TIMOTHY ELPHICK looks back at the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose work among the poor and unfortunate earned her a worldwide reputation as the 20th century's 'living saint'
THE LIFE STORY
WITING at the time of Mother Teresa's award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Malcolm Muggeridge remarked on how "in some mysterious way" the diminutive nun "lights everyone up". Even the leper stumbling along became more surefooted in her presence.
"When she speaks, her voice is very quiet, yet everyone hears it, and the words she uses are very simple and direct, like the ones in the Sermon on the Mount, but enchant her hearers more than any orator I have heard," said Muggeridge, whose film (and later book) Something Beautiful for God, brought Mother Teresa's work to the attention of the world in the late 1960s.
"For myself, knowing Mother Teresa has been one of the great blessings of my life. Christianity is, after all, an experience rather than a conviction or conclusion, and the living presence of someone who has experienced it, as Mother Teresa has, to the point of Our Lord's occupying her whole life and being, is as helpful as, to an aspiring architect, the spectacle of Chartres Cathedral," he said.
In so many of the countries of the world, Mother Teresa has had the same effect on the people she has met. The rare qualities which in her combine, the essence of a goodness we can all identify, made her for many millions of Catholics and nonCatholics alike, a living saint. -.-And. the order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity, now has some 3,500 sisters working in 95 countries, caring for the poor, the sick, and the unfortunate. In India, where her tireless work has won the hearts of countless millions of people, she is revered as much by Hindus as an embodiment of the spirit of universal compassion as by the country's Christian population. Elsewhere she had been showered with honours and acclaimed as a bearer of the message of the Gospel.
But Mother Teresa's story begins in a remote part of Europe, in the Balkans. She was born to Albanian parents near the Macedonian town of Skopje, in the former Yugoslavia, on 27 August 1910.
Christened Gonxha [or Agnes] Bojaxhiu, she shared her early years with her brother, Lazar, and her sister. Aga. "Already when she was a little child she used to assist the poor by taking food to them every day like our mother. Of the three of us she alone did not steal the jam," her brother once recalled.
The young Agnes lost no time in realising the urgency of her calling to the service of God. "At the age of 12, I first knew I had a vocation to help the poor. I wanted to be a missionary," she said once.
And after hearing reports sent back to Europe by Yugoslavian Jesuit missionaries working in Bengal, at the tender age of 15 she decided that she must devote her life to the poor of India. When she left home a few years later, now 18, she went to Dublin to join the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, more widely known as the Loreto Sisters, founded by Mary Ward. And while in the novitiate of the Order the was given a theological training both in the Irish capital and overseas, at Darjeeling in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas. , But her life teaching privileged girls studying at Loreto House, a fashionable school in Calcutta, seemed a world removed from the day-to-day struggle to survive endured by the poor and homeless on the city's streets. In 1946, she heard what she was to describe in later years as a "call within a call".
"The message was clear. I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them," she said. And after receiving official permis
sion from the Holy See to leave her Order, and armed with a medical training, she took herself into the teeming slums of Calcutta, opening her first school for destitute children, who would otherwise have never seen the inside of a classroom. She became a citizen of the newly independent India in 1949. The following year, the Missionaries of Charity was recognised by the Diocese of Calcutta as a religious community, and two years later, by now joined by an ever-growing band of volunteers impressed by her mission in the slums, Mother Teresa opened the Pure Heart Home for the Dying in a hostel adjoining a Hindu temple.
The home, which still offers sanctuary to the destitute at life's finale, was from the outset intended to be "a shelter where the dying poor may die in dignity".
Other homes for the children and the poor of the streets in India followed, and in 1957 the Missionaries of Charity opened their first centre for the care of people with leprosy.
And when in 1964 Pope Paul VI toured India, visiting Mother Teresa in Bombay, the Pontiff gave her a white ceremonial limousine presented to the Holy See by the United States, only to find that within months she had raised enough money for a new leprosy centre by offering the car in a prize draw.
The episode epitomised Mother Teresa's approach to matters of cash in hand. "Money I never think of it. It always comes. The Lord sends it. We do his work and he provides us with the means. If he does not give us the means, that shows He does not want the work, so why worry?" she once said.
Her faith in God's provision of the materials needed for her work never failed her. And when in 1985 President Ronald Reagan presented Mother Teresa with the Medal of Freedom at a ceremony in the White House, the American leader joked that the "heroine of our times" might be tempted to melt down the
'In the name of the hungry, of the naked, of the homeless, of the blind, of the lepers, of all those who feel unwanted and uncared for'
medal to help the poor.
Awards, honours and world-wide recognition came hand-in-hand with the growth of the work of the Missionaries of Charity on the Indian sub-continent and, increasingly, in the other countries of the globe.
Pope Paul VI presented the very first Pope John XXIII peace award to Mother Teresa in 1971, praising "this intrepid messenger of the love of Christ" as "an example and symbol of the discovery of their secret of peace".
And in 1983 Queen Elizabeth, in Calcutta during a tour of India, presented the diminutive nun with the Insignia of the Honorary Order of Merit, Britain's highest civilian award, for her work among India's poor.
But it was the award of the Nobel peace prize in 1979 that attracted the attention of the world community an honour she accepted in Oslo "in the name of the hungry, of the naked, of the homeless, of the blind, of the lepers, of all those who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society".
And taking the opportunity to counter the oft-cited criticism that Mother Teresa had avoided confronting difficult political issues during her years as a campaigner for the poor, she said in her acceptance speech: "Once you get involved in politics, you stop being all things to all men. We must encourage the lay people to stand for justice and for truth."
In her later years Mother Teresa's role on the world stage gave her an international position that enabled her to increase the activities of her order both in the third world and in the more developed nations.
She braved the war in the Lebanon to visit one of her homes for the elderly in east Beirut in 1982, demanding of Red Cross officials that they tell her what they needed most to help the victims of fighting between Arabs and Israeli troops.
The aid worker drove Mother Teresa to a devastated hospital not far away, and showed her a group of nearly 40 children, mentally and physically handicapped. Mother Teresa's response was immediate. "I'll take them," she said.
"She saw the problem, fell to her knees and prayed for a few seconds, and then she was rattling off a list of supplies she needed nappies, plastic pants, chamber pots. We didn't expect a saint to be so efficient," the Red Cross workers said.
And the collapse of the communist regimes in eastern Europe, together with the relaxation of laws which had kept Christianity low for decades, afforded her the opportunity not only to witness the rebirth of the Church in the region but also to help those in need.
After being given permission to visit the Soviet Union by President Gorbachev in 1988 she made no fewer than three trips to the country before the onset of the heart disease which troubled her from late 1989 until her death. She quickly established the work of her order, opening centres in Moscow, Tbilisi and Spitak.
"Difficulties certainly lie ahead but one can only marvel at God's economy: someone who might have grown up bereft of any religion among her own Albanian people was able, in her sunset years, to supervise personally the breaking down of a bastion of Soviet atheism and establish the right of Christian sisters to nurse and love," said Canon Michael Bourdeaux, founder of the Oxford-based Keston College, which monitors religious freedom in eastern Europe.
But for Mother Teresa perhaps the most moving moment came when she was at last able to establish a centre in Tirana, the capital of Albania, Europe's last bastion of hardline Stalinism, in March 1991.
Paying £10,500 for a building just a few doors down from the city's Catholic church, the centre has become the centre of a fast-growing operation in Mother Teresa's homeland.
"We have come to give tender love and care as we do
'We have come to give tender love as we do throughout the world. We will begin slowly and see what is the greatest need'
throughout the world; We will begin slowly and see what is the greatest need," said Mother Teresa at the time. By the time of her death, five clinics were being administered from the Tirana headquarters.
But despite a gruelling routine of travel and administering her order, old age and failing health forced Mother Teresa to announce her retirement as head of the Missionaries of Charity in the spring of April 1990, shortly before her 80th birthday.
But come the election no successor could be found for the irrepressible Mother Teresa, who at the time was
launching a personal bid to help free Western—hostages being held by the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein as part of his "human shield" against attack by United Nations forces after his invasion of Kuwait.
Despite a serious heart condition Mother Teresa took charge once more, until the election of Sister Nirmala in March of this year as Superior General of the order. Even then, until her death last Friday, Mother Teresa remained the "Mother" of the order, representing its public face to the world's media.
After treatment in New York, Mother Teresa returned to die in her beloved Calcutta.