Born: Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu on August 26, 1910 in Skopje, Macedonia
Died: September 5, 1997 in Calcutta, India, at the age of 87
Beatified: October 19, 2003 in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City by Pope John Paul II
Canonized: September 4, 2016 in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City by Pope Francis
Feast Day: September 5
Patronage: World Youth Day
“If I ever become a Saint – I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven – to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”1 – St. Teresa of Calcutta
At times, I’ve fallen into the trap of sanitizing the saints. I’ve idealized them, imagining their lives as more of a ‘heaven on earth’ than a ‘way of the Cross’. I’ve pictured them spending their days in prayer, close to God – always happy and never wavering in their faith. I imagined them banishing temptations with ease, and I’ve been guilty of underestimating their spiritual battles – of minimizing their daily struggles with doubts and fears. I wanted them to be ‘superhuman’ – to be everything I’m not.
But St. Teresa of Calcutta completely destroyed that fantasy. Perhaps she, more than any saint, has helped me to see that holiness is not the exclusive preserve of the spiritual ‘elite’. Saints aren’t superheroes. They don’t live in a bubble or exist in some kind of ‘otherworldly’ state of being. They are real, ordinary people who face the same kinds of challenges and difficulties that you and I do each day. There’s no secret formula to becoming a saint; there’s no magic wand. In the end, the biggest difference between the saints and us is that they are in heaven, while we are still here on earth. The path to sainthood is paved with love and self-sacrifice – by being faithful to the daily duties of our everyday lives, by being willing to be ‘pencils in the hands of God’.2 Despite what we might think, holiness isn’t only demonstrated in extraordinary accomplishments. It can be as simple as doing small things with great love.3
The story of St. Teresa of Calcutta’s life is familiar to many of us. Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu on August 26, 1910 in Skopje, Macedonia, she was the youngest child of Nikollë and Dranafile Bojaxhiu.4 Her parents (who were of Albanian descent) were quite well off, and the family didn’t lack for anything. But they were not spared their own share in suffering and sorrow. Her father, who was a businessman as well as a benefactor and politician, died when Agnes was just 8 years old.5 After his death, her mother set up a business selling cloth and embroidery to support the family.6
The Bojaxhiu family were devout Catholics, and from an early age Agnes felt called by God to be a missionary. “I was only twelve years old then,” she wrote. “It was then that I first knew I had a vocation to the poor, in 1922. I wanted to be a missionary, I wanted to go out and give the life of Christ to the people in the missionary countries.”7
At the age of 18, Agnes finally fulfilled her dream. On September 26, 1928, she left for Ireland where she joined the Sisters of Loreto, a non-cloistered community of nuns dedicated to education. The Sisters have missions in India, and after a few months’ training in Dublin, she was sent to Darjeeling to continue her formation. It was there – on May 25, 1931 – that she made her first profession of vows, taking the name ‘Mary Teresa’ after St. Thérèse of Lisieux.8
Following her profession of vows, St. Teresa was sent to Calcutta where she taught geography and catechism at the Loreto Convent School (St. Mary’s Bengali Medium School for girls). Every Sunday she would visit the poor in Calcutta’s slums, and her encounters there left a very deep impression on her. Shortly after being appointed principal of St. Mary’s in 1944, she contracted tuberculosis. Unable to continue teaching, she was sent back to Darjeeling for a period of rest and recuperation.
The “Call within the Call”
It was on the train to Darjeeling – on September 10, 1946 – that St. Teresa experienced what she later described as ‘the call within the call’. She wrote, “The message was quite clear – I was to give up all and follow Jesus into the slums – to serve Him in the poorest of the poor. I knew it was His will and that I had to follow Him. There was no doubt that it was to be His work. I was to leave the convent and work with the poor, living among them. It was an order. I knew where I belonged but I did not know how to get there.”9 In 1948, she received permission to leave the Sisters of Loreto to pursue her call.
After taking a course in first aid and simple nursing, ‘Mother Teresa’ returned to Calcutta in December 1948. “[She was] dressed for the first time in the humble white cotton sari that would become her emblem. Alone, with only five rupees to her name (about $1 U.S.), she sought hospitality with the Little Sisters of the Poor, from whose convent she began going daily out into the slums.”10 As word of her work with the poor spread, people began to contribute to her mission. A former student asked to join her, and soon others followed. In 1950, she founded the Missionaries of Charity, and in 1952 she opened the first Home for the Dying in Calcutta. By the time of her death in 1997, there would be more than 4000 Missionaries of Charity and over 610 foundations in 123 countries on 7 continents.11
While no one would argue that St. Teresa’s path wasn’t challenging and difficult, it’s tempting to think that it was at least filled with interior consolation and peace. From the outside, it seemed like she was continuously comforted and strengthened by the knowledge that she was in the centre of God’s will – that she was blessed by a sense of His presence. St. Teresa became famous and travelled the world, winning the admiration of people from all walks of life. She received many awards, including the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize. U.S. President Ronald Reagan presented her with the Medal of Freedom at the White House in June 1985, and in December 1999 she placed first in Gallup’s poll of the “Most Widely Admired People in the 20th Century.”
But that was only a part of her story. A few years after founding the Missionaries of Charity, St. Teresa began to experience intense inner spiritual darkness. On September 3, 1959, in a letter to her confessor she wrote, “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss – of God not wanting me — of God not being God — of God not existing.”12 It was a struggle for her to pray, and her work with the poor no longer held any joy, attraction, or zeal. It was a darkness that was to continue unrelieved until the day of her death. How did she keep going? In one of my favourite quotes, St. Teresa said, “We’re not always called to be successful but we’re always called to be faithful.’”13 Her “secret fire” – her love for God and her faithfulness to whatever He asked of her – inspired her to persevere despite her own interior struggles. Fr. Joseph Langford, M.C. wrote, “What had forged Mother Teresa’s soul and fuelled her work had been an intimate encounter with the divine thirst – for her, for the poor, and for us all.”14
St. Teresa of Calcutta dedicated her entire life to caring for the poorest of the poor, and the world is a better place because she walked among us. Tiny but tough, she was blessed not only with the gift of compassion, but also with great leadership skills. Her witness reminds us that we will all be tempted by doubts and darkness along the way. But we do not serve God because of what He can do for us in return; we serve God because we love Him. And in the end – for St. Teresa as well as for all of us – it will not be darkness that has the last word. She wrote, “In the call You said that I would have to suffer much. … my Jesus, You have done to me according to Your will … All this is my will – I want to satiate Your Thirst with every single drop of blood that You can find in me. … I beg of You only one thing – please do not take the trouble to return soon. – I am ready to wait for You for all eternity. – Your little one.”15
– Sharon van der Sloot
Do It Anyway17
Sign on the Wall at St. Teresa’s Home for Children in Calcutta
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.
1 Mother M. Teresa, M.C. to Father Joseph Neuner, S.J., March 6, 1962. Quoted in Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C., Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 1.
2 Cf. Mother Teresa’s speech in Rome, March 7, 1979. Ibid., xi.
3 In her instructions to the Sisters on March 31, 1987, she said, “Don’t look for big things, just do small things with great love. … The smaller the thing, the greater must be our love.” (Ibid., 34.)
4 Agnes had two older siblings: a sister, Aga (b. 1905) and a brother, Lazar (b. 1908).
5 Nikollë’s construction company was responsible for building the first theater in Skopje, and he financed the railway line that connected the city with Kosovo. An active Albanian rights activist, he died under mysterious circumstances several hours after attending a political meeting. Although never officially confirmed, many suspected that Serbian agents poisoned him. After his death, Agnes’ mother supported the family by starting a textile business.
6 Mother Teresa, A Simple Path, compiled by Lucinda Vardey (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995), xx.
7 Kolodiejchuk, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, 14. Quoted in Malcolm Muggeridge, Something Beautiful for God (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 84.
8 St. Teresa of Calcutta took her final vows on May 24, 1937. St. Thérèse of Lisieux had always longed to be a missionary, but her ill health prevented her from doing so. Today, she is the patron saint of missionaries.
9 Eileen Egan, Such a Vision of the Street: Mother Teresa – The Spirit and the Work (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985), 25.
10 Fr. Joseph Langford, M.C., Mother Teresa’s Secret Fire (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2008), 21.
11 “Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta ”, The Biography.com Website; available from http://www.biography.com/people/mother-teresa-9504160; Internet; accessed 12 August 2014.
12 Kolodiejchuk, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, 192-3.
13 Mother Teresa, A Simple Path, 153.
14Langford, Mother Teresa’s Secret Fire, 46.
15Kolodiejchuk, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, 193-4.
16 Fr. Philip Heng, S.J., “Homily for the Solemnity of Christ the King (24 November 2013); available from http://www.jesuit.org.sg/html/prayer/homilies/2013.yearc.34ordsun.php; Internet; accessed 15 August 2014.
17 Mother Teresa, “Do It Anyway,” inspired by Dr. Kent Keith’s “The Paradoxical Commandments”; available from http://truthbombtrails.wordpress.com/2013/10/17/mother-teresa-awarded-nobel-peace-prize/; Internet; accessed 15 August 2014.