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Mother Teresa of Calcutta – A Different Kind of Christian

Mother Teresa with children“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
Winston Churchill

Like Christ her master, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a source of controversy at many times during her life, and continues to be so, especially at this time of her canonization by the Roman Catholic Church. Her heroic example of uncompromising compassion has stirred the hearts and minds of billions throughout world, and unsettled a few others.

Her more recent and vocal detractors come from diverse quarters – traditionalist Catholics who condemn her as a heretical “New Ager,” orthodox Hindus who see in her a Christian missionary trying to fool Hindus into accepting Christianity, fundamentalist Protestants who object to her being…Catholic(!). Let us look more closely and let Mother Teresa’s life and words speak for themselves.

A wonder of faith

While most of us are familiar with the prodigious public mission of Mother Teresa on the stage of the world, many do not know its humble beginnings. At the age of 18 she felt called by God to leave her native Albania to join the Sisters of Loreto in India, where she served mostly as a teacher for the next twenty years.

Then in a series of visions Christ spoke to her about a more personal and direct service of the suffering poor, and she made the difficult decision of leaving her order to live amongst the needy in the slums of Calcutta. In 1952 she approached Dr. Ahmad, Calcutta’s Chief Medical Officer. He escorted her to the Kalighat Temple, offering her two adjoining halls. On August 22 she opened Nirmal Hriday, the Place of the Pure Heart, in honor of the Virgin Mary.

Threats and stone throwing soon followed. Local residents petitioned the authorities to evict her, claiming she was taking advantage of the poor and their desperate situation in order to convert them to Christianity. Investigating for himself, the police commissioner observed Mother Teresa plucking out maggots from a stench-filled hole where a person’s face should have been. She asked the patient to pray in his religion, while she prayed in hers.

To those who demanded he shut down the Christian nun’s mission, the commissioner said:

“I have said that I will get rid of this foreign lady and I will do so. But you first get your mothers and your sisters to do what she is doing. In the Temple is a black stone image of the goddess Kali. But here, we have a living Kali!”

Despite police protection, threats and stone throwing continued until a remarkable incident occurred. A temple priest with tuberculosis was discovered lying in blood outside the Kali temple. A crowd gathered, but nobody dared touch him; the Hindu fear of being tainted by contact with the dying and the dead is deep-rooted. Mother Teresa transported him next door and nursed him lovingly. Eventually he died a happy death. Teresa surrendered his remains for cremation according to Hindu practice. Opposition to the home ceased.

A Christian missionary?

Orthodox Hindus accuse her of Christian proselytizing, citing her practice of baptizing the babies that came into her care. She freely admitted baptizing tens of thousands of these babies, most of them abandoned, few of them surviving long. And she also offered the blessing of baptism to dying adults, with their consent.

Can these people really be considered converts in the conventional sense of this term? Was she really saving souls from the darkness of “strange gods,” to become new members of the Catholic Church? Common sense tells us, No. Using the “tools” of her faith she spread light in whatever way she could, to those most in need. These “converts” all passed to another world, and her decades of supposed proselytizing have left India with same percentage of Christians as when she started her work.

She famously said,

“Not even almighty God can convert a person unless that person wants it. What we are all trying to do by our work, by serving the people, is to come closer to God. If in coming face to face with God we accept Him in our lives, then we are converting. We become a better Hindu, a better Muslim, a better Catholic, a better whatever we are…What approach would I use? For me, naturally, it would be a Catholic one, for you it may be Hindu, for someone else, Buddhist, according to one’s conscience. What God is in your mind, you must accept.”

Love that goes beyond boundaries

“If a man reaches the heart of his own religion, he has reached the heart of the others too.” Mahatma Gandhi.

Many traditionalist Catholics have declaimed Mother Teresa as a “new age saint,” because of her admittedly broad views about religions other than Catholicism. In the true spirit of India, she declared

“Religion is the worship of God – therefore a matter of conscience. I alone must decide for myself and you for yourself, what we choose.”

Mother Teresa at a Buddhist Ceremony

Wherever Mother Teresa went, whomever she encountered, she looked for the opportunity to give the light of God and to evoke love for God – regardless of a person’s belief, or even unbelief. She declared:

“I love all religions, but I am in love with my own. If people become better Hindus, better Muslims, better Buddhists by our acts of love, then there is something else growing there.” And another occasion: “There is only one God and He is God to all; therefore it is important that everyone is seen as equal before God. I’ve always said we should help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim become a better Muslim, a Catholic become a better Catholic. We believe our work should be our example to people. We have among us 475 souls – 30 families are Catholics and the rest are all Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs—all different religions. But they all come to our prayers.”

“In Yemen, which is a Muslim country, I asked one of the rich people to build a Masjid (mosque) there. People needed a place to pray, I said to him. They are all Muslim brothers and sisters. They need a place where they can meet God.”

It is easy to see that Mother Teresa shared Jesus’ perspective: “In my Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2) and “Other sheep I have that are not of this fold” (John 10:16).

A new age saint?

Seeing that her hands, heart, and mind were open to all faiths and their devotees, should we consider Mother Teresa to be the patron saint of new age universalism, the champion of the mindless many of today who so love to declare they are “spiritual but not religious”?

A clue to to this aspect of Mother Teresa can be found in the mouths of her Protestant critics – fundamentalists who, horrified by many of their pastors’ admiration for her Christian spirit and amazing example, condemn her for the mortal sin of being a Catholic.

And of course, that is what she was, uncompromisingly so. The foundation of her daily life and her lifetime mission was her Catholic faith – almost daily attendance at Mass (in Latin, she insisted), veneration for the great gifts given mankind through the priesthood, taking constant refuge in the Holy Virgin through prayer and the recitation of the Rosary, her beads always in her hand or at her side.

She was uncompromisingly traditional in her moral views, which frequently discomfited the high and mighty eager to honor her. At the ceremony for her reception of the Nobel Peace Prize, the acme of public acclaim for Mother Teresa, she used the occasion to tell the audience and the world that the greatest enemy to peace today is abortion.

When we look more closely at her amazing life, we see that is was faith itself that brought her to a universal vision. She saw all humanity as children of God – or more exactly from her perspective, children of Jesus, children of Mary, whatever their faith. “The dying, the cripple, the mental, the unwanted, the unloved they are Jesus in disguise.” To explain the heart of her mission, she would frequently count on the fingers of her hand “You. Did. It. To. Me,” quoting the words of Jesus’ parable:

“Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

The key to the equation

Her deep involvement with her faith is one part of the key to the phenomenon of Mother Teresa. But to really comprehend her, to put together the “equation” of “x + y + z = Saint Teresa of Calcutta,” we must include: India. To simplify this equation, we can say she was a bride of Christ and a daughter of India.

devotee before a statue of Mother Teresa

After decades of life in India, enduring the violent chaotic times of the transition to independence, followed by decades of loving and attentive service to the most needy, the destitute, and the outcasts of India whom their own countrymen were either unable or unwilling to help, the Albanian-born sister certainly earned the right to speak of “our country” when once writing to the president of India.

When British author Malcom Muggeridge visited her in India and watched her overseeing her sisters’ mission to the lepers at Shanti Nagar (“Town of Peace”), the town she built for lepers, as she moved familiarly through the crowd that surrounded her he hear them constantly mumbling the word “Ma” — mother. And that she was.

India recognized this, both during and after her life. The ranks of her order were first filled by young Indian women eager to test their vocation to serve God and country, in a spirit not dissimilar to the Ramakrishna Mission. (It is easy to imagine Swami Vivekananda’s support for her mission, had they been contemporaries).

Within a few years of her mission she attracted the supportive attention of many Indian officials. The Archbishop of Calcutta presided over the opening of India’s first dispensary for leprosy drugs initiated and funded by Mother Teresa, where the audience was a novel mix of the city’s lepers and its social elite. Indira Gandhi granted her free passage on all Indian Airways flights, in support of her international work. At her death thousands gathered to honor her, as her body was carried through the streets of Calcutta flanked by an honor guard of the Indian Army, draped with the flag of her beloved India and riding on the same gun carriage that once carried Gandhi’s body.

Through the eyes of India

“A Hindu man came to our Home for the Dying at Kalighat at a time when I was busy curing the wounds of a sick person. He watched me for a while in silence. Then he said ‘Since it gives you the strength to do what you do, I have no doubt that your religion has to be true.’”

Indian author Navin Chawla wrote in a biography of Mother Teresa:

“We cannot view her through Catholic eyes, or Hindu eyes, but only through human eyes, for she does not discriminate. She respects all religions and all people….By not making her religion exclusive, Mother Teresa’s compassion encompassed persuasions and the irreligious and disbelievers as well.”

Abhimanya Chatterjee, manager of an office in the temple complex of Kalighat, said Mother Teresa had left an imprint on everyone in the neighborhood.

“One lone girl,” he said. “Where did she come from? She chose India’s soil. She left the entire big world and chose India.“ He shook his head. “A hundred years from now, when people hear about her, they will be totally wonder-struck that she ever existed.”

Woman with a statue of Mother Teresa

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