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. PAUL


    September 14, 2012 at 5:58 am |
  2. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things
    Proven !

    September 12, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
    • hal 9000

      I'm sorry "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things", but you assertions regarding atheism and prayer are unfounded. I see that you repeat these unfounded statements with high frequency. Perhaps the following book might help you overcome this problem:

      I'm Told I Have Dementia: What You Can Do... Who You Can Turn to...
      by the Alzheimer's Disease Society

      September 12, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
  3. PumpNDump

    Mother Theresa was a complete fraud.

    September 12, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • Joe

      Exactly. A fraud, and now they will make her a saint. Same as all the rest.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:29 am |
    • Arnoldo

      We will pray for you. But do not wait for the last breath to ask for forgiveness. May god bless our saint Theresa and you as well

      September 13, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  4. atomD21

    Mother Teresa was a human being that spent time and energy helping some of those that needed it most in India. She was not inherently holy or perfect or any such nonsense as that. She had a strong faith She was politically active when it came to abortion and tried to use her influence and notoriety to sway views to her side. All thst being said, why does it matter to people not in that particular faith group what they think of her? I'm not Catholic so whether she is canonized or not matters absolutely none to me.

    September 12, 2012 at 12:51 am |
    • SPA Knight

      IGandhi was a great humanitarian and one does not need to be a sikh or hindu to appreciate his contribution to the world. Mother Teresa was attentive to all human persons not just those who were Catholic. The fact the the Catholic Church is going to cannonize her is not the point. Perhaps her story will inspire others to promote love versus all the hatred that is present.

      September 14, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  5. Sad but true

    Mary Mackillop is a woman who attempted to call out pedophile priests and was excommunicated for it. The Missionaries of Charity under mother Theresa hired convicted pedophiles to work unsupervised with children in India. Only one of these two was and should be sainted.

    September 11, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
    • Joe

      So true, glad you pointed out the sad reality.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:30 am |
    • shmi

      I fear we are all missing the point here. Mother Theresa was a simple person who chose to leave her comfort zone to live a life serving others. She followed her passion till her death. Pretty sure that it was to serve the God she believed in for heavenly treasures and not so that she'd be sainted on Earth. Some are do' ers and then there are the mockers!

      September 13, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  6. frannie

    In answer to Chikkipop is ....that's my point....

    You have no idea what spirituality can even begin to feel like....you refer to imaginary friends....rather than being able to feel energy through spiritual encounters....

    How sad, alone, and empty you must feel

    September 11, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  7. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things ,

    September 11, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
    • LOLO Jones


      September 11, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
    • hal 9000

      I'm sorry "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things", but you assertions regarding atheism and prayer are unfounded. I see that you repeat these unfounded statements with high frequency. Perhaps the following book might help you overcome this problem:

      I'm Told I Have Dementia: What You Can Do... Who You Can Turn to...
      by the Alzheimer's Disease Society

      September 11, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
  8. LOLO Jones

    Mother Teresa is the Messiah for CTHULHU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!_

    September 11, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
  9. Clyde

    Why do the atheists on here have to be so shameless as to bash Mother Teresa? It makes about as much sense as accusing Santa Claus of assassinating the President. Do they really expect to be taken seriously?

    September 11, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
    • max3333444555

      im an atheist. I think she was a good woman.

      September 11, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • Joe

      Clyde, a lot of the Theresa critics are Christians. She did do some pretty nasty stuff, even wanting some of the the poor to stay poor.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:32 am |
    • SPA Knight

      Joe – Poverty can sometimes be a virtue. Its better to be poor and to seek and know God than to be rich while finding comfort in things of this world. After all scriptures does say that it's the meek that will inherit the earth.

      September 14, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  10. Robert Sledz

    David Bien, your problem with this piece is that you needed to bring politics into it. The one thing you "DID NOT KNOW" about Mother Teresa was she avoided Politics like the plague. It was not her interest. The poor were.....ALONE. This nun's interests are nixed with Politics. Not a good combo.

    September 11, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Sharonanne

      Actually that is Not true. She even paid a visit to President Clinton to urge him to help DEFEAT Roe v Wade. This is how strongly she felt about the sin of abortion. She often said, 'how can we possibly teach others that killing is wrong when he have a law that says otherwise in allowing the innocent unborn to be destroyed". Look it up, she was very much in the political arena in this regard.

      September 11, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • Joe

      Yeah, like any other religious figure with power, she had no shame about her own hypocrisy.

      September 13, 2012 at 12:33 am |
  11. frannie

    ahhhhhh atheist whining......such pathetic, sad, lonely, ugly little people.....You just have to feel sorry for them

    September 11, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Chikkipop

      Why would anyone feel sorry for those who appreciate the value of reason and evidence, and are happy to live life without imaginary friends to comfort them?

      September 11, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • cheercounseling

      Christian godbots – you don't believe in reality, reject well proven evolution and global warming, but talk to invisible sky friends. I outgrew my invisible friend at 5 years old.

      September 11, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
  12. Potrzebie

    Sainthood is a load. They want to canonize Pius XII, you know, "Hitler's Pope"?

    September 11, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  13. realbuckyball

    Mother Teresa was an atheist.
    She never declared it, as such. She lost her faith years before she died.
    I just finished reading her collected letters. She said : "That which I see within myself, I dare not name".
    She died a non-believer. So hilarious the Romans will make her into a "saint". 👿

    September 11, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • Guest

      Are you sure your bias did not allow you to read into them what you wanted to see? Your desire to tear her down is rather pitiful. Sorry to burst your bubble, but she was not a yielding type. She stayed faithful to the end.

      September 11, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • Bob

      Too funny, "Guest", realbuckyball presents quotes and some degree of reference, and you reply with no substantiation to your claims. So who should we conclude is the more biased, less fact-based one, of the two of you?

      September 13, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  14. sUZANNE

    STOP this Church that I totally believed in from NOT telling the truths! This Church is Damaging all persons beliefs and Lifes!

    September 11, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  15. sUZANNE

    As a totally devout Catholic for 40+ years of my life – I believe ?Mother? Theresa to be a total Falsehood!!!! She was educated, simply wanted FAME!

    September 11, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  16. DS

    Whew, so hot in here with all the hate from the atheists and anti-cathoilics – same as yesterday. So hot from hate that all these folks need to drink their hateorade. Are liberals usually this hateful or is it just the atheists?

    September 11, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • sUZANNE

      As i posted earlier -AND IT DID not APPEAR. i WAS RAISED A dEVOUT cATHOLIC – tHEN WHEN my dear cousin, my same age went away to College he tried to explain to me what we were ?taught?. Well since then I opened my mind and agree with my cousin.Brainwashing of ALL religions who do NOT allow insights!

      September 11, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • boocat

      Are you that bigoted and hateful that you assume everyone bashing this woman is liberal....and I'll bet you have the gall to call yourself "christian."

      September 11, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • sam stone

      There ya go, DB....errr, DS, make it political.

      September 11, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • Guest

      I feel sorry for students who get confused by other students & then have trouble balancing their spiritual & intellectual lives. sUZANNE, try taking a good college course in philosophy for comparative religion.
      Be prepared; it is an honors course that evokes deep contemplation. By learning & discussing the core beliefs & differences between many of the world's religions in a non biased way, I realized that the Roman Catholicism I grew up with was actually the one that I would have chosen for myself. I attended a non religious college, & had a pair of non bigoted highly intellectual professors who did not give the students any endorsement for a religion. They wanted us to keep an open mind to form our own opinions, not parrot theirs.
      Written religious texts are all a product of their times. It helps if you understand something about the time when they were being written, what life was like at that time, & in what type of society they are set. I had to do a lot of background history & cultural reading to fully understand.
      Of course they can be written in poetic verse, allegory, or parable. Plus there are the inevitable errors, or mistranslations like the one that gave Cinderella a glass slipper rather than a fur slipper in a famous fairy tale. There are portions that were dropped from real usage, plus every book on religion also exaggerates the abilities of their Infinite Being(s).
      Remember they were being written by humans with divine inspiration which means there will be flaws. I found it best to focus on the belief system as a whole rather than nitpicking.
      Good luck, enjoy studying to find where you belong.
      If you find you were brought up where you belong, that's easy. Catholicism welcomes people back at any time. My sister came back after 30 years. Her fiancee demanded she change to his religion. When he abandoned her to live with another woman, & she saw no reason to stay.
      If you feel you belong elsewhere, may good fortune follow you, but remember you would always be welcomed back.

      September 11, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  17. MetheBLKman

    Wow interesting, I still believe in my heart that this woman was truly a SAINT, I only saw here giving up many things to help those who couldn't help themselfs.

    September 11, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  18. Hitchens

    Teresa was a fraud and fanatic. She was not a friend of poor, she was a friend of poverty.


    September 11, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • squints

      thank you! you beat me to it!!

      September 11, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • shmi

      Mother Theresa devoted her life to do what she believed in! And this dude does what he does best – Talk!! on how he'd have done better.. Devote your life to the betterment of these poor women you mentioned and then..strut your stuff on stage! There is a difference between doing and just talking!

      September 13, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  19. Satan

    For those who are poorer than most poor; it is probably best for those of better means to allow them to suffer dirty, alone, without any benefit of even words that give any hope that their suffering is of any concern to anyone. I would say, unfortunately, that she had nothing more in her mission from your "Christ" than to provide comfort. Comfort of the spirit is the cheapest and most easily spread. It is not a benefit that all men do not possess. The only obstacle is to ensure that there are assets and such in place to spread around the world. That is probably where the wealth was spread.....

    September 11, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • hapkidoexplorer

      Show us how to do better than Mother Teresa. Thanks.

      September 11, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  20. DQ

    AH I have to laugh, Did I see that someone equated her with DNC? First of all the most charitalbe people are found in the RNC and SHE WAS PRO LIFE! SO stick that in your... What ever and smoke it>>>>

    September 11, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • Todd

      You know people don't have to fall on one side or the other. While Republicans are Bigger in Charity and Pro-Life, the Democrats are against the Death Penalty and support a broader view of equality.

      September 11, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • SPA Knight

      Todd – How can one support a broader range of equality while supporting death by abortion? You may want to check the math but over 50 million persons have died by the hands of abortionists while a handful per year as a result of administering the death penalty. Those on death row receive tax payer funded legal representation and countless appeals to defend themselves while innocent human lives are destroyed before even having a chance at their first breath. The respect for human life should not be contingent upon what political party you belong to but whether you belong to the evil culture of death or the side that protects innocent life.

      September 14, 2012 at 12:03 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.