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. Satan

    All HATERS, stop dissing my lady. She did A LOT for my church!

    September 10, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
    • Truth

      yeah,, at the cost to human life of decency. A marketing con that brought in millions for the vatican. She would have done better by handing out free condoms.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
  2. evil_atheist

    The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice by Christopher Hitchens. 'Nuff said.

    September 10, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
    • jacmac10001

      "evil_atheist" .... your name sums it up

      September 10, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
  3. Iqbal Khan


    September 10, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
  4. Cruncher

    Damn! She was an ugly troll midget!

    September 10, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
  5. Tony

    She was obviously human and embodied all the flaws and virtues of a human. But for all you haters, I challenge you to abandon everything you have and go live with the poorest of the poor. Any takers? Of course not. You do not understand the connection between great need and great sacrifice. And as for Chistopher Hitchens, he was a funny, intelligent guy. But what is his legacy besides some witty remarks and hateful rhetoric? How many people owe their lives to him? Zero? But then, Hitchens wouldn't care. Talk about emptiness.

    September 10, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
    • Lenm

      Nicely said!

      September 10, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
  6. JazzDawg

    She is dead and all but dust. Just like hitch and the rest of us at some point. While she was with us however, she was one of the worst persons on the planet. She was an awful human being. If there is a hell she belongs in it....

    September 10, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
    • knowsmore123

      She liked to see people lead horrible lives in filth, and then "save" them from it

      September 10, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
    • Lenm

      Really? That's a pretty heavy statement, considering the woman lived to help the poor. If you say this because of her views on abortion, you are obviously not as tolerant as she was of opposing views. Maybe you should rethink your own flaws before sending a lifelong missionary to hell.

      September 10, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
  7. KnowsMore123

    Mother Teresa was the best! She once tore out all the furnishings of her nun's chapel (including hot water, beds etc) because she wanted everyone to lead as miserable a life as she did!

    September 10, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
  8. Truth

    Not many people know this, but mother Theresa was a male, a priest who enjoyed cross dressing.

    September 10, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
  9. Leonard V.

    Far from the saint the Vatican makes her out to be – http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2003/10/mommie_dearest.html

    September 10, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
  10. drdave

    Schizophrenic delusions and hallucinations often fade with advancing age.

    September 10, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
  11. Sutemi

    " 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."

    Actuallly, Diana didn't have a halo; it was a steering wheel.

    September 10, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
  12. nutz

    Don't ask, don't tell is gone! I'm free!

    September 10, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • stories

      That's exactly what the catholic priests are, unhappy about

      September 10, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
  13. lana

    Abuse takes place in any religion or faith.I have muslim, baptist, anglican, methodist and friends belonging to other religions who talk about abuse in their religion.Some human beings are evil others are good.Mother Theresa was a good woman. Don't try to demonize her for what others have done. I am not catholic but I have great respect for her. Anyone who does good should be applauded regardless of faith or religion.

    September 10, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • Tereza De La Rosa

      "Mother Theresa was a good woman."

      If by good woman, you mean someone who knowingly injected the ill with HIV by sharing needles, withheld painkillers during their time of suffering because it made them suffer like Jesus, and when her time came, ran away to other countries for treatment. She was a money grubber who made false promises to the ill and suffering, and even hastened their deaths.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
    • John

      What's the cut-off point between doing good things and bad things where only a gold star should be given? If MT did horrible things 48% of the time and 52% of the time did some good things does she go into the "saint" column?

      September 10, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
    • Sabrina Desiree J

      Ghandi's eldest son changed his name to Ahmed and converted to Islam... because his daddy basically was not a good father. As for Mother Teresa... the benefit of good deeds goes most to the GIVER rather than to the receiver. Just because 'some people' (like the author) didn't know Mother Teresa 'came from money' doesn't mean that a lot of us did not know it. As for Jesus speaking to her, He often speaks to his Beloveds. I hear him all the time and it is NOT mental illness. Nonbelievers just don't 'get it'. Mother Teresa lived a good life, she already KNEW from her experiences growing up that money and riches doesn't solve anything, but she is no more a 'saint' than Mother Angelica. She was a woman who did good deeds and her REWARD was that warm fuzzy feeling she got for doing the good deeds. Now she is dead... is she in heaven? purgatory? or just. plain. d e a d... we will NEVER know until we die too, and then that may actually be the end of it. huh.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
    • NoTheism

      "As for Jesus speaking to her, He often speaks to his Beloveds. I hear him all the time and it is NOT mental illness. Nonbelievers just don't 'get it'."
      how do you know it isn't a mental illness? How do you know that nonbelievers don't 'get it'?
      Either way, what is being contested on this board is whether she did in fact do good deeds. Did she or did she not? You seem to assume that that was her intention. Perhaps you're right, but there is strong evidence to suggest to the contrary.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
  14. Tim Rigney

    What I *know* is that this evil person received millions upon millions of dolllars over the decades and yet the people she supposedly "helped" were brought to rooms with walls that literally had human feces all over them and made to die on the floor in horrid conditions. Let's stop deifying people before knowing what actually goes on. Sorry but it's the truth. She was a HORRIBLE person.

    September 10, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
    • Peter Knight

      You must be a rich privileged person living in a great house with running water, heat and a/c etc. etc.. Walk in her shoes and then comment. I do not believe in religion but the work she has done is above and beyond any religion. It was humanity at its peak.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
    • Tim Rigney

      Peter Knight: You don't have to be a rich priviliged person to feel that it's legitimate to criticize when those poor sick people were living in squalor, sleeping on the floor with INFECTIOUS HUMAN FECES all over the walls, with NO medical care, while millions upon millions of dollars had been donated. WHAT HAPPENED TO THE MONEY???? I call b.s.

      September 11, 2012 at 2:30 am |
  15. ramble3144

    I see a huge difference between Mother Teresa and Ms. Fluke. Also, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

    September 10, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
  16. Hussein

    So true... Mother Theressa makes Billy Graham, Rick Warren and other prominent US preachers look like spoiled brats...

    September 10, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • stories

      yeah, mother therwsa represented a much more profitable organization, the RCC

      September 10, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  17. Howard Feinski

    Sorry to hear about Mother Teresa's passing.

    September 10, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
    • NoTheism

      good one

      September 10, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • William


      September 10, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
  18. Tridentine

    Mother Teresa was a Saint for our times.People in this country have more time for their pets than they do for the humans suffering in our own midst.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • NoTheism

      yes, and many of them are busy raising their own families or doing other productive things, such as teaching, defending the country in which you live, inventing new technology and so on.
      If everyone were like you think Mother Theresa was, we'd be stuck in the middle ages.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • stories

      if she was truly a good person, she would have handed out free condoms

      September 10, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      "stories", somebody should have handed out free condoms to your mom right around the time you were conceived. . .just sayin'. The world's IQ average might be higher had she been using condoms.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
  19. William

    I'm with The Hitch on this one. Christopher Hitchens described Mother Teresa not as friend to the poor, but as a friend of poverty. She considered it a desireable condition. She took stolen money from criminals and did not offer proper medical care to those in her charge. As Hitch used to say, "she was a shrivelled old bat." Don't buy in to the hype.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      lol. And how many orphans did Hitchens help to feed, clothe and school? How many lepers did Hitchens take in his arms to offer the comfort of another human being's touch? How many blind or paralyzed grandmothers did Hitchens provide shelter, 24 hr care, and a bed in their last days here on earth? You're out of touch and it's a sad thing to see any human being such as yourself attacking this poor women who accepted with open arms other human beings that people like you reject and shun in society.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • Tereza De La Rosa

      "How many blind or paralyzed grandmothers did Hitchens provide shelter, 24 hr care, and a bed in their last days here on earth?"

      First, it doesn't matter what Hitchens did, he didn't claim to be a saint. Second, Mother Teresa did NOT care for people in their last days, she made them suffer under the lie that she was providing care. She didn't use the money to administer pain meds, or to keep them in reasonable shelter. It was a filthy and sick place to die. Do some reading and learn some facts before you make claims.

      September 10, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      "Tereza". Why are you lying? I lived and worked with the Missionaries of Charity. Where are you getting you false information and why would you post something like that? You really have no idea what her Sisters, Brothers and Fathers have done for people you wouldn't even bother with. Why do you think she called them the "poorest of the poor"? Is your head really as dense as you're making it appear to be?

      September 10, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
    • bob

      what useful work has Christopher Hitchens done for mankind?

      September 10, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
  20. miengineer

    If you saw the entire funeral as I did, but, most people won't even help the homeless in today's society, the bible
    talks about suffering and about the need to help your human brothers. To give is more beautiful and she gave all.

    September 10, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
    • stories

      let me correct you. most people don't have the need to brag

      September 10, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
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