It’s been said that people are equally dismayed at hearing Christianity questioned and at seeing it practiced—and no one embodied that disconnect better than Mother, now Saint, Teresa of Calcutta.
A great many powerful people, charmed at the thought of someone (else) giving their life to serve the poorest of the poor, invited her to come and mingle and speak, only to find that beneath her very warm compassion—indeed, the sources of that warmth and compassion—were some ironclad biblical convictions about faith and morality.
Critics were hyperventilating for days when, upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she described abortion as “the greatest destroyer of peace today. Because if a mother can kill her own child, what is left [but] for me to kill you and you to kill me—there is nothing between.”
They huffed and they puffed again in 1982, when she found the temerity to tell a jam-packed auditorium of Harvard students that virginity “is the most beautiful thing a young man and a young woman can give each other,” and urged them to “Make a resolution that on your wedding day, you can give each other something beautiful.” Yet the students themselves gave her a prolonged, standing ovation.
“When I heard her speak,” remembers Fr. Paul Scalia, episcopal vicar for clergy in the Diocese of Arlington, Va., “I thought of what was said about our Lord Himself: ‘He spoke as one who had authority (Mark 1:22).’ Meaning there was an authenticity, a holiness, a sanctity to the man Himself, and that gave His words power.” The same was true of Mother Teresa, Scalia says.
“What she said wasn’t remarkable—she was. And her saying these things gave them greater meaning.”
Because, beyond the saying, was the doing. Long before—and long after—she first came to international fame in the late 1970s, Mother Teresa was walking the loneliest back alleys of the world, touching untouchables, feeding the starving, bathing and nursing the dying … offering the brutalized her love and the indifferent her irresistible smile.
She was wise enough to know that, while the poor were her priority, they weren’t the only ones suffering. The agonies of loneliness are as real in Beverly Hills salons as they are in Calcutta’s gutters, and Mother Teresa’s compassion freely encompassed the denizens of both.
“We are not just a number in the world. We are children of God,” she told a United Nations Assembly in 1985. “Because the same loving hand of God [that] has created you, created me, created [that] man of the street … that leper, that hungry man, that rich man, for that same purpose: to love and to be loved.”
This conviction—that every life, in or out of the womb, is sanctified by the God who created it—spurred not only her work with the poor and dying, but her unswerving defense of marriage and family. “What can we do to promote world peace?” someone asked her, after she won the Nobel Prize. “Go home and love your family,” she replied.
She also tied the sanctity of life to the case for religious freedom, telling UN delegates that “if we see God in each other, we will be able to live in peace. And if we live in peace, we will be able to share the joy of loving with each other … and God will be with us.”
Sharing joy was a hallmark of her service. “Joy is the net that catches souls,” she often said, and holding fast to that joy in the face of all that she saw and experienced was the challenge, and triumph, of her life, as she explained to someone who asked if she was married.
“Yes,” she said, “and I find it sometimes very difficult to smile at my spouse, Jesus. He can be very demanding. There is where love comes in—when it is demanding, and yet we can give it with joy.”
Some people, Harper Lee famously wrote in To Kill A Mockingbird, are put in this world “to do our unpleasant jobs for us.” Mother Teresa, like the Savior she so tirelessly served, understood that there is no job so unpleasant as the dirty, grunt work of redemption. And no greater joy than reminding a longing soul of its unique, surpassing, and timeless worth.