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. Beth

    How about a more accurate look at Mother Teresa.....

    September 11, 2012 at 7:26 am |
  2. Kebos

    As a humanitarian she was a failure. As a PR marketing machine for Catholicism, top marks!

    September 11, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • Moody

      Dear friend, it appears your brain is a failure.

      September 11, 2012 at 7:48 am |
  3. Serve Him

    There was a man who was going before a judge for breaking the law. However, this man was not worried so he was simply indifferent. Another man, being of the same guilt, was angry and so he lashed out at those around him that supported the judge. He spewed vile words and shook his fist in the air.

    Which man do you think believed in the judges authority to condemn him? The man who was indifferent, or the one filled with anger of pending judgement? Which one are you? I think those of you posting hateful comments should look deep inside yourself and anaylyze why are you so hateful towards the conept of God, and those who try and serve Him.

    September 11, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • Kebos

      "concept of god"

      That sums it up. It is a concept. Made by man, for man. To control, amass power and wealth. Nothing more, nothing less.

      September 11, 2012 at 7:16 am |
    • Serve Him

      Fortunately I am not naive and I do not allow a church to affect my judgement as you are doing. The very thought that a church might be corrupt turns you away from God with no consideration of Who He is. When Jesus was sent, God did away with the church, and made each of us a "temple". Each of us, an individuals, has the relationship with Christ, not a building, or an organization. Read John 2:19

      September 11, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • Skeptimist

      That is a very accurate insight. Anger and hatred are always manifestations of deep inner fear.

      September 11, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      "Ignorance is the root of fear
      And fear is the kindling of anger
      War is the bringer of shame
      But never has the burden lain so heavily upon the victim
      Rage and desolation
      Pain and loneliness
      Isn't it all a little alarmingly familiar?
      Silence is a killer"

      – Dr. Greg Graffin (Bad Religion)

      Plenty of atheists and theists alike are disgusted with the machinations of religions, but while we may perceive some of teh same flaws, we part ways on the matter of faith.
      To the atheist, faith is not a virtue. The willing cessation of rational inquiry to be able to accept dogmatic, rote answers to the great questions of life, the universe and everything is anathema the the skeptical mind.
      We do not fear posthumous judgement, but many of us are tired of having condemning fingers pointed from fiery pulpits.
      It's no skin off my nose if you chose to live your life awaiting divine judgement in the afterlife – just keep it to yourself.
      I don't fear missing out on Valhalla because I didn't die gloriously in battle, nor am I worried that Ma'at will find my heart heavier than a Shu feather, or that St. Peter will reject me becuase my ledger page in the Great Book of Deeds is in the red.
      If the One True Deity, shaper of The Universe, wishes Their words to be transmitted and adhered to, they should have been a bit less ambiguous. Expecting people to select The Truth out of limitless possibilities on faith alone seems a sloppy way to run things – especially if the punishment for a wrong choice is eternal torment.
      In the end, the definition of Christian is to live your life in the image of Jesus Christ. Faith in miracles, divinity, resurrections, and other fantastical flourishes isn't required to live a life of pacifism, charity and humility.

      September 11, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • nobody

      It is possible for a person who does not serve God to live a "life of pacifism, charity and humility." There are some more moral non-believers than some people who claim to believe. But you should not allow the actions of your fellow man determine your destiny. Ephesians 2:8-9 states exactly what you say. Our actions are not a mechanism to "enter heaven". There is not one thing that Mother Teresa did on earth that justifies her to God, except her Love of Him. Her tremendous Love of God was the root of her actions. She was not perfect, God NEVER said we are to strive for perfection. Jesus was sent because we are not unable to fulfill the Law of God. And when we learn to love Christ, our burden of judgement and sin are laid at His feet, and He gladly picks them up and places them on His shoulder in the form of a Cross.

      September 11, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • sam stone

      I am not hateful to the concept of god. I, however, am wary of the folks who purport to serve (i.e. speak for) god

      September 11, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  4. denbee

    Lord forgive my joke on thee and I'll forgive your joke on me.

    September 11, 2012 at 6:56 am |
  5. WiscBadger

    If you have not done more for the poor then she did you have no right to criticize the work she did. I'm sure that you never met her and don't know what was in her heart.

    September 11, 2012 at 6:45 am |
    • Paula

      She was an evil woman who let people die in her hospitals because they wouldn't use medicine, took out beds and made them sleep on makeshift camp beds and refused to allow the dying to see their families. Not to mention no privacy when going to the toilet refusing to use basic hygiene methods because hygiene and medicine was an unnecessary luxury. Where has all that money she raised because it has never been spent on the poor.

      September 11, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • WiscBadger

      If you can do better Paula, why aren't you doing so? Did you know her? Who are you to stand in judgement?

      September 11, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  6. unowhoitsme

    Rude and mean comments posted...if only each person in the world had one millionth of her generosity and love for humanity, we'd be a better world. How many of you would be willing to pick up someone with magots, fiflth, and crap (literally) and bring them to your home and take care of them? Anyone that knocks Mother Teresa has some serious issues going on. She was a beautiful person that helped the poor and dying with the limited resources she had. No one on earth has even come close to her love for the unwanted. A saint indeed!

    September 11, 2012 at 6:44 am |
  7. E.S.

    NOT A SAINT. Refusing medicine for dying children is not nice... Mother Theresa meant well. That's all. She was reprehensible as a hospital coordinator. Praying isn't better than medicine. FU MT.

    September 11, 2012 at 5:19 am |
    • annafr

      I agree. Not a saint to me...didn't believe in conraception for women and those women had babies who who then diedin her (T's) gentle, Godly arms......

      September 11, 2012 at 7:05 am |
    • Satan

      How easily judgment befalls the choosers!

      September 11, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  8. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things,

    September 11, 2012 at 4:44 am |
    • James

      NONSENSE! Religion is Poison! This woman is nothing but another charlatan criminal, abusive and cruel!
      She should have been put in jail to rot!

      September 11, 2012 at 5:57 am |
    • Potrzebie

      No, it doesn't. Several summers ago a woman and child were struck by lightning in eastern PA. The Trenton Times published an article on the front page the next day about how all of the area Catholics called one another and prayed for them, and that was why they survived. One inch below that was a story about a man in the mid-west who was watching a crane erect a new cross onto his church. The cross fell onto his car and crushed him to death. Humans by their very nature have to apply patterns and meanings to randomness. That doesn't prove that the patterns or meanings exist.

      September 11, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  9. whatever

    I know all I need to know about her.
    She worked in a Poverty Zone but was against Birth Control.

    September 11, 2012 at 4:31 am |
    • annafr

      Agree with the post by 'whatever'

      September 11, 2012 at 7:06 am |
    • Satan

      Your point?

      September 11, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  10. MaryAnne

    A good article about Madre Teresa

    September 11, 2012 at 3:01 am |
  11. Beans

    The people who are judging her here should look at themselves in the mirror and please do not give your unnecessary statements here. I am sure she bought smiles to millions of people. And people complaining about sharing beds and painkillers, dont talk about it unless you are their account manager !! You dont know what goes on. Dont share your negativity.

    September 11, 2012 at 2:44 am |
    • Charlotte Crist

      Right on Sister, right on...!

      September 11, 2012 at 3:34 am |
    • nemo0037

      Oh right. Heaven forbid that anyone should point out FACTS that conflict with the myth you find comforting. Facts that this woman pulled in MILLIONS of dollars from rich people around the world, including from rabid dictators like the Duvaliers, and refused to spend said millions on ACTUAL health care. Or that when SHE got to the end of HER life, she turned out to be too good for the medicine she prescribed for thousands of others, and avoided the suffering she found so good for POOR people. Why, even THINKING about such terrible hypocrisies might screw up her chances of becoming a saint, which is all that REALLY matters, huh?

      September 11, 2012 at 4:41 am |
    • Satan

      Nemo.... of course... were you there? I don't recall......

      September 11, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  12. worldcares

    I have always thought alot of Mother Teresa.

    September 11, 2012 at 2:26 am |
  13. Your Panties in Texas

    Is it true that Mother Theresa was a Nudist, like I am?

    September 11, 2012 at 2:21 am |
    • Satan

      Yes. She wore no clothing under her garments. She became naked when she bathed.

      September 11, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  14. Justsaying

    Her family is originally from Shkodër, Albania.

    September 11, 2012 at 1:53 am |
  15. Reality

    Only for the new members of this blog:–>>>>> >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    A great lady and deserving of "sainthood" but as with much of the global population, she was afflicted with the Three B Syndrome, i.e. Bred, Born and Brainwashed in religion, in her case Christianity. Was Christianity a "necessary accessory" in her Noble Prize winning work with the poor? Debatable as secular groups like Doctors Without Borders are equally committed to helping those less fortunate thereby also making the doctors of this group, "saints". Said group also received the Noble Prize.

    September 11, 2012 at 1:11 am |
    • Mello

      I doubt anyone in Doctors without borders could come close to helping as many people as Mother Teresa has.

      September 11, 2012 at 2:18 am |
    • Charlotte Crist

      Hey Reality, get real...!

      September 11, 2012 at 3:36 am |
    • Satan

      If only there were more "doctors without borders" .... my passion would not be so fulfilled....one always has a choice in thought and word and deed... seems many follow a path not preferred.....

      September 11, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • Reality

      "Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is an international medical humanitarian organization created by doctors and journalists in France in 1971.

      Today, MSF provides independent, impartial assistance in more than 60 countries to people whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect, or catastrophe, primarily due to armed conflict, epidemics, malnutrition, exclusion from health care, or natural disasters. MSF provides independent, impartial assistance to those most in need. MSF also reserves the right to speak out to bring attention to neglected crises, challenge inadequacies or abuse of the aid system, and to advocate for improved medical treatments and protocols.

      On any given day, more than 27,000 committed individuals representing dozens of nationalities can be found providing assistance to people caught in crises around the world. They are doctors, nurses, logistics experts, administrators, epidemiologists, laboratory technicians, mental health professionals, and others who work together in accordance with MSF's guiding principles of humanitarian action and medical ethics. "

      "Missionaries of Charity is a Roman Catholic religious congregation established in 1950 by Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. It consists of over 4,500 religious sisters and is active in 133 countries. Members of the order designate their affiliation using the order's initials, "M.C." A member of the Congregation must adhere to the vows of chast-ity, poverty, obedience, and the fourth vow, to give "Wholehearted and Free service to the poorest of the poor".

      September 11, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  16. susanna

    Mother Teresa was hardly a saint. She was really very mean to her patients and often let them suffer needlessly.She was more interested in money, glory and her being a celebrity, than her patients. This women had no compassion whats so ever and doesnt deserve to be a saint

    September 11, 2012 at 1:06 am |
    • Reality

      Please support your comments with reliable references.

      September 11, 2012 at 1:12 am |
    • johnh1625

      Hardee har har har...

      September 11, 2012 at 2:13 am |
    • Charlotte Crist

      Old Susanna...won't you cry for me...?

      September 11, 2012 at 3:37 am |
    • Barb

      @Reality – there have actually been many sources telling truths about what happened in many of her "shelters" and such. They're not always easy to find. Here's a couple links. Though you'll believe what you want, anyway.

      September 11, 2012 at 3:42 am |
    • Chris

      What a shame there is no like button. So she was delusional and heard voices... so she was probably schizophrenic.

      September 11, 2012 at 3:46 am |
    • Larry

      @Reality Her idea for the suffering to get closer to god was to let them suffer when in many cses a hospital and medicine and proper treatment could have allowed a full recovery. Seems relatively straight forward. The probelm with most of what is reported in the media is that the church controls it

      September 11, 2012 at 4:01 am |
    • susan

      Where did you find this information?

      September 11, 2012 at 6:49 am |
    • Satan

      It is a choice to desparage. Man has many choices. I only reap the benefits.

      September 11, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • Reality

      For Barb:

      "New Statesman is a British left-wing[2] political and cultural magazine published weekly in London. Founded in 1913, and connected with leading members of the socialist Fabian Society, the magazine reached a circulation peak in the late 1960s.[2]

      The longest serving editor was Kingsley Martin (1930–60). The current editor is Jason Cowley, who assumed the post at the end of September 2008. In the 29 May 2006 issue, then-editor John Kampfner stated that the New Statesman remained "true to its heritage of radical politics". The magazine is committed to "development, human rights and the environment, global issues the mainstream press often ignores".

      Historically, the magazine was sometimes affectionately referred to as "The Staggers" because of crises in funding, ownership and circulation."

      September 11, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Mary

      What are you talking about? Mother Teresa was born rich. She dedicated her whole life for the poor. Money? Did she wear expensive designer clothes and bags? Did she live in mansion? Did she has expensive car?
      As a girl from rich family, she gave up her comfort at home with bread, cheese and wine were on table. She didn't meet her own family for such a long time cause God called her to take care the very poor. Instead, she lived with poor, took care the very poor in street, took a bath of them, healed them. What a extraordinary humanbeing ever live in the world. Mother Teresa, I know you are in heaven with the Lord. Please pray for us as always. Amen.

      September 11, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  17. escher7

    The legend of her Homes for the Dying has moved the world to tears. Reality, however, is scandalous: In the overcrowded and primitive little homes, many patients have to share a bed with others. Though there are many suffering from tuberculosis, AIDS and other highly infectious illnesses, hygiene is no concern. The patients are treated with good words and insufficient (sometimes outdated) medicines, applied with old needles, washed in lukewarm water. One can hear the screams of people having maggots tweezered from their open wounds without pain relief. On principle, strong painkillers are even in hard cases not given. According to Mother Teresa's bizarre philosophy, it is "the most beautiful gift for a person that he can participate in the sufferings of Christ". Once she tried to comfort a screaming sufferer: "You are suffering, that means Jesus is kissing you!" The man got furious and screamed back: "Then tell your Jesus to stop kissing."

    September 11, 2012 at 12:49 am |
    • Reality

      Please support your comments with reliable references..............

      September 11, 2012 at 1:13 am |
    • Charlotte Crist

      Sharing a bed with another afflicted person is better then having-no-bed-at-all...!

      September 11, 2012 at 3:40 am |
    • nemo0037

      The fact that this woman pulled in MILLIONS of dollars for her organization and refused to spend much of anything for better facilities tells all we need to know about her. She was more interested in promoting her twisted views of prolonged suffering for the sick and poor than in actually doing anything USEFUL for them. In the meantime, she sent all "surplus" funds to the church, so that they could buy more gold for the Vatican.

      September 11, 2012 at 4:49 am |
    • nope


      September 11, 2012 at 4:50 am |
    • Satan

      Slight, but telling, chip in the armor of your argument against Agnus: maggots are part of a very old technique used to extract rotted flesh from a festering wound. A very specific but understood priciple of biology is that maggots do not eat living flesh but only rotted/rotting flesh! This is perhaps one of the most usefull methods of recovering diabetic wounds. Just type in "maggots in wound care" into your search bar to find out the facts. So, your lie is now exposed about "One can hear the screams of people having maggots tweezered from their open wounds without pain relief." is a lie. Thank you for my victory! You, escher7, are truly a kind of angel that I would want in my army!

      September 11, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  18. Jay

    I'm with Matt and Hitchens on this: the poor are better off without her. She was a public relations maven, but at the core was an extraordinarily selfish and arrogant person.

    September 11, 2012 at 12:46 am |
    • nope


      September 11, 2012 at 4:50 am |
    • jas


      September 11, 2012 at 5:32 am |
  19. Matt in Oregon

    Mother Theresa, the sadistic Albanian dwarf who championed suffering while kissing up to super-rich patrons to donate money to build enormous tributes to ignorance and bigotry. We're better off without her

    September 11, 2012 at 12:32 am |
    • IR

      Yeah, perhaps we are better off with you in this world right? How about this, let us count the number of people who can say they have been helped by Mother Teresa and let us compare that to the people you have helped in your lifetime?...sounds fair?

      September 11, 2012 at 1:11 am |
    • Charlotte Crist

      Ditto IR.

      September 11, 2012 at 3:41 am |
    • E.S.

      Amen, Matt.

      September 11, 2012 at 5:21 am |
    • bob

      She took in tens of millions of dollars every year but her showpiece was a derelict abandoned Hindu temple in Calcutta. People who went there to die were packed into two large rooms and forced to sleep on lawnchair-quality cots. They were given virtually no medical attention, no pain killers stronger than aspirin. She preferred to see them suffer, literally, because she thought it would bring them closer to jesus. What did she do with all the money donated to her cause? She spent it on convents for the nuns of her order and christian missions throughout the world. If anyone gave her money thinking that they were helping the poor, they were sadly mistaken. The poor would have been better off without her. Many of the ppeople who died under her confinement could have been helped with medical treatment. They were never offered modern medical treatment because if they did it for one poor soul, they'd have to do it for everyone.

      September 11, 2012 at 5:31 am |
    • Satan

      ...of course the poor are ONLY in Calcutta.

      September 11, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  20. Jovan Bregu

    Another thing that the world does not know about her, is that Mother Teresa is Albanian (and not Macedonian, as wrongfully claimed here.) Her last name is Bojaxhiu (an Albanian word that means "painter".)
    She was born in Northern Albanian and has nothing to do with Macedonia (which is South-East of Albania.)

    September 11, 2012 at 12:31 am |
    • Justsaying

      Skopje, Macedonia is where she was born....

      September 11, 2012 at 1:51 am |
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