Paul Russell looks at the life of Mother Teresa.
A tireless worker of mercy or a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud? The Saint of the gutters of Kolkata, Mother Teresa was one of the most influential women in 2000 years of Roman Catholic history, and growing up in India I was fortunate enough to meet her on a visit to the Mother House in Calcutta.
Mother Teresa’s calling to the holy life came early, yet posthumous letters from the Saint suggest that the last 50 years of her life were plagued by doubt and uncertainty: “Heaven means nothing to me, it looks like an empty place,” Mother Teresa wrote in 1957 and yet she continued in her work until her death in September 1997.
Canonised in Rome in 2016 after two miracles were attributed to her, Mother Teresa remains to this day a much misunderstood, enigmatic and polarising leader but to what extent did she aspire to the leadership role she inhabited?
Agnese Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born in Shkup on August 26, 1910, Agnese was bought up by her mother after her father died when she was eight. Entering the Sisters of Loreto’s convent in Ireland as a novice at the age of 18, Agnese became Sister Mary Teresa.
At the request of the Sisters of Loreto, Sister Mary Teresa became a teacher at Loreto House in India, later its headmistress and becoming known as Mother Teresa after taking her final vows. But it was Mother Teresa’s ‘call’ in 1946 to help the poor that led her to found the Missionaries of Charity in 1950.
Mother Teresa later opened her first home for the dying in 1951, going on to open homes in Venezuela, Italy, Tanzania, Australia and the US as well as a shelter for vagrants inside the Vatican.
An article by Bharati Mukherjee in Time magazine recalled her time as a schoolgirl in Loreto House saying: “We non-Christian students at Loreto House were suspicious of Mother Teresa’s motives in helping street children and orphans.
Was she rescuing these children to convert them? Her antiabortion campaigns among homeless women were as easy for us to ignore as were the antiabortion lectures our nuns delivered twice weekly.”
But it was Mother Teresa’s care of lepers in setting up a leprosarium that enabled Mukherjee to see Mother Teresa as an idealist rather than an eccentric, saying. “Her care of lepers changed the mind of many Calcuttans.”
Mother Teresa became a regular on the international stage, giving speeches in front of world leaders, and honoured with many awards including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, saying in her acceptance speech: “And with this prize that I have received as a Prize of Peace, I am going to try and make the home for many people that have no home.”
Yet Mother Teresa was reluctant to accept the trappings, or riches that often accompany such a prominent leadership role saying: “The more you have, the more you are occupied, the less you give. But the less you have the more free you are. Poverty for us is a freedom.
“It is not a mortification, a penance. It is joyful freedom. There is no television here, no this, no that. But we are perfectly happy.” Further adding that: “You must give what costs you, go without something you like, then you will truly be brothers to the poor who are deprived of even things they need.”
Certainly, Mother Teresa was reluctant to accept the adulation. When asked in a 1989 interview with Time Magazine whether she had special qualities, she replied: “I don’t think so. I don’t claim anything of the work. It is his work. I am like a little pencil in his hand. That is all. He does the thinking. He does the writing. The pencil has nothing to do with it. The pencil has only to be.”
It is said to be around the time of Mother Teresa’s ‘call within a call’ when she set up the Missionaries of Charity that her struggle with her faith began. In 1953 she wrote: “Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that our Lord may show Himself – for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I stared ‘the work’.”
In a letter to the Rev. Michael van der Peet in 1979 Mother Teresa is said to have written: “Jesus has a special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”
Perhaps most worryingly is Mother Teresa’s inability to pray: “I utter words of community prayers- and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give- but my prayer of union is not there any longer- I no longer pray.”
Yet through it all, Mother Teresa maintained her work and her smile, saying her smile was: “A big cloak which covers a multitude of pains.” Critics offer this as evidence of Mother Teresa’s fraudulence. Another explanation can be found in her book ‘The Joy in Living: A Guide to Daily Living’, whereby Mother Teresa asserts that one of the ways to practice humility is: “To choose always the hardest.”
Mother Teresa’s leadership role was a complex one. On the one hand she understood the benefits of high profile leadership and became a prominent leadership figure driving change on a national and international level, yet believed that the true route to change was achieved on a local level, helping one person at a time.
The Saint experienced a time of darkness whilst carrying out her work, yet retained the veneer expected of her. Mother Teresa said: “Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person,” and from this quote we can perhaps get to the crux of her thoughts about leadership: be a good leader but first be a good person.