In 1966, a journalist working for the Associated Press in Asia who was in need of a good story asked a newspaper editor in Kolkata (then known as Calcutta), India, if he had any ideas.
“He finally said, ‘Well, there’s that funny little nun who goes around collecting dying people.’ And I knew I had a story,” said [Joe] McGowan [to the Catholic News Agency].
McGowan’s report was the first to bring international attention to the work of Mother Teresa of Kolkata and her Missionaries of Charity. Although he is not a Catholic, McGowan remains to this day an ardent admirer of Mother Teresa. He considers a handwritten note she gave him to be among the earthly possessions that he values most.
“Obviously [Mother Teresa] is an amazing woman,” [McGowan] continued. “She will be sainted in just a few more days. I just have the highest of respect for her, the work that she did, to work there in the slums of [Kolkata].”
Not all who spoke out about Mother Teresa in the days leading up to her canonization on Sunday, September 4, admired her. Hemley Gonzalez, who worked briefly as a volunteer for the Missionaries of Charity in 2008 (eleven years after Mother Teresa’s death), was vocal in decrying her impending canonization. The Los Angeles Times reported on Gonzalez’s horror stories from his time as a volunteer:
[Gonzalez] was tasked [by the Missionaries of Charity, at their home for the dying in Kolkata] with giving daily sponge baths to 50 men, including some suffering from respiratory infections. . . .
When Gonzalez proposed raising money for a water heater [because the cold water baths were causing the men he tended discomfort], senior nuns rebuffed him.
Gonzalez said the nuns did not distinguish between patients who were terminally ill and those who could be treated and released. He said he observed nuns rinsing dirty needles with tap water and reusing them.
Other critics interviewed for the L.A. Times story accused Mother Teresa of “creating a negative image of [Kolkata],” and claimed, “It was very disturbing for me [a Kolkata native] to hear that people thought that I came from a city and a culture that was so helpless that we couldn’t take care of ourselves, and we had to depend on an Albanian nun to look after our every need.”
Stories of this type, recounting anecdotes and opinions from both admirers and critics of saints, tend to pop up in the press whenever the Church is about to canonize someone. It has happened for modern saints, such as St. John Paul II before his canonization in 2014. It has also happened for saints who lived centuries ago, such as St. Junípero Serra, the eighteenth-century founder of the California missions, who was canonized last year. Media stories demonstrate that the world often has serious misconceptions about saints and about what constitutes Christian sanctity.
Saints and success
Some saints have accomplished extraordinary feats that made lasting contributions to the world in which they lived. St. Vincent de Paul transformed seventeenth-century French society by making it fashionable for rich Parisian ladies, the social leaders of their day, to tend to the poor in their communities. He also worked tirelessly to better conditions for galley slaves and to enact much-needed reforms for his fellow clergy. So deep was his impact on the poor in France that his work may well have been instrumental in forestalling the French Revolution for a hundred years.
Mother Teresa, on the other hand, had no ambition to transform society. She famously maintained that she and her Missionaries were not social workers, and she told volunteers who joined their work with such ambition to go home and work for social progress within their own communities. The charity of the Missionaries of Charity was not merely philanthropy offered to the unfortunate; primarily, it was love for Christ who is present in the poor.
When Mother Teresa went around collecting dying people, she did not do so to cure them of their illnesses or to press for social justice in India on their behalf. She was comforting the dying Christ on the cross by caring for the dying people she found discarded in the streets of Kolkata. Social reform was left to others.
Saints and their followers
Just as we cannot judge the merits of Jesus Christ by how well his followers do in following his example and teachings, neither can we judge saints by the foibles of their followers. Mother Teresa may not have had any ambition to cure the dying people she brought into her homes, but one of the first things she did upon embarking on her mission to tend the poor in Kolkata was take basic nursing courses so that she would be qualified for the task.
If some of her Missionaries have rejected ordinary means of care for those they serve, such as heated water for bathing patients and ordinary precautions to prevent the spread of disease, then that is their responsibility, not Mother Teresa’s. (The L.A. Times article notes that the Missionaries have indeed made improvements in patient care since Hemley Gonzalez’s time as a volunteer.) As it should be obvious to any fair-minded person, it is deeply unjust for Gonzalez to agitate against the canonization of someone he admits he never met—to the extent of publicly declaring her to have been a “troubled individual”—on the basis of failures allegedly committed by her followers in 2008, more than a decade after her death in 1997.
Saints and their critics
There is not a saint in heaven who is universally admired. For example, a priest once told me a story he had heard from an elderly brother priest about his brother priest’s aunt. As a child, the aunt had met and apparently had known well another saintly religious sister. When that religious sister was canonized, the aunt ranted to her nephew, “I will never pray to that woman. I hated that woman!”
I have no idea what it was that raised such strong feelings of animosity toward someone whom the Church declared a saint, but those feelings were irrelevant to whether or not the person is indeed a saint. The woman who “hated” that saint could have been justified in her feelings of animosity and it still would not make a difference to whether or not the nun in question was a saint. Saints are not perfect, and the Church has never claimed that they are. I wrote a few years ago, in another essay on sanctity:
Holiness is not synonymous with perfection. To be holy means to be “set apart for God.” The holy person accepts the universal call to dedicate one’s whole life to God and strives to live his life according to that ideal by the graces he receives from God and to the best of his own ability. He may make mistakes, but he is always open to correction. He may sin, but he always repents and seeks reconciliation. He chooses God and is chosen by God. We imitate his virtues, but we do not necessarily mimic his actions.
The humility of the saints
“If I ever become a saint,” Mother Teresa once said, “I surely will be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from heaven—to light the light of those in darkness on earth” (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C.).
In the New York Times report on her impending canonization, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries were asked to offer some recollections of the woman they knew and revered. The superior general of the Missionaries, Sister Mary Prema Pierick, said:
"[Mother Teresa] was one with us. She never wanted or accepted anything not common with all the sisters. [She was] both mother and teacher. She lived the religious life with so much joy and enthusiasm that we all wanted to be close with her."
According to the New York Times, when informed she had been awarded the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa responded, “I am unworthy.”
St. Bernard of Clairvaux once said that the three most important virtues are “humility, humility, and humility.” In his Modern Catholic Dictionary, Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., defined humility this way:
[Humility is the] moral virtue that keeps a person from reaching beyond himself. It is the virtue that restrains the unruly desire for personal greatness and leads people to an orderly love of themselves based on a true appreciation of their position with respect to God and their neighbors.
Religious humility recognizes one’s total dependence on God; moral humility recognizes one’s creaturely equality with others. Yet humility is not only opposed to pride, it is also opposed to immoderate self-abjection, which would fail to recognize God’s gifts and use them according to his will.
By her words and deeds, the one virtue Mother Teresa displayed above all else was humility.
During her life, she displayed the humility of leaving a rather comfortable form of religious life as a missionary teacher with the Sisters of Loreto to head out into the streets of Kolkata alone. Then there was the humility of approaching dying human beings to offer what little she had to make more bearable what was left of their lives. As others joined her in serving the dying, she embraced the humility of living in common with her sisters, not accepting anything they could not share.
We learned after her death that Mother Teresa was granted the humility of living for decades in spiritual darkness—a much longer trial than that shared by her patron saint in religious life, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who suffered that same form of spiritual darkness but for eighteen months. And, finally, in both life and in death, there was the humility of accepting the crosses of misunderstanding and hatred by a world that did not understand her or her mission.
In all these humilities, Mother Teresa followed in the footsteps of her Lord, Jesus Christ, who told his followers:
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the" world would love its own, but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" (John 15:18–19).
St. Teresa of Kolkata, pray for us!