Christian History Home > Issue 65 > Ministries of Mercy: Mother Teresa
Ministries of Mercy: Mother Teresa
She stirred a generation by touching the untouchables.
Mother Teresa belongs to the whole world—not to Roman Catholics only, not to Christians only. Indeed, she is the first religious figure in history to be revered during her lifetime by adherents of all religions and Christians of all denominations. And when she died in 1997, there was a universal outpouring of heartfelt appreciation and reverence for her long life of service.
Humility, simplicity, and sacrifice are the terms most often associated with Mother Teresa and her work—though many who encountered her personally would quickly add tenacity. And this tenacity was often accompanied by a stern, uncompromising demeanor. She was driven by an unswerving conviction that she was called by God to reach out to the poorest of the poor, and this conviction left little room to entertain the objections of government officials, church authorities, or even military leaders.
In a famous televised scene from 1985, she insisted that a government minister from Ethiopia give her Missionaries of Charity two unused buildings to be made into orphanages. With cameras rolling, the minister balked but finally had no choice but to capitulate. Pop singer Bob Geldorf, in Ethiopia as part of his Band Aid campaign, witnessed this exchange in the Addis Ababa airport and remarked, "There was a certainty of purpose which left her little patience. But she was totally selfless; every moment her aim seemed to be, how can I use this or that situation to help others?"
Mother Teresa of Calcutta was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Albania in 1910. Her father was a businessman whose death when she was 9 years old left the family in difficult financial circumstances. But their faith sustained them. With her mother and brother and sister, Agnes attended church every day, and she sang in the church choir. Her widowed mother, though nearly destitute herself, volunteered in the neighborhood, caring for an invalid alcoholic woman and later taking six orphaned children into her own home. It was a model of servanthood that did not go unnoticed by young Agnes.
At age 12, Agnes sensed God calling her to his service, but she struggled with how she could know for certain. She prayed and talked with her mother and sister, but she had no real peace. Then she talked with her Father confessor. "How can I be sure?" she asked. He answered, "Through your joy. If you feel really happy by the idea that God might call you to serve him, then this is the evidence that you have a call. The deep inner joy that you feel is the compass that indicates your direction in life."
"By blood and origin, I am all Albanian. My citizenship is Indian. I am a Catholic nun.
As to my calling, I belong to the whole world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to Jesus."
The joy of serving God stayed with her, and in 1929, at age 19, she was in Calcutta preparing to become a teacher and a nun. From the beginning, she was concerned for the poor, but for two decades, her assigned ministry was in the classroom—primarily at the Loreto Convent, where she taught geography to schoolgirls. She loved her students and they loved her, and soon they were joining her on weekends as she went into the streets to care for the sick and the hungry.
Mother Teresa's call to devote herself entirely to serving the poor came suddenly. It was a clear call from God, she insisted, not pity for the poor. And it was a call that was not easily answered in the affirmative: "To leave Loreto was my greatest sacrifice, the most difficult thing I have ever done," she later reflected. "It was much more difficult than to leave my family and country to enter religious life. Loreto meant everything to me."
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