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. TC

    Here at a CNN forum on a religious topic? I bet it will only take me 10 seconds or less to see a post from a hate filled atheist troll that refuse to stay under the non-believing bridge. Whatever a person's beliefs – there are those that do and those that don't and when it comes to helping the poor, everyone here is a don't compared to MT. So have some common sense if you can;t have decency.

    September 10, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      She didn't help the poor by actually preaching poverty. She had all those poor people believing that god wants them to be poor. I've done more for the poor sitting on my couch watching my Bergman collection.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • TC

      So now the delusionals have shown up? I love how lazy Americans feel they are "doing" something for the poor by dropping change in SAlvation Army bucket.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • sam

      Whatever, TC. Anyone who doesn't agree with you is lazy or an atheist troll. You are such a special snowflake.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  2. ScottCA


    September 10, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • TC

      No Chrsitian is trying ot prove anything to you. However, atheists sure do try hard to prove there is not a God and of course, you fail.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      ScottCA, you don't make atheists look all that great when you go against someone known for helping the poorest members of society. . .you just don't. I'm not religious and even I think you're making yourself look really really bad.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Nah

      The burden of proof is on whoever makes an assertion.

      If someone says there is a walrus beneath the surface of Pluto, the burden is on him to prove it.

      If his opponent says there is not a walrus beneath the surface of Pluto, he has asserted a fact and a conclusion that he, in turn, must prove.

      Feebly trying to push the burden to your opponent, especially when they've given you an argument, shows you either can't defeat their positions, or are so dogmatic you won't believe anything that doesn't comport with your preconceived notions of how the world works.

      This goes for atheists as well as religious people.

      Hence, if someone asserts that there is a god, the burden is on him to prove it. But once he gives you a proof, the burden is on you to show him how and why he's wrong.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • Loki

      What difference does it make if God exists or not ? To spend your life proving he doesn't exist seems every bet as stupid as proving God does exist. Nothing changes...the Sun still rises and you are hungry in the morning. Want to make a real difference in this world ? Make some money and enjoy living.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Jake-413451


      Funny this story is about Mother Teresa, a woman who enriched the Catholic Church while the poor who came to her death house lay in squalor and suffered agony since she was sending the cash to the pope.

      She helped condemn who knows how many children to living with AIDS as she fought against condo usage.

      She helped the actual epidemic spread of the disease in Africa with her assistance in fighting against condom usage there.

      Help the poor, hardly, she was helping herself and her church at their expense.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  3. Franco

    If you do not want to believe in God, why not just believe in the good works that Mother Teresa did? I am pretty sure that most of you and including myself would find it impossible to live the life that Mother Teresa lived and she had choices of living life as a rich woman.

    September 10, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  4. Jim Tackes

    "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 2:39 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Hitchens new nothing about the people Teresa helped. How could he make any judgement? I'm not Christian since I don't believe in any of the religions, but when she said "the poorest of the poor" that is exactly what she meant. Trust me, I was there.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Franco

      Do you people even think of what Christopher Hitchens wrote about? It sounds like complete nonsense.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Franco

      Hitchens was more interested in 5 hour long dinner parties and sucking back huge amounts of booze, I do not think he cared much for the poor.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • steve shay

      True. Sounds to me like she was no Mother Theresa.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  5. nouk

    Though not Catholic, I admire her as no other who during my lifetime has done so much good for so many and who piqued the conscience of so many of us. I did not agree with her on every pronouncement she ever made, but her soul was honest and she fought to make the world a better place.

    September 10, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      She would have been much better off breaking her ties with the Vatican. She already had plenty of support for her work worldwide. She should have said buh-bye to those evil old men referred to as The Vatican.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  6. Nan Onnimus


    September 10, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Nan Onnimus

      Oops... technical error (I didn't mean to simply post "x").

      Mother Theresa and the Catholic church also helped keep the poorest people in poverty by refusing them access to birth control.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  7. Adnan sami

    i hope she was born in pakistan .. our country wouldnt be killing miniroties and going towards 5th failed nations

    September 10, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  8. hitchensrotsinhell

    on how christopher Hitchens has been the darling of the parasites on wall street, read russell jacoby at salon today!

    September 10, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  9. Akira

    Isn't this the same Mother Theresa who withheld life-saving treatment from those who were dying under her care, the same Mother Theresa who was pals to dictator Baby Doc Duvalier? What kind of "saint" is this?

    September 10, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      A controversial one who fed clothed and schooled people who were so poor, someone like you would probably cross the street to get away from. She cared for the rejected of society. You have no idea and probably never will what kind of work she did.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  10. Loki

    In a world without a God to answer to, doing anything that doesn't have a measurable purpose... has no purpose. The best survive and the worst become soil again. I like that. If God sees fit not to help that Mother Teresa fool, I'm fine with that. I'm going to live my life to its maximum greedy potential. Remember this...we are all going to be dead for a long long time.

    September 10, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      So does a hindu hungry dog on street. Your kind hindu, denier of truth absolute.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Loki

      I'm quite content. My family has much to be thankful for. I'm guessing that whatever God is up there...he approves of my methods. You can worship God, pray for forgiveness, and live like a filthy swine. Good for Youuuuuu.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • HINDU


      September 10, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  11. Raj

    My wife's uncle went their with very bad burns. He was not going to live. But they would not allow him an painkillers and when we tried to get him out we were stopped by the guards. His life and extreme pain went on for days before he died. I will never forgive that terrible woman for that.

    September 10, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      hinduism, absurdity of a hindu lair from hindered gutter of hinduism illegality called india, borne in hinduism illegality, raised in hinduism, illegality, and living by hinduism, illegality and a true picture of hinduism, illegality, spewing his hinduism lies to dis credit some one dedicated to help human, rejected by hinduism, racism of hindu's criminals like animals. For more please visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/blog.html to learn more about hinduism, criminality of hindu's, criminals against truth absolute God and "HIS" humanity.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Loki

      She seems almost psychotic. I always thought she was unbalanced.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Sammy

      Guards?? haha!! You are a joke.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  12. PJ

    ...and the Pole Dancing. Let's not forget the Pole Dancing...

    September 10, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  13. Anglo

    While I admire the scocial work I dont admire promoting christianity in the name of charity. Charity can be
    done not in the name of religiona and forcing desperate people to convert into christianity.

    September 10, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Christianity was originally meant to be the religion of the poor, not the rich. I don't know what the Vatican is, but I don't see it as being anything related to true Christianity.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  14. DeeCee1000

    Had she broken her ties with the Vatican, I think more people would have appreciated all of the work she did to help desperately poor people all over the world that no one else cared for.

    September 10, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  15. Aisha khan singh

    I converted from one religion to another so i can find peace and trust me .. i am so happy now

    September 10, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  16. HeavenSent

    Prideful atheists, listen to your own jealousy. You should stop telling satan's lies and go do some good for people in the name of Jesus. I can still eat corn on the cob if I line it up with my tooth just right. The only good you will do is burn in hell.


    September 10, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      LOL...! 😀 Thanks -CS. Gotta' get at least one of these in a day. Cracks me up.


      September 10, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • CS


      September 10, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Heaven Sent, weeps every time He sees someone like you saying things like that to others.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      What I MEANT to say was, Heaven Sent, Jesus weeps every time someone like you says something like that to others.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • therealpeace2all


      It's not just your post with the 'nugget' in there... it's the rest of the commenters that write the silly.

      It's sad in a way... but makes me chuckle nonetheless ! 😀


      September 10, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  17. Raj

    My wife's uncle went there with very bad painful 3rd degree burns. They were not able to help him and would not allow him any painkillers. We tried to get him out but their guards would not let us. He died over the course of days in extreme pain. I will never forgive that terrible woman for that.

    September 10, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Aisha khan singh

      ur story is hilarious ... happens everyday in pakistan .. thats why i left that country 🙂

      September 10, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      hinduism, absurdity of a hindu lair from hindered gutter of hinduism illegality called india, borne in hinduism illegality, raised in hinduism, illegality, and living by hinduism, illegality and a true picture of hinduism, illegality, spewing his hinduism lies to dis credit some one dedicated to help human, rejected by hinduism, racism of hindu's criminals like animals. For more please visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/blog.html to learn more about hinduism, criminality of hindu's, criminals against truth absolute God and "HIS" h

      September 10, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Franco

      Sounds like a fake story.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      im sorry to her that my prayers go out to you and your husband

      September 10, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  18. open400

    In an era where people are called "Christain" and still support Paul Ryan's budget (which would make the lives of the American poor even more miserable), this type of article to knock Mother Theresa does not surprise me.

    September 10, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  19. monocle88

    Steve – your a schmo. Blessed Mother Teresa is a SAINT – even if you don't believe in heaven. She encouraged everyone to love – especially those who are most lonely. That includes our wives, husbands, children and parents. Turn your back on being a jerk and try to be kind not just to me but to those closest to you.

    September 10, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • .

      pot meet kettle, kettle meet pot.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • hawaiiguest


      Theresa also believed that one should never try to improve their lot in life because however much suffering you're in is the proper amount, and is ordained by god. She was by no means a "saint", she was a delusional old bat, and most people (probably including you) are better people. She also didn't believe in proper medical care for all the people in her "home for the dying", which more resembled a concentration camp, all the while pulling in an annual income that could outfit several first class clinics, and got modern medical treatment for herself. There's a lot more if you want to know it.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  20. Kristine O'grady

    What crap about her hating money and that's why she let it pile up for Rome. IMO, this was an evil act on her part. She did wonderful things and she did damnable things. In her own words she is revealed as a woman hating anti feminist who bowed to male authority at every opportunity. I contribute to Doctors Without Border, as the above poster mentioned. Like any extremely strong personality, this woman was more complex than publicity painted her, and was no "real saint".

    September 10, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Loukiii

      Spoken like a true disgruntled lesbian.

      September 10, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Mario D

      Well, please can you substantiate your accusations "pile it ($) for Rome"? What do you mean by "woman hating anti-feminist"? It is not polite to make such statements about anyone if not substantiated by fact. Mostly you express opinion which betrays some type of hatred....seemingly towards Catholic church. Are you by chance an ex-Catholic?

      September 10, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @Mario D

      Well, you could start by looking at some of the shi tty things she did to get a balanced perspective on the lady.

      This is just 'one' of many places that doc ument her activities and behavior.


      Check it out... verify it. She was human, and arguably not much of a 'saint' as some would believe.


      September 10, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
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