In the dark final years of the Cold War, a small woman — standing at barely five feet tall — offered a living counternarrative to the inhibiting fear undergirding our daily lives and our foreign affairs. Instead of living in fear, Mother Teresa acted out of love. Instead of withdrawing and isolating herself, she gave tirelessly to others.
Many of us harbor a personal connection to this saint, for we lived during the height of the media coverage of Mother Teresa’s work and her friendships with Pope St. John Paul II and the beloved Princess Diana.
Long before she received the name Mother Teresa and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born on Aug. 26, 1910, in Skopje, Macedonia, the crossroads of the Balkans. The youngest of three children, Mother Teresa was raised predominately by her mother after her father’s death, when she was about 8 years old. Dranafile (Drana) Bojaxhiu, Mother Teresa’s mother, undoubtedly became a strong influence on her daughter’s vocation, since Drana herself was a devout Catholic and known for her prayer life and her charity.
Agnes attended a Catholic primary school and, following the example of her mother, became active in their parish and sang in Sacred Heart’s choir. As a young person, Agnes enjoyed reading the lives of the saints — while immersing herself in the stories of these holy men and women, Agnes first felt the stirring call to become a missionary.
At the age of 18, Agnes traveled to Dublin, Ireland, to join the Sisters of Loreto. She became Sr. Mary Teresa, named after St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and began to learn English. Within a few months of arriving in Ireland, she left for India.
In India, Sr. Mary Teresa lived at the Loreto Entally community in Calcutta, where she served as an educator and taught at St. Mary’s School. After her final profession, she became Mother Teresa and, a few years later, began serving as the school’s principal.
On an ordinary day, Mother Teresa received an extraordinary call. While on a train ride to her annual retreat, Mother Teresa felt what she would describe as Jesus’ thirst for souls. Soon, Jesus called her to found the Missionaries of Charity, an order devoted to serving the “poorest of the poor.”
The order formally began on Oct. 7, 1950, and has grown from one woman tending the sick and dying in the streets of Calcutta to over 4,500 religious sisters helping the poor in over 130 countries around the world. Additionally, the order grew to include the Missionaries of Charity Brothers, the Missionaries of Charity Fathers and the Lay Missionaries of Charity.
Though externally Mother Teresa joyfully and indefatigably served the poor for nearly 50 years, during the majority of this time, she experienced a “dark night of the soul,” an extensive period of not feeling God’s presence or hearing His voice. Other saints, notably St. John of the Cross, similarly experienced a dark night of the soul. Despite this spiritual struggle, Mother Teresa continued her work joyfully throughout her sickness and until her death on Sept. 5, 1997.
Pope St. John Paul II beatified Mother Teresa in 2003. Fittingly, a pontiff who has underscored the importance of social justice celebrated her canonization. On Sept. 4, 2016, Pope Francis canonized Mother Teresa, the “Saint of the Gutters,” at the Vatican.
St. Teresa of Calcutta offers us an example of ceaseless prayer and selfless service. She is a modern model of sainthood that we can emulate in our daily lives starting with how we serve and treat the other members of our family, our faith community and all those with whom we interact on a daily basis.
St. Teresa of Calcutta, Pray for Us!