotted out of him at an early age and put an end to his nonsense?

      September 10, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Tenkins

      Hey! That's the same comment you left on my post, Mr. Hitchens. Why don't you read what I wrote you back and find a retort to that instead of repeating how useless you think Hitchens is?

      September 10, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      How many abandoned lepers did Hitchens take in his arms to comfort? Whoever wrote that quote is so out of touch with the people she helped, it's sad.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • Jennifer

      @ Sasss31: Please enlighten us without quoting Hitchens: why do you hate Mother Theresa?

      September 10, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
  17. luckylei

    You don't have to be a religious person to recognize that this woman did more for humanity than any of us on this board ever will. Unless you have dedicated your life to helping those less fortunate, you should shut your trap about her methods.

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

      I would argue that you DO have to be a person of faith to recognize that. It takes FAITH, not Reason, to think that an awful person was good. It takes FAITH to ignore evidence.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Some people are mo rons. It's a fact of life.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  18. polycarp pio

    Folks you should be ashamed of yourselves tale bearing about mother teresa, you have no first hand knowledge of any of the things you accuse her of doing, all you have is what you heard someone else say, sometimes it is all right to just be silent and not flap your fat mouths, you just show your ignorance and if it was true it is none of your business anyway,TALE BEARER. PP

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

      By your definition you don't have any first hand knowledge either. You think that if I have never been to the sun I cannot know anything about it because it's not "first hand knowledge". If science relied on your silly logic we would still be living in caves and the study of history would not exist.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
  19. keyser

    Mr. Biema conveniently leaves out the fact that when she was going out the door she acknowledged that she finally realized that her life was not just a practice run.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
  20. sasss31

    Mother Theresa was a crook and a fraud.

    September 10, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Yeah, she drank champagne and ate caviar all day, wore $800 stilettos and a necklace with a diamond the size of the Hope Diamond. Don't. be. stu pid.

      September 10, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.