SAINT TERESA OF CALCUTTA (1910-1997), virgin, religious and foundress – Patroness of the poor, the suffering and forgotten
Today, the universal Church honors Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a universal symbol of God’s merciful and preferential love for the poor and forgotten.
Small of stature, yet rocklike in faith, she once described herself with the words, “By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.”
Mother Teresa was entrusted with the mission of proclaiming God’s thirsting Love for humanity, especially for the poorest of the poor. In describing her calling, she once said, “God still loves the world and He sends you and me to be His Love and His Compassion to the poor.” She was a soul filled with the light of Christ, on fire with love for Him and burning with one desire – “to quench His thirst for love and for souls.”
Teresa was born on August 26, 1910 in Skopje, Albania (modern Macedonia), the youngest of three children, and baptized Gonxha Agnes. From the day of her First Holy Communion at the age of five, a love for souls was within her. Gonxha’s religious formation was further assisted by a vibrant Jesuit Parish of the Sacred Heart, in which she was deeply involved.
At the age of eighteen, moved by a desire to become a missionary, Gonxha left her home in September, 1928, to join the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known as the Sisters of Loreto, in Ireland. There she received the name Sister Mary Teresa after Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. In December, she departed for India, arriving in Calcutta on the January 6, 1929.
After making her First Profession of Vows in May 1931, Sister Teresa was assigned to the Loreto Entally community in Calcutta and she taught at Saint Mary’s School for girls. On May 24, 1937, she made her Final Profession of Vows, becoming, as she said, the “spouse of Jesus…[for] all eternity.” From that time forward, she was known as Mother Teresa.
She continued teaching at Saint Mary’s, and, in 1944, she became the school’s principal. A person of profound prayer and deep love for her religious sisters and her students, Mother Teresa’s twenty years as a Sister of Loreto were filled with profound happiness. Noted for her charity, unselfishness and courage, her capacity for hard work and a natural talent for organization, she lived out her consecration to Jesus, in the midst of her companions, with fidelity and joy.
On September 10, 1946, during the train ride from Calcutta to Darjeeling for her annual retreat, Mother Teresa received her “inspiration,” her “call within a call”, as she would describe it. On that day, Jesus’ thirst for love and for souls took hold of her heart, and the desire to satiate His thirst became the driving force from that moment forward in her life. Over the course of the next weeks and months, by means of interior locutions and visions, Jesus revealed to her the desire of His Heart for “victims of love” who would “radiate His love on souls.”
Jesus spoke to her with the words, “Come be My light”. Jesus revealed His pain at the neglect of the poor, His sorrow at their ignorance of Him and His longing for their love. Our Lord asked Mother Teresa to establish a religious community, Missionaries of Charity, dedicated to the service of the poorest of the poor. Nearly two years of testing and discernment passed before Mother Teresa received permission to begin. On August 17, 1948, she dressed for the first time in a white, blue-bordered sari and passed through the gates of her beloved Loreto convent to enter the world of the poor.
After a short course with the Medical Mission Sisters in Patna, Mother Teresa returned to Calcutta and found temporary lodging with the Little Sisters of the Poor. On December 21st, she went for the first time to the slums. She visited families, washed the sores of some children, cared for an old man lying sick on the road and nursed a woman dying of hunger and tuberculosis. She started each day in communion with Jesus in the Eucharist and then went out, rosary in her hand, to find and serve Him in “the unwanted, the unloved, the uncared for.” After some months, she was joined, one by one, by her former students.
On October 7, 1950, the new Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity was officially established in the Archdiocese of Calcutta. By the early 1960’s, Mother Teresa began to send her Sisters to other parts of India. The Decree of Praise, granted to the Congregation by Pope Paul VI in February 1965, encouraged her to open a house in Venezuela. It was soon followed by foundations in Rome and Tanzania and, eventually, on every continent. Starting in 1980 and continuing through the 1990’s, Mother Teresa opened houses in almost all of the communist countries, including the former Soviet Union, Albania and Cuba.
During the years of rapid growth of her Order, the world began to turn its eyes towards Mother Teresa and the work she had started. Numerous awards honored her work, beginning with the Indian Padmashri Award in 1962 and more notably the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, while an increasingly interested media began to follow her activities. She received both prizes and attention “for the glory of God and in the name of the poor.”
The whole of Mother Teresa’s life and labor bore witness to the joy of loving the greatness and dignity of every human person, the value of little things done faithfully and with love, and the surpassing worth of friendship with God. She was also a fierce defender of the unborn saying: “If you hear of some woman who does not want to keep her child and wants to have an abortion, try to persuade her to bring him to me. I will love that child, seeing in him the sign of God’s love.” But there was another heroic side of this great woman that was revealed only after her death.
Hidden from all eyes, hidden even from those closest to her, was her interior life marked by an experience of a deep, painful and abiding feeling of being separated from God, even rejected by Him, along with an ever-increasing longing for His Love. She called her inner experience, “the darkness.” The “painful night” of her soul, which began around the time she started her work for the poor and continued to the end of her life, led Mother Teresa to an ever more profound union with God. Through the darkness she experienced, she mystically participated in the thirst of Jesus, in His painful and burning longing for love, and she shared in the interior desolation of the poor.
During the last years of her life, despite increasingly severe health problems, Mother Teresa continued to govern her Order and respond to the needs of the poor and the Church. By 1997, Mother Teresa’s Sisters numbered nearly 4,000 members and were established in 610 foundations in 123 countries throughout the world. In March 1997, she blessed her newly-elected successor as Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity.
On September 5, 1997, Mother Teresa’s earthly life came to an end. She was given the honor of a state funeral by the Government of India and her body was buried in the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity. Her tomb quickly became a place of pilgrimage and prayer for peoples of all faiths, rich and poor alike.
Less than two years after her death, in view of Mother Teresa’s widespread reputation of holiness and the favors being reported, Pope St. John Paul II permitted the opening of her Cause of Canonization and beatified her with the title “Blessed” on October 19, 2003. She was canonized on September 4, 2016 and is accorded the honor of being venerated a saint by Pope Francis I.
We commemorate her feastday on September 5.
(From catholicnewsagency.com, saints.sqpn.com, americancatholic.org, catholicculture.org and vatican.va/news_services)
(The following prayer is from the Collect for Saint Teresa of Calcutta)
“Eternal God, who called Saint Teresa to respond to the Love of Your Son thirsting on the Cross, with outstanding charity to the poorest of the poor, grant us, we beseech You, by her intercession, to minister to Christ in His suffering brothers and sisters.
“We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”