Mother Teresa’s Sainthood: Wisdom Beyond the Secular

Please Note: As readers of TCT surely know, the post-Synodal apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis, “Amoris Laetitia,” will be released to the world tomorrow. Some journalists (Robert Royal among them) have received early copies. Reports on the exhortation’s contents, however, are “embargoed” until noon Rome time on Friday. That’s 6:00 AM Eastern Daylight Time, which is when Dr. Royal’s analysis of the document will appear here. Be sure to revisit the site then.

Now that Blessed Mother Teresa is to become a Saint, it was only to be expected that we’d see resurrected some old criticisms. There are no new ones. The arch atheist, Christopher Hitchens, “popularized” them for a select crowd in the mid-90s. A Canadian “researcher” simply repeated the “findings,” in the Opinion section of the New York Times last week. These accusations include unsanitary conditions, medication withheld, love of poverty, the sometimes unsavory people who gave her money, and how she used it. William Doino Jr. offered one of the clearest responses to these charges three years ago and, of course, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints would have investigated them as well.

I want to go beyond these defenses, however, and suggest that our challenge as Christians is that we understand things from a different place. Christian thought assumes a higher rationality, one that does not contradict the true rationality of the secular world, but goes beyond it. The world is rational, but it is also spiritual. There are spiritual laws that transcend the lower laws of logic. These are often revealed in the lives of people like Mother Teresa. They know and live life differently.

Working as a volunteer at one of Mother Teresa’s children’s homes in 1996, I saw none of the conditions claimed in the critiques. I wouldn’t deny that someone, somewhere, in one of her Centers didn’t once rinse a syringe. But think of the horrific mistakes in modern hospitals. Still, it must be understood that the Centers are not hospitals. Mother Teresa insisted the Centers were religious centers.

There were sisters there who had degrees in medicine and nursing, and doctors who volunteered their time. When children were dangerously ill, the sisters took them to hospital emergency rooms. Nevertheless, Mother insisted they were not called to social work but to religious work.

Mother Teresa and the Missionaries believed that each person they tended was “Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor.” (cf. Mt. 25: 34-40) This is a spiritual reality, one not accessible to secular humanistic logic, though secularists and Christians agree that the poor should get healthcare.

Another way Mother’s Missionaries were different is they never asked for money, nor did they take government (or even Vatican) monies. This was forbidden in their Constitution. They understood that if they were doing God’s work, it was God’s good pleasure to supply all their needs. To her critics’ chagrin, He did so abundantly.

Because of Mother’s determined faith that God provides, they didn’t check the sources of privately donated money. And why should they have? Duvalier or Keating were like any other donor. They may have wanted their pictures taken with her, but so did thousands of other people.

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Two Biblical principles explain how such money found its way to Mother Teresa’s religious centers. Proverbs 13:11 declares, Wealth hastily gotten will dwindle, but he who gathers little by little will increase it. This is precisely what happened in the case of Charles Keating, who offered unsuspecting customers very high interest rates. Proverbs 13:22 declares the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous, and 28:8 again proclaims, He who augments his wealth by interest and increase gathers it for one who is kind to the poor.

Christians are called to particular charisms or work inspired and aided by the Holy Spirit. Mother Teresa’s specific calling was to serve the poorest of the poor – those for whom even services for the poor are often unavailable. She was not called to flood relief, for which she was criticized. She was by nature very frugal, having grown up in poverty herself after her father’s early death.

She wanted to open up centers all over the world; today there are over 700 centers in 131 countries.

I was with Mother Teresa in Calcutta when Hitchens’ book came out, following his critical BBC movie. I had the opportunity to ask Mother about it and, struggling to recall the incident, she replied, “Oh, the book. It matters not. He is forgiven.” She and the sisters simply obeyed Christ’s commandment to forgive unconditionally.

Some say that not forgiving is like drinking poison hoping the other person dies. The sisters, read his book, prayed and fasted, examined themselves for any error, and let it go. They were free of his vitriol; he was bound by it.

Lastly, Mother’s focus was on one person at a time. The Missionaries are like a man desperately throwing starfish back into the sea while his friend tells him his work is pointless, given the large number stranded on the beach. He simply picked up the next one, threw it back, and said: it mattered for that one.

Mother was not interested in big programs, just in tending each abandoned, hurting person, whether they were infants thrown in trashcans or old people left in alleys to die. Suffering was their lot. You cannot be around Calcutta’s poverty very long and not know its desperation. She valued the poor’s persistence, their simplicity and honesty. She did not love their suffering; otherwise she would not have worked so hard to relieve it.

Every Christian of any depth knows that suffering well can produce righteousness and that suffering people can be among the most generous. Mother was a perfect example of this. She suffered through spiritual dark nights and physical ailments. The more she suffered, the more she accomplished and the more people came to her just to get a glimpse, a word, a touch. This is suffering in a Christian way – for the glory of God and the redemption of others.

It’s a fool’s errand – though the critics don’t know it – to judge her by the standards of secular humanism. Her call and her life existed on another, higher plane.

Mary Poplin

Mary Poplin, a new contributor to The Catholic Thing, is a professor at Claremont Graduate University and author of the books, Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me and Is RealitySecular?