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St Teresa of Kolkata

Nineteen years ago tomorrow, on the day before the funeral of Diana Princess of Wales, an 87-year-old Albanian woman named Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu passed quietly from this life into the life of eternity. Her death attracted little attention, and although she had gained a certain amount of fame in her later years, her life and achievements were judged less newsworthy than the question of whether the monarchy was doomed because the Union Jack was lowered to half-mast on the roof of Buckingham Palace a couple of days later than some people thought it should have been. Today, the judgement of history has reversed the priorities of that transitory and febrile era. The events of September 1997 are now a distant memory, and this morning in Rome, Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu is being raised to the altars of the Church and will henceforth be known to us as St Teresa of Calcutta.

Anjezë was one of four children. Her childhood was a busy, ordinary one, and although she was very interested in missionary work around the world, as a child she didn’t really think about becoming a nun. But when she was 18, she felt that God was beginning to tug at her heart, to call her, asking her to follow him. Now Anjezë, like all of us, had a choice. She could have ignored the tug on her heart. She could have filled her life up with other things so she wouldn’t hear God’s call. But she didn’t do that. She listened and followed, joining the Sisters of Loreto in Dublin. After two months in Ireland, mostly spent in learning how to speak English, Anjezë travelled by boat to India.

In India, Anjezë took her final vows and took the name Teresa, after St Thérèse of Lisieux. She spent 15 years teaching in a girl’s school in Calcutta, a job that she loved and was very good at. But then one day, she heard that call again. The voice in her heart was telling her that she was to make a very big change in her life—that she should leave her teaching position and go into the streets of Calcutta and care for the poor. These were people who had absolutely no one else in the world to love them. Not only were they poor, but they were also dying. Why did their feelings matter? Wouldn’t they be gone soon enough? Sister Teresa saw these people differently. She saw them through God’s eyes, which means that she saw each of them as his dear child, suffering and yearning for some kind touch or word, some comfort in their last days on earth. She got permission to leave her order, to live with the poor, and to dress like them, too. She changed her habit from the traditional one to the sari worn by Indian women. Her sari would be white with blue trim, the blue symbolizing the love of Mary. Within two years, Sister Teresa had been joined by other women in her efforts, all of them her former students. She was soon “Mother Teresa” because she was the head of a new religious order: the Missionaries of Charity.

The Missionaries of Charity tried to care for as many of the dying as they could. They bought an old Hindu temple and made it into what they called a home for the dying. Hospitals had no room or interest in caring for the dying poor, so they had no choice but to lie on the streets and suffer. The sisters knew this, so they didn’t wait for the poor to come to them. They went out into the streets, picking up what looked from the outside like nothing but a pile of rags, but was actually a sick child or a frail old person. When a dying person came or was brought to Mother Teresa and her sisters, they were met with nothing but love. They were washed and given clean clothes, medicine, and—most important—someone who could hold their hand, listen, stroke their foreheads, and comfort them with love in their last days.

Mother Teresa’s work soon became famous, especially after a BBC documentary by the British journalist and writer Malcolm Muggeridge. The secular world didn’t quite know what to make of her. It couldn’t question her dedication and her love, but it shied away from her uncompromising stance on abortion and euthanasia, and when it tried to domesticate her by awarding her the Nobel Peace Prize, it was outraged when she had the temerity and, to its way of thinking, the bad taste to refer to these issues in her acceptance speech. Such opprobrium, however did not bother Mother Teresa in the slightest; nor did it bother those who recognised in her the compassionate heart of one who loves truly. Among these, interestingly enough was Diana, Princess of Wales.

When the world looked at Mother Teresa, it saw pure, simple joy. Then, in 2007, 10 years after her death, a collection of her private letters was published. Suddenly, the joy that the tiny sister from Albania once radiated seemed anything but simple. As the letters revealed, for the entirety of her public ministry, Mother Teresa endured unceasing feelings of desolation and abandonment by God. “I am told God lives in me,” she wrote in 1957, “and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” For some, the letters became a source of scandal. But for those familiar with the stages of spiritual growth, they served as a profound testimony to Mother Teresa’s sanctity. In those decades of desolation, she lived what St John of the Cross termed, the “Dark Night of the Soul.” But here, as in her active apostolate, Mother Teresa’s motivation – that of love – was the same as the Divine Redeemer. She bore her cross of desolation willingly, just like her beloved Saviour, and in her agony, just as much as in the work for which she is justly famed, she was surely doing Something Beautiful for God.

St Teresa of Calcutta – Pray for us.

By a priest of the Oratory