During her life, Mother Teresa (Feast Day: 9/5) was often hailed as a modern-day saint. Her ministry to the “poorest of the poor” in India and around the world is well known. The spiritual journey that led her to that work is perhaps less well known. Teresa was born an Albanian, joined an Irish religious order, the Sisters of Loreto in Dublin, at an early age, and was sent to teach school in India, which she did for nearly 20 years before experiencing a deeper call to conversion and to a life of radical poverty. In 1948, she left the comfort of her Loreto community to begin a new religious order, the Missionaries of Charity, abandoning the traditional habit for a simple sari of white and blue, the dress of a common woman. Over the course of the next 50 years, the work of the Missionaries of Charity multiplied from 12 sisters in Calcutta to 600 missions run by 5,000 sisters across 120 countries. Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, declining the usual formal banquet and giving the monetary prize to her ministries. She died on September 5, 1997, and was canonized by Pope Francis on September 4, 2016. She is the patron of World Youth Day.
In the years since her death, more details about Saint Teresa’s spiritual life have surfaced, and she has come under criticism in some areas. It has been revealed that she experienced extended periods of spiritual doubt and emptiness throughout her life, sometimes to the extent of not feeling God’s presence at all. Her missions have also been criticized for viewing suffering as spiritually beneficial and for failing to address the root causes of systemic injustice. This more complex portrait of Mother Teresa raises questions for us about the nature of holiness and the expression of compassion in the face of human suffering.
Questions for Reflection:
Mother Teresa loved the poorest of the poor in small, but very specific and tangible ways, such as giving a hungry person a bowl of rice, or giving a dying person a bed and company in which to die. When asked how we could promote world peace, she famously answered, “Go home and love your families.” What small but important act of love for another person could you offer today?
Acts of charity and acts of justice are both important. How good a job are you doing in your life of balancing the two?
- Does being holy mean always feeling close to God? How might spiritual struggles impact one’s holiness?