A Mother’s Love
We often think of “separation of church and state” as a means of keeping politics and religion separate. Recently in India it has become a way of one faction’s campaign of lies being used to usurp power and gain control. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted on Thursday, July 12th, that the religious order founded by St. Teresa of Calcutta – more popularly known simply as Mother Teresa – is being targeted by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is affiliated with a Hindu nationalist group. Although the state government is run by the BJP, the state has a large proportion of India’s marginalized tribal people, who exist outside of Hinduism’s traditional caste system, and many of them have become Christian as the Christian church has done much to improve their quality of live, standard of living, and educational opportunities. Jharkhand has a Christian population double the national average. The BJP has even gone so far as to accuse nuns of the Missions of Charity of illegal and wrong doing.
Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born August 26, 1910 was an Albanian-Indian descent in Skopje (now the capital of Macedonia), then part of the Kosovo Vilayet of the Ottoman. After belonging to many different empires throughout history, Skopje today is the capital of an independent Madeconia. After living in Macedonia for eighteen years Anjezë, then anme’s English equivalent being Agnes, moved to Ireland and then to India, where she lived for most of her life.
The youngest child in her family, Agnes’ father died when she was eight years old. He had been involved in local politics but the young girl was fascinated by stories of the lives of missionaries and their service in Bengal. She decided by age 12 that she should commit herself to religious life and this resolve strengthened in 1928 at the shrine of the Black Madonna of Vitina-Letnice, where she often went on pilgrimage.
Agnes left home in 1928 at age 18 to join the Sisters of Loreto at Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, Ireland, to learn English with the view of becoming a missionary. She never saw her mother or her sister again. She arrived in India in 1929and began her novitiate in Darjeeling, in the lower Himalayas. She learned Bengali and taught at St. Teresa’s School near her convent. Teresa took her first religious vows on 24 May 1931. She chose to be named after Thérèse de Lisieux, the patron saint of missionaries, opting for its Spanish spelling (Teresa).
On 10 September 1946, Teresa experienced what she later described as “the call within the call” when she travelled by train to the Loreto convent in Darjeeling from Calcutta for her annual retreat. “I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith.” Joseph Langford later wrote, “Though no one knew it at the time, Sister Teresa had just become Mother Teresa.”
Teresa wrote in her diary that her first year was fraught with difficulty. With no income, she begged for food and supplies and experienced doubt, loneliness and the temptation to return to the comfort of convent life during these early months: “Our Lord wants me to be a free nun covered with the poverty of the cross. Today, I learned a good lesson. The poverty of the poor must be so hard for them. While looking for a home I walked and walked till my arms and legs ached. I thought how much they must ache in body and soul, looking for a home, food and health. Then, the comfort of Loreto [her former congregation] came to tempt me. “You have only to say the word and all that will be yours again”, the Tempter kept on saying … Of free choice, my God, and out of love for you, I desire to remain and do whatever be your Holy will in my regard. I did not let a single tear come.”
Teresa received permission to start her order from the Vatican in 1950. In her words, it would care for “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone”. By 1997 the 13-member Calcutta congregation had grown to more than 4,000 sisters who managed orphanages, AIDS hospices and charity centres worldwide, caring for refugees, the blind, disabled, aged, alcoholics, the poor and homeless and victims of floods, epidemics and famine.
In 1952, Teresa opened her first hospice with help from Calcutta officials. She converted an abandoned Hindu temple into the Kalighat Home for the Dying, free for the poor, and renamed it Kalighat, the Home of the Pure Heart (Nirmal Hriday). Those brought to the home received medical attention and the opportunity to die with dignity in accordance with their faith: Muslims were read the Quran, Hindus received water from the Ganges, and Catholics received extreme unction. “A beautiful death”, Teresa said, “is for people who lived like animals to die like angels—loved and wanted.”
She opened a hospice for those with leprosy, calling it Shanti Nagar (City of Peace). The Missionaries of Charity established leprosy-outreach clinics throughout Calcutta, providing medication, dressings and food. The Missionaries of Charity took in an increasing number of homeless children; in 1955 Teresa opened Nirmala Shishu Bhavan, the Children’s Home of the Immaculate Heart, as a haven for orphans and homeless youth.
The congregation began to attract recruits and donations, and by the 1960s it had opened hospices, orphanages and leper houses throughout India. Teresa then expanded the congregation abroad, opening a house in Venezuela in 1965 with five sisters. Houses followed in Italy (Rome), Tanzania and Austria in 1968, and during the 1970s the congregation opened houses and foundations in the United States and dozens of countries in Asia, Africa and Europe.
The Missionaries of Charity Brothers was founded in 1963, and a contemplative branch of the Sisters followed in 1976. Lay Catholics and non-Catholics were enrolled in the Co-Workers of Mother Teresa, the Sick and Suffering Co-Workers, and the Lay Missionaries of Charity. Responding to requests by many priests, in 1981 Mother Teresa founded the Corpus Christi Movement for Priests and (with priest Joseph Langford) the Missionaries of Charity Fathers in 1984 to combine the vocational aims of the Missionaries of Charity with the resources of the priesthood. By 2007 the Missionaries of Charity numbered about 450 brothers and 5,000 sisters worldwide, operating 600 missions, schools and shelters in 120 countries. In 1982, at the height of the Siege of Beirut, Teresa rescued 37 children trapped in a front-line hospital by brokering a temporary cease-fire between the Israeli army and Palestinian guerrillas.
A friend of mine from India told me of meeting Mother Teresa as a boy of eight years. His class was on a school trip to one of the orphanages for which they had donated goods. At one point during the tour, he said, he heard someone approach him from behind. He thought it another student since the person was not much taller than he. “I felt a hand on each shoulder,” he said “realized the strength and weight of those hands. I thought surely it must be a giant because they were so strong. I dared no move or squirm. Suddenly a sweet voice spoke and I turned.” Mother Teresa was standing with her hands on my young friend’s shoulders. It was over thirty-five years later that he told me this story and still, he assured me, he could feel the imprint of her hands on his shoulders.
Mother Teresa resigned as head of the Missionaries of Charity on March 13, 1997 due to her failing health and died on September 5th of the same year. At the time of her death, the Missionaries of Charity had over 4,000 sisters and an associated brotherhood of 300 members operating 610 missions in 123 countries. Teresa once said, “By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.” According to former U.N. Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, “She is the United Nations. She is peace in the world.”
In the 19 years since Mother Teresa’s death, the Missionaries of Charity have not only grown in faith and service, but in numbers around the world. Teresa of Calcutta once described the reason for her being to accomplish what she did: “My secret…I pray!”