The mercy-filled life: Mother Teresa embodied what Pope Francis teaches

If there is one person who immersed herself in the "peripheries" Pope Francis is drawn to, it was Blessed Teresa of Kolkata.

If there was one who showed courage and creativity in bringing God's mercy to the world, like Pope Francis urges, it was the diminutive founder of the Missionaries of Charity.

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For many people, the Catholic Church's Year of Mercy will reach its culmination when Pope Francis canonizes Mother Teresa Sept. 4, recognizing the holiness of charity, mercy and courage found in a package just 5-feet tall.

Ken Hackett, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, worked closely with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in his previous positions at the U.S. bishops' Catholic Relief Services. He was at her funeral in 1997, her beatification in 2003 and will attend the Mass where she will be declared a saint.

"Where Mother pushed the Missionaries of Charity was to the edge, to the most difficult places," said the ambassador, who said he visited her houses "all the time, everywhere."

"They were always way out there, both geographically and with the people who absolutely fell through the cracks," he said. Mother Teresa opened homes in Ethiopia during the communist military dictatorship, in the most destitute neighborhoods of Haiti's capital, in Rwanda after the genocide and in Yemen, where four Missionaries of Charity were murdered in March.

"When there was war, when there was fighting, there they were," Hackett said. "They stayed."

Mother Teresa demonstrated that living a life committed to mercy took "selflessness and courage," he said.

Her courage also was demonstrated in her ability to "speak truth to power," he said. Mother Teresa visited the United States regularly, speaking to Catholic groups, opening homes and meeting with presidents, including Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton. "She was straight out against abortion," the ambassador said. "From conception to death—she was the whole thing and didn't pull any punches."

Like Pope Francis, he said, Mother Teresa drew energy from personal, one-on-one contact with people and consciously chose to live as simply as the poor she befriended and tended.

In life and after her death, Mother Teresa faced criticism for not using her fame and contacts to advocate more directly for social and political change to improve the lives of the poor she served.

"You can find all the things she wasn't," the ambassador said, "but what she was was much more important than what she wasn't. She was a model and now she will be a saint."

Valeria Martano, Asia coordinator for the Community of Sant'Egidio, said, "We are talking about a woman who broke out of the existing framework of what was expected of a Catholic woman in the 1940s. And, like Pope Francis, she chose to make her life a denunciation" of injustice. "Her witness was testimony that things can change. She did not speak of justice so much as do justice."

"Mother Teresa chose to understand the world through the eyes of the least of the least, what Pope Francis would call the periphery," said Martano, who also leads Sant'Egidio programs in the poorest neighborhoods on the southern edge of Rome.

But it is not just about "going out," Martano said. For both Pope Francis and Mother Teresa, she said, everything starts with prayer. 

The founder of the Missionaries of Charity insisted that she and her sisters were "contemplatives in the midst of the world," she said. "It was not just about doing." Mother Teresa's prayer took her to the periphery and the peripheries were key to her prayer.

"What Mother Teresa lived, Pope Francis teaches constantly: compassion in the face of pain and never accepting indifference in the face of suffering," said Archbishop Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, Italy. 

For the archbishop, Mother Teresa modeled "a church close to the poor, a church that is mother to the poor and that lives the joy of serving the poor."

Revelations after her death that she suffered a "dark night of the soul," decades of feeling abandoned by God, are for Archbishop Zuppi a further sign of her deep immersion in the lives of the poor and forgotten.

"Her spiritual director would say that thirst is knowing there is water and longing for it," he said. "She was a woman who made the thirst of Christ on the cross her own. She lived that thirst."

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Phil Little
1 year 3 months ago
A more objective analysis of Mother Teresa is needed. For the average devout catholic who doesn´t ask questions a more naive adulation is sufficient and certainly her inspiration (that is her early years) certainly would be consistent with what Pope Francis is pointing towards. However her inspiration quickly turned into institution, her values became solidified and her symbols lost their relevance as she moved into other areas where she was easily used and manipulated, possibly with her full understanding, by the institutional church. This has happened to many congregations but usually not in the lifetime of the founder. An example perhaps I was a missionary in a very poor area north of LIma Peru. It was announced that Mother Teresa was interested in opening a home for abandoned children in the area. She had this inspiration somewhere in India without ever visiting Peru. The clergy of the deanery were shocked. In the area, in spite of the great poverty, there was not a problem with abandoned children. If children were left as orphans the extended family would distribute them to someone in the family, not always in the best of circumstances but they would be taken care of. To open a home for abandoned children would be an invitation to abandon children at the door of every parish house. The clergy of the deanery suggested to the auxiliary bishop of the area that what was really needed was a ministry to the mentally ill, literally the poor who sat naked on top of garbage heaps eating scraps. Sometimes the police would capture them and take them out into the desert with the hope they would not return. Obviously no one would miss them. Mother Teresa was angered that her inspiration was not eagerly received by the clergy and so too was the bishop because to have one of her convents in the area would have been a jewel in his mitre. She eventually settled in a different deanery but did not open a home for abandoned children. Her nuns were known to work alone, they did not want to participate in meetings with other women religious. They tended to be more submissive to clergy and less likely to become socially engaged. This was valued as at this time the country was ruled by a military dictatorship. Her mission became a favorite photo-op location for church groups from wealthy sectors including the military who would drop off food donations that were already donated by foreign countries but taken by the military to their homes. But this generosity was accepted without any questioning about the origins of the donations. It would seem to me that at best she was willfully naive. I doubt that she was just simple. She began with an evangelical option for the poor but her popularity pushed her in a different direction and she became a useful tool of the right wing of the church. There are other examples but enough for now. Her canonization process will continue because the outcome has been predetermined and is politically correct. The canonization of the American nuns who were raped and killed in El Salvador will never happen because their ministry and their assassinations were messy, plus the fact that their killing was ordered by "good catholics" in league with Opus Dei and the military. Mother Teresa is clean and doesn´t threaten anyone.

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