Mother Teresa is known worldwide. Much less well known is the importance of her early years, in the Balkans, to what was to come later. September 4, 2016, the day of her canonization, will also be, appropriately, the Jubilee for Workers and Volunteers of Mercy. This is a happy coincidence because she will probably become the patron saint for all those who labor and suffer in the name of God’s love and mercy.
Suffering is an inevitable feature of human existence. It transcends countries and nations, rich and poor. Human suffering insistently calls upon the world of human love. And in a certain sense man owes to suffering that unselfish love that stirs in his heart and actions, as St. John Paul II wrote in his 1984 Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris.
Mother Teresa came from what Pope Francis calls the peripheries and headed to the peripheries for a life-long mercy mission. She had a keen understanding of the peripheries because she was born in the periphery and became acquainted with the reality and life-experiences of people in the periphery in her native Skopje. Ideas and initiatives for great movements often start from the periphery, as Yves Congar has explained.
Not much has been written about her early life. Agnes Gonxhe (Albanian for “rosebud-flower”) Bojaxhiu was born in Skopje, which is currently the capital of the Republic of Macedonia, on August 26, 1910. Gonxhe (a nickname) had Albanian parents, Drane and Nikola Bojaxhiu, from Prizren in Kosovo. Albanian Catholics were a minority in Macedonia at the time, outnumbered by Eastern Orthodox and Muslims.
Mother Teresa took great pride in her Albanian roots: “By blood and origin, I am Albanian,” she told the media when she was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1979. Family influences seem to have been paramount for young Agnes. Her happy and strongly knit family, which included not only her parents, but a brother (Lazer) and sister (Age), left indelible marks on the character of the future saint.
Nikola was a well-to-do merchant, conversant with the political situation and nationalist trends in the Balkans and abroad between the two World Wars (he was a nationalist himself). The Bojaxhiu family lived in a large house in Skopje’s main square. But they helped the sick, widows, and children who stopped by their door. “Egoism and self-focus is spiritual sickness,” Nikola used to say. The Bojazhius motto was hospitality; their home was open to God, as well as to the guest and the needy.
Drane was a homemaker, a strong character and fully dedicated to her children, husband, and faith. After the unexpected death of her husband, under suspicious circumstances (he was probably poisoned for political reasons), Drane worked to provide for the family. She did not talk much, Agnes used to say about her mother, but acted much.
These were the first lessons – of loving actively and mercifully – that the future Mother Teresa would learn from “her” Skopje, as she often referred to her birthplace. The Archbishop of Skopje, Lazer Mjeda, was a close family friend who influenced young Agnes in more ways than one. The archbishop brought and shared poetry with the Bojaxhiu family. In fact, the archbishop’s brother, Fr. Ndre Mjeda was a prominent Albanian poet and Agnes had a chance to hear and read his poetry from an early age.
The Jesuits of the “Visiting Mission” who passed through their community also impressed Agnes with their zeal for mission. The Bojaxhius made a yearly pilgrimage (on August 15) to Our Lady of Letnica near Skopje. It was at the age of 17, when she was on a pilgrimage to Letnica, in front of the Madonna, that Agnes received the call to become a missionary.
Skopje, at the crossroads of the Balkans and civilizations, exposed the future Mother Teresa to people of different faiths, ethnicities, cultures, and languages.
At the time of her birth, however, Skopje was part of the Ottoman Empire. The nation states of Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, etc., which are currently independent Balkan nations, did not exist. Kosovo was a first-level administrative division (vilayet) of the Ottoman Empire and Skopje was part of the administrative province of Kosovo.
Agnes was only two years old when the Balkan wars (1912-1913) broke out. The wars marked the end of Ottoman rule in the Balkans and the division of the region under the jurisdiction of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece. The partition led to an enormous number of dead and much human suffering, including forced migration, expulsion, ethnic cleansing, and displacement of entire villages, towns, and families.
But the worst was yet to come: during World War I, Macedonia became the apple of discord between Serbia and Bulgaria. Agnes witnessed all this human suffering, displacement, and war, first hand at an early age. The two last years before her calling, she spent long periods on retreat and deep prayer asking existential questions about human suffering. It was in this dark abyss of human travail that Agnes, for the first time, witnessed Jesus in human suffering.
In that troubled periphery, she experienced the “touch of God” that marked her religious vocation and caused her to pledge to quench Jesus’ thirst by rendering unconditional service to the unwanted. For Agnes, the thirst of Jesus is to be joined to the infinite desire of God for communion with those who have been created to love God.
It was her Skopje and her Albanian family values – the Balkan microcosm – that prepared Mother Teresa for her Indian mission. Indeed, her early life in that periphery prepared her to be a bridge builder between whole continents and peoples.