Mother Teresa of Kolkata, Radical or Traditional ?
Mother Teresa of Kolkata
When she was designated a Saint in 2015, Pope Francis said she was so humbly caring for everyone that she is most likely to be referred to as Mother. Her public work began in 1948 at the age of 38 when she walked out of the convent in Kolkata with nothing but a few rupees, 3 saris, a small cross and a rosary. She began the next day with the teaching by the roadside of a few children from the slums.
She described her life as one of contemplating Christ, a misleading term, since she made it clear that meant living the life of Christ; action must go alongside prayer. She focussed on individuals; accused at first of being just a drop in the ocean she said it was worthwhile reducing suffering by one drop. She also said if we wait until we get the numbers we will be lost in numbers and not be able to show the love and respect for the person.
When on a bus, she noticed a man sitting at the roadside and later came back to meet him, but found him dead, face down in a pool of water. To a companion she said “Perhaps he had wanted to say something but there was no one there to hear his last words. If only we could find a place where people can die in dignity”. Later, she started the home for the dying.
Work and faith were one and the same. Navin Chawla, a friend of hers, wrote in his book that for Mother Teresa, to love one’s neighbour is to love God. “The first woman picked up from a Calcutta drain could only be the dying Christ; the infant left in a dustbin could only be the abandoned Christ, while each body in the home for the dying was the suffering Christ.” She herself said “In the mass we have Jesus in the appearance of bread, while in the slums we touch Him in the broken bodies and in the abandoned children.”
She often encountered opposition, including from the church and sometimes crowds threw stones at her premises, especially during the first several years.
As other women joined her the Missionaries of Charity was established as a congregation of sisters with a constitution. Soon a group of brothers was formed. The Brothers and Sisters had to be fully committed and take Christian vows, which included being willing to learn and follow the long daily routine of work, bible study, prayer and recreation. The latter is interesting if we compare it with the long hours of work without breaks demanded in some jobs today. As organisation became essential, there were leaders at various levels, but they were all elected by secret ballot. She also arranged to have co-workers, who were long-term part-time and also welcomed temporary volunteers. The co-workers and volunteers could be anyone of good will and they were not required to attend any of the religious activities.
There were none of the trappings and decoration of rooms commonly found in churches. Once, she was given an old Pope’s car to ride around in but she hated that idea and had it auctioned to raise funds.
On fundraising, she said she relied on God and refused to allow any money or efforts to be spent on fundraising; even a newsletter to supporters was forbidden. Her attitude was clear. “If people offer me money, I am in conscience bound to take it in charity so that through this act, the giver feels peace of mind and heart. Everyone has the right to give.”
She made inner and outer peace the ultimate goal of life for all people, saying that this peace comes through the practice of love. For her committed followers she encouraged love until it hurts; this was her theology of self-sacrifice, like that of Christ. Early on she received training, especially in medical work, but she was not highly educated and not an intellectual, receiving advice from a few priests from time to time. She firmly advocated certain Catholic teaching, for example on abortion and birth control because she genuinely believed it to be right. She was asked about Liberation Theology and replied she knew only a little about it but did not like the sound of it. She refused to get involved in politics, saying that to do so would prevent her from loving everyone whatever their beliefs or views.
Her belief in God was a very practical one and she talked of charity (in the sense of God’s love) as accepting one another when we are different and as the means to bring unity, adding that charity leads to humility and we must be humble like God. She hated the idea of using social and political power. When the Church of India campaigned for a law requiring a percentage of government jobs to be given to low-caste Christians, she opposed the church because it would cause trouble for Hindus.
She was often wrongly accused of secretly wanting to convert people to Christianity and that sometimes was the root cause of opposition to her work. She said “I do convert. I convert you to be a better Hindu, a better Catholic, a better Muslim or Jain or Buddhist. I would like to help you find God.” She insisted at the home for the dying that prayers were said in the faith of the dying person; if that could not be ascertained then they were buried according to Hindu rites. On evangelism, she said “Evangelisation is exclusively through our work, allowing God to manifest himself in it.” She was not naive about this saying “We meet blasphemy, wickedness and atheism at every turn.” She impressed atheists and agnostics, some of whom publicly said that in her they had come nearest to the sense of the divine.
Her work was aimed at the whole person, often getting people to fend for themselves when they could and help with the work. For example, when asked to supervise women in jail with mental illness, she often transformed their lives and had them helping to do the necessary work in the prisons. In her Nobel Prize speech she said this:
“When I pick up a person from the street, hungry, I give him a plate of rice, a piece of bread. I have removed that hunger. But a person that is shut out, that feels unwanted, unloved, terrified, the person that has been thrown out from society; that poverty is so hurtful and so much and I find that very difficult. Our Sisters are working amongst that kind of people in the West.”
Nigel Jones (March 2019)
Summary of a talk given to the North Staffordshire group and all but one of the quotes are from the book “Faith and Compassion” by Navin Chawla and Raghu Rau: Element Books, 1996.