When hundreds of thousands of people flock toward St Peter’s Square on Sunday for the canonisation of Mother Teresa, it will mark the culmination of the great nun’s posthumous honours. Long recognised for her exceptional charity and holiness, Mother Teresa overcame many challenges in life, making her road to sainthood all the more impressive.
Born in 1910 in Macedonia, the youngest daughter of two Albanian parents, she was known as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. Though deeply Catholic, she wasn’t certain, at a young age, what God’s intentions were for her. But by 18, inspired by the missionary history of the Church, she joined the Loreto Sisters in Dublin, founded in the 17th century to educate young girls.
In those days travel and communications weren’t nearly what they are today, and becoming a missionary often meant being separated from one’s family and friends for long periods of time – sometimes forever. Nonetheless, trusting wholly in God, Agnes set out for Dublin in 1928 to begin her new religious life, far from home, learning and speaking a language she barely understood.
The following year she was sent to Darjeeling, to a novitiate the Loreto Sisters maintained there. In 1931, she made her first vows, selecting the name Teresa – after her favourite saints Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of Lisieux. She spent the next 15 years teaching secondary school-aged girls and young women in Calcutta, and by all accounts, these were among the happiest times of her life. But by 1946, moved by the poverty and suffering around her, a second calling from God arrived – one even more dramatic, which was to transform her life and those of countless others.
Teresa received permission from her superiors to leave the convent school and devote herself full time to the poorest of the poor, who were literally dying on the streets in the slums of Calcutta. She was soon joined by a surprising number of volunteers, followed by financial gifts equally unexpected. The Holy See was so impressed that by 1950, Pope Pius XII himself authorised Teresa to start her own order, the Missionaries of Charity, which soon established itself in Calcutta, then spread with additional missions throughout the world.
The extraordinary achievements of Mother Teresa and her Missionaries became increasingly admired over the next two decades, until Malcom Muggeridge made a documentary, Something Beautiful for God, and published a book of the same name, making the order’s selfless work famous throughout the world.
But as many saints have – especially those who are unabashedly Catholic in public as Mother Teresa was – she became a target. A champion of Humanae Vitae and the Church’s pro-life witness, she met resistance, sometimes fierce, from people inside and outside India, opposed to Christianity and, in particular, the Catholic Church. Though her supporters were diverse and far outnumbered her critics, the latter were highly aggressive, and tried to put Mother Teresa and her order under a microscope, searching for any improprieties they could find, real or imagined.
But almost everything critics said about her was false, exaggerated or uninformed. Often, it was downright malicious. They claimed that a prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, had investigated and denounced her facilities as unclean and hazardous. But the article in question was, in fact, largely favourable, and to the extent it wasn’t, was corrected in a subsequent issue by three informed correspondents. Critics denounced her for accepting donations from a few unsavoury individuals, ignoring millions of other upstanding supporters and luminaries. But Mother Teresa never banned anyone from doing good, even the worst among us, in the hope of rehabilitating their souls.
Efforts were made to depict Mother Teresa as selfish and hypocritical, and stories were told about conflicts within her order, missing funds and unwelcome attempts to convert non-Catholics; but these allegations were repeatedly debunked by her best biographers, her confessor, her co-workers and the investigating body of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. A new book by Bill Donohue, Unmasking Mother Teresa’s Critics, turns the tables on her detractors, and meticulously documents their dishonest campaign against her. After her death, some even tried to question the miracles attributed to her intervention, but these have been attested to by a body of renowned medical and scientific experts.
Despite these efforts to besmirch her reputation, Mother Teresa was voted the most admired person of the 20th century, and her stature only continues to grow, as does her order. With her canonisation, Mother Teresa will have outlasted her critics, and vanquished them. One suspects, however, being the true saint she was, and remains, she has already forgiven them and is still hoping to minister to them, from heaven, so that they, too, might receive the boundless love she offered her entire life.
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