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. StraightPath

    Mother Teresa gave up a life of her own when she decided to be a nun. She gave up a spouse, children, property, a career in order to show God's love by helping people. And she helped and comforted millions. She recognized that their lives were worth the sacrifice. And this is the person you think deserves criticism? I'm sure she couldn't give any donations back because they'd already been spent to feed and help the poor.

    September 10, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Argle Bargle

      They were probably routed through the Vatican and used for their Alter Boy Sample the Salami Initiation Parties.
      Why do you think all those men run around in robes?

      September 10, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  2. budshot

    These kinds of praise pieces are pretty useless. A bigger question is – who's doing this work now? Time to promote that person rather than continually going over the late Mother Theresa's legacy.

    September 10, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • Argle Bargle

      You asked that earlier. Criminy, what are you , some kind of parrot?

      September 10, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  3. Mitch

    This woman took millions from Charles Keating (you remember him, the man who's greed and corruption toppled the savings and loan business in the 80's). When pressed to give back the stolen loot, the holy sister just couldn't bring herself to give it back. She also took over a million from Baby Doc Deuvalier and his wife, who stole from the people of Haitian people to enrich themselves. The holy sister also couldn't bare to give that ill gotten money back either. She was no saint. Her flagship operation in Calcutta India left dying people on cots just inches from a filthy floor, with little food and no health care – not even pain medication. She said they would come to know Jesus through their pain. She also said their pain was beautiful to her. I have never looked at a suffering human being and said their pain was beautiful to me. This woman was not saint.

    September 10, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • Argle Bargle

      Oh yes, I'm sure it was her. She probably saved every shekel under her mattress.

      You should probably talk to the Carnivorous Cardinals, the original Scarlet Sinners. I'll bet their coffers are overflowing with the goodwill of others.

      September 10, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
  4. Ann

    I personally felt God's love! Unlike me, a very popular social friend of mine, said she was saying the stations of the cross at a church and that she felt Jesus put his arms around her while she was praying. THIS WOMAN is highly reilgious, so I thought how come I don't get that, is she better than me?????? So I kneeled down that morning to say my prayers and coming from BEHIND ME, AND ENVELOPING ME, was the greatest love I EVER EVER felt in my life. It lasted for about 2 seconds Yes, I got my answer, I was as good as her. This is TRUE.

    September 10, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      hindu, idiot, cross is a sign of hinduism, paganism, and son of blessed Mary had nothing to do with it. for more for more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • OOO

      As you might already suspect... not very convincing.

      Do you have a picture of this, maybe a video. That might get you in through the door as a starter. But personal feelings passing off as proof? Sorry.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      I do accept Mormons are more correct than Muslims.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • I wonder

      Keeping up with the Joneses, eh, Ann?

      September 10, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  5. Parlo

    Mother Teresa was one of the few modern Christians who understood and fully accepted what Chritianity actually requires of its followers.

    September 10, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • Quid Malmborg in Plano TX

      She sure did- "Lie, cheat, steal. All in a day's work."

      September 10, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  6. lou

    A lot was left out. Mother T. took money from the mafia to the help the poor, and her order of nuns are known for stealing. Supposedly, you can't leave your wallet around them, they will take it and give the contents to the poor. She was a genius.

    September 10, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Go to hind, hell, hindu, lair, borne in hind filth of hinduism, racism, She was a good person. for more for more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  7. carlo dimucci

    I wonder how many of your who criticize her could live one year in calcutta and do what she did.

    September 10, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      One year? hindu's criminals do not even touch them, considering them to be hindu, untouchable by their hindu filthy religion based on hinduism, racism. for more for more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  8. really

    How cares what she believed, she helped the poor. She went places you won't and did things your not going to do to help. You guys are ridic, a person helps the poor, spreads her belief, (doesn't matter if she worshiped the moon), and does good and you still find fault because its not your own agenda? You sit at work on your computer, or at home, probably over weight and ridicule a person who went out there and helped people. Get a life!!

    September 10, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Problem is not with her good deeds but hindu, pagans of hindered gutter of hinduism, racism, india have problem for her good deed. for more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  9. AverageJoe76

    Why does God/Jesus charge just a few with spreading the 'word' to save our eternal souls. Didn't it know that the message wouldn't reach everyone. And isn't that kinda unfair for us in countries that are not Jesus-driven?

    September 10, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Christ ism, savior ism is known as hindu Mithra ism, pagan savior ism, hinduism, religion of hindu pagan Romans, Son or blessed Mary had nothing to do with hinduism, pagan ism. There were and there are no Christ, but you, your own Christ, savior by following truth absolute God. for more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Archangel Michael

      Not at all. Before any man is judged according to his actions, he will have the opportunity to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ in its fulness, and be allowed to study and ponder it before being asked to accept or reject it.

      Missionaries now move amongst the dead spreading the Gospel and teaching those who could not or would not hear it in this life.

      And those who were not baptized by one with authority while in this life will have the opportunity to receive proxy baptism in their name, which they may also accept or reject as is their right of agency.

      Those who deny these things deny the word of God, for he is a just God and seeks for all his children to return to him, but through their own choice and that of no other.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  10. lou

    This was not written well.

    September 10, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  11. Finally see the Light

    I would rather be an idotic m0r0nic person who has faith and is wrong wrong wrong than an atheist any day of the week. I dislike religion as well, but I believe in Christ and what He said, not a church, but the Church.. Mother Teresa was and will always be a great woman who made a huge difference. I have spoken with someone who worked in the house where the people with fatal disease came to be loved before they died, they are brilliant and have written several books that have been published and sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and they witnessed it and worked in it and she is already a saint in my book...poor poor atheist.

    September 10, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Drink my Kool-aid

      Opinion. That's all you have. No facts.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Christ ism, savior ism is known as hindu Mithra ism, pagan savior ism, hinduism, religion of hindu pagan Romans, Son or blessed Mary had nothing to do with hinduism, pagan ism. for more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • doughnuts

      She did nothing to help the sick or suffering, but to prolong thier pain. All she offered was a place to die.
      With the tens of millions donated to her, she could have built a modern, well-equiped teaching hospital in that poor neighborhood in Calcutta.

      She loved her fame, and walked on the backs of the crippled and dying to get it.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • Plucky

      Mother Theresa being good and the truth of your religion have absolutely no connection at all.
      And the chances that your god is the correct god are almost as bad as my (athiest) chances.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • She should be peromoted to Saint


      There was this guy up in Maine, I think, that was beatified. This guy worked with orphans and his local parish for over fifty years, got paid, but had a modest life style. They had to find a couple of miracles to move him up the pecking order to sainthood. They found one where he prayed for a very sick woman and she got better, eureka, a miracle. They couldn't come up with another untill one wise Bishop came up with the following idea. Listen the guy worked with kids for a half a century and never got caught with his hand in some girls panties or some boys shorts, eureka, miracle number two. Sissy should just sreeze through, if the guys in charge let her, Saint Teresa, the grumpy old bi*tch.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • Finally see the Light

      Please "Drink My Cool Aid" show me your facts that God doesn't exist...love to see them. Same with you Plucky lets see your proof God doesn't exist...show us all the real proof the facts!!! please we are all waiting. Not just insults and conjecture. PROOF!!

      September 10, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • OOO

      My proof that god doesn't exist is exactly the same as my proof that the tooth fairy doesn't exist.... none.
      Your proof that god exists is exactly the same as your proof that the tooth fairy exists.... none.

      Your god = tooth fairy.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Finally see the Light

      OOO is a perfect example of the idi0cy of atheist, thanks for proof of your inane thought process...OOO= brain dead

      September 11, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  12. HeavenSent

    Da Muther was a tormented nut case like I am but no matter what the neighbours hear or say,,,,I DO NOT torture the cats.

    September 10, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  13. Barney

    What a wonderful woman. God bless her. The Bible tells us that when we put ourselves last, we humble ourselves, our souls increase in righteousness, and we become more like Christ: A servant to mankind. We become first in heaven by putting ourselves last. It tells us that if you cloth, feed, and help the poor, your cloth, feed, and help Jesus Christ himself. Jesus said let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. All of these are selfless. God also tells us that we will be judged based on the same measure that we judge and act towards others. Mother Teresa gave up her life for others. She dropped everything to follow Christ and do His will. If she is not a Saint, I'm not sure who is.

    September 10, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Christ ism, savior ism is known as hindu Mithra ism, pagan savior ism, hinduism, religion of hindu pagan Romans, Son or blessed Mary had nothing to do with hinduism, pagan ism. for more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • carlo dimucci

      Very well said Barney. Thank you.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  14. AvdBerg

    For a better understanding of the life and works of Mother Teresa, what spirit she served (Luke 9:55; 2 Cor. 11:13-15) and by what authority she was claimed a ‘Saint’, we invite you to read the articles ‘Sainthood by the Pope’, ‘The Mystery Babylon’, ‘Popes and the Princes of This World’ and ‘CNN Belief Blog – Sign of the Times’, listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    All of the other pages and articles listed on our website explain how and by whom this whole world has been deceived as confirmed in Revelation 12:9.

    September 10, 2012 at 4:07 pm |

      This poster is a TROLL on this site and is only posting to sell their book and website which is a known cult. They are a known liar on this site. Report them to their web hosting site since spamming is against the rules! Click the report abuse link to get rid of this TROLL!

      September 10, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  15. Kiran G

    Saints aren't people that do well, they already get their reward. Saints are those that are called to Jesus as his own. And that's not somehting that you can work up or earn.

    September 10, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Plucky

      Called to Jesus as his own... what?

      September 10, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Saint ism is not of truthful but of hindu's, pagans, cause of mayhem on earth, do not call her, what she never claimed to be, A hindu sanatan, filthy goon, man god of hindu's, ignorant s. for more for more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • AverageJoe76

      So here we go again with the 'favorites'. Rest of us are chopped liver. I feel so loved. Like was just given a blanket soaked in ice-water, fresh out the freezer. "ahhhhhhhh...... that's amore!"

      September 10, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • bluegillonthefly

      Are we not all called to that? The problem is not in the number called, but in the number who respond at all. And among those few who respond at all, fewer still respond as Mother Teresa did.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  16. In God We Trust

    One Nation, Under God

    So help me God

    September 10, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • ME II

      ...neither of which existed before the 1950's.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  17. Ahh yes, the atheist pope, stephen hawking...

    the mass-movement patron saint 'remedy' for those whose self-loathing bring them here to ridicule; in hopes of feeling somewhat in control of their victimized-lives.

    September 10, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  18. Tax Damned Churches NOW

    Mother Teresa did some good works for the wrong reasons. She treated symptoms but encouraged the spread of the disease (Catholicism and its opposition to science, birth control, and self-actualizing women). And especially in her suhcking on Charlie Keating's teet or dihk (your choice) she received millions in cash he stole from retired American seniors and flatly refused to return any of it it when law enforcement in both India and USA urged her to,... and became a consummate media hooah.

    September 10, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Sure Keating might have bilked some 17,000 people out of tens of millions of dollars – but he was a good Catholic.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • J

      Yep. Got that right. Churches need to be taxed. Need to preach politics from the pulpit. Need to be actively campaigning for like minded individuals. They need to follow their money and be involved, involved, involved in politics. They need to speak out and quit being quiet. They need to walk right across the hallway and knock repeatedly on their Congressman's door. They are citizens and they need to make their voices heard.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • bluegillonthefly

      A lying piece of garbage such as yourself is hardly in a position to criticize others...

      September 10, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  19. Oh Please!

    This woman went to AIDS infested parts of the world and told them NOT TO use condoms.

    September 10, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  20. Faxon

    She was not a particularly nice person, according to many accounts of her nasty demeanor to men.

    September 10, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Well, that merely enforces my doubts about her orientation.

      In fact, the more I hear, the more I suspect she was actually a sadist.

      Refusing to treat cancer patients with anything stronger than aspirin?

      I hope when my time comes I don't see this militant, old, man hating, cultist butch being in charge of my meds!

      September 10, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • ME II

      Don't worry W.D. I think she's dead.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • bluegillonthefly

      Hey, William "the mouth" – what makes you think she _had_ anything stronger than aspirin to give them? Even that is still more than the dying in the slums got before she came there to help.

      But there will always be liars who seek to destroy the truly great among us. Meanwhile, you probably think BO (his initials say it all) is the greatest president ever.

      September 10, 2012 at 4:40 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.