Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta was widely regarded as a saint in her own lifetime. Recently celebrations marked the one hundredth anniversary of her birth. A symbol of goodness for people everywhere, she was also the recipient of countless awards, including the 1979 Nobel Prize for Peace.
When she died on September 5, 1997, her congregation, the Missionaries of Charity, encompassed 594 homes in 123 countries. She left behind her more than 3,800 sisters, nearly 380 brothers, 13 priests, and countless co-workers, all committed to living in her spirit throughout the world. She herself was fast-tracked to beatification in 2003 and will likely be canonized within the next few years.
She was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu on August 26, 1910, the youngest of three children of Albanian parents. By the age of twelve, she felt called to be a missionary among the poor, but she was reluctant to leave her mother alone who was recently widowed. However at the age of eighteen, she joined the Loreto Sisters. When Agnes set sail for India in 1928, she had chosen Teresa as her religious name.
For more than fifteen years, Sister Teresa taught history and geography in a responsible, but unexceptional, way. Her sisters in Loreto remembered her for her industriousness, her readiness to perform menial tasks, her ill-fitting sandals, and her fun-loving nature. But something else was going on inside her. The spirit prompted Mother Teresa to leave Loreto and found a new congregation in Calcutta dedicated to the “wholehearted free service of the poorest of the poor.” The goal of this congregation would be to meet Jesus’ thirst for souls as he hung on the cross. Remembering her vow, Mother Teresa knew that she could not refuse him. Jesus’ thirst—his longing for the love of the broken bodies of the poor and his desire to offer himself as spiritual drink to these poor—was at the heart of all that followed. Jesus wanted their love, and he wanted to give himself to them so that they would be free to give themselves back to him.
This radical embrace of the worlds most vulnerable inspired many men and women to partake in her Mission. The work began with a tiny school where Mother Teresa taught her “students” by scratching the alphabet in the dust and introducing them to the rudiments of hygiene. Tortured with fear and loneliness, and not very good at begging, she was painfully aware of the need for prayerful support. Gradually, some of her former pupils joined her, and in 1950 her new congregation was formally established
It wasn’t just religious sisters who joined her, either. Lay people came, and she eventually founded a lay branch of her congregation, as well as an order of priests. She opened soup kitchens, children’s homes, homes for the dying, leprosy clinics, and homes for AIDS victims. A prayerful woman whose outreach was fueled by contemplation, she was constantly uncomfortable with her growing popularity, and especially with the increased requests for her to speak at conferences and gatherings all over the world. But again, she did not refuse the Lord, no matter how much it cost her. Surely this simple and yet profound woman is an icon of hope in a time where so much inequality and injustice prevail across our world.