THE PEOPLE'S SAINT

SEPTEMBER 14, 1997
R.M. FEWKES

In my sermon last week I made the following observation about Princess Diana and Mother Teresa: We certainly do not need to make Princess Diana into a saint to appreciate her very real human qualities and accomplishments. She was no Mother Teresa, but she found a way to use her wealth and beauty, her talent and fame, burdensome gifts though they were, for the benefit of others. How ironic, that a true saint, if there ever was one, Mother Teresa, should die only days after Diana's passing. They met and touched a number of times, and Diana was certainly moved and motivated by her example of selfless service to the destitute. The world now mourns the loss of two beautiful human souls, the people's princess and the people's saint.

I managed to watch a portion of Mother Teresa's funeral service live late Friday night, early Saturday morning. She was carried through the streets of Calcutta in the same simple carriage that was used in Mahatma Gandhi's funeral entourage following his assassination in 1947. She was a great admirer of Gandhi's, and though she was not a native of India, she became a citizen of the land where she founded her Missionaries of Charity in 1950. When she did so she traded in the black and white habits of the Loreto Sisters Order to which she belonged for the blue and white saris preferred by lower-caste Indian women. The blue and white saris became the mark of her Missionaries identification with the poor and destitute.

There was no Elton John to sing farewell to Calcutta's rose at Mother Teresa's funeral. Instead there were her followers, the Sisters of Charity, singing anthems and chorales from the Catholic funeral mass in her honor. It was a fitting and moving tribute. The difference between Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, apart from their ages (one was 36, the other 87), their backgrounds (one was rich and privileged, the other plain and simple), their looks (one was tall and stately and beautiful, the other short and homely but a powerful spiritual presence), and, of course, how they died--was that while Diana visited the homeless, the sick and the dying, and promoted charities on their behalf, Mother Teresa lived with them and devoted all her waking energies to minister to them for nearly 50 years. After her visits Diana could always return to her life of wealth and privilege, and did so. Mother Teresa had only one life and she gave it all to the poor and dispossessed.

When Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 she declared that she was not worthy, but was nonetheless "grateful to receive it in the name of the hungry, the naked, the homeless, of the crippled, of the blind, of the lepers, of all those who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society...." She, of course, took the money and used it to further the work of her order.

In giving her the peace prize the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament said it was "honoring her for her compassion and dedication to the poor and for her managerial skills." Why her managerial skills? Because the Missionaries of Charity had expanded in a period of 30 years into a worldwide order numbering 158 branches in which some 1,800 nuns, 250 brothers and 120,000 co-workers served the sick, the lonely, the destitute and they dying in 30 different countries. That was 18 years ago. Today there are three to four thousand nuns and brothers and God knows how many co-workers. Mother Teresa was a consummate fund raiser. She raised millions of dollars from all kinds of people including some large sums from despots and savory political rulers who salved their conscience with financial gifts to a living saint. Though criticized for accepting tainted money Mother Teresa never refused a contribution from any source. She was called the Saint of the gutters and she was not about to refuse gifts of charity that could be used to aid those who lived there.

If ever there was a female St. Francis of Assisi living and working in our own time Mother Teresa of Calcutta was that person. Not since Schweitzer and Grenfel founded medical missions in Africa and Labrador has there been a significant religious figure who has gained world-wide recognition for a life of loving service to suffering humanity. How much can one person do? How many people can one person influence by her deeds and actions? Mother Teresa answered with her life. And the answer is Plenty! Far more than one could ever dream or imagine.

Mother Teresa was born in 1910 to Albanian parents in the Town of Skoplje, Yugoslavia. Where it now fits into that divided region I am not sure. She was baptized Agnes Gnoxha Bojaxhiu. Agnes revealed a deeply religious nature at a very young age. By age 12 she had resolved to dedicate her life to the love of Christ in the mission field. At 18 she joined the Irish branch of Loreto nuns who were working in Calcutta. She began her work as a nun teaching geography to privileged young girls in one of the Catholic mission schools in Calcutta. In 1946 Mother Teresa received what she called her "call within a call" as she was riding on the train from Calcutta to Darjeeling. It came to her that God wanted her to give up her work in the Loreto convent school and to follow Christ into the slums to serve him among the poorest of the poor. She applied for permission to come out of the convent to begin this new ministry to the poor in the slums of the city. Pope Pius XII could have denied her request as a well meaning but unrealistic vision of an idealistic nun, and thus have forever squelched a budding religious genius. But he must have sensed something in the resoluteness of her conviction, recognizing that she was indeed called by conscience and capacity to perform such a ministry. The first thing she did was to receive training as a nurse's aid and then began a school teaching the alphabet and hygiene to poor children in the slums of Calcutta. She started with five students. By 1979 there were over 500 poor children in her school. Today there must be 1500 or more. In 1952 she opened the first of her many hospices or homes for the dying. She and her sisters and brothers of mercy provide love and caring to those who would otherwise have die alone, forgotten and abandoned in the streets. Her works of mercy and personal caring soon extended to leprosariums, children's homes, havens for women, the handicapped and the old, and in the past decade, to those sick and dying with AIDS. She possessed what Malcolm Muggeridge once called "a geography of compassion." Her organized efforts to give mercy and love a human face have become truly global in extent.

What about the criticisms leveled against Mother Teresa? Do they have any justification? To some extent they do, but they cannot detract from what she was able to accomplish with unswerving devotion and commitment for nearly half a century. She has been criticized for not addressing the built-in systemic inequities of social structures that create and maintain endemic poverty in the first place. It is noted that though she was able to raise millions of dollars worldwide, her organization has made virtually no significant changes in the social and economic conditions of the city's poor neighborhoods. The slums are just as bad if not worse than when she started her mission to the poor. It is true that she was somewhat contemptuous of the possibilities of secular labor to relieve conditions of poverty, but then she never pretended to be a politician or a social planner. That was not her calling nor her talent. She was single minded in her determination to identify with and minister to the needs of the poor, one-on-one, person to person. She left it to others to figure out how to bring about systemic social change. Certainly no one before or after her has done much to change the social structures of Indian society. So why lay the blame at her door?

Mother Teresa was also criticized for not addressing the issue of excessive population growth which fosters conditions of social and economic scarcity, too many mouths to feed, not enough homes and shelters, not enough jobs or public and natural resources, to support the vast numbers of unskilled, homeless and unemployable people. There is, of course, some justification to these accusations. She was, after all, an ardent Roman Catholic, who supported the Church's admonitions against contraceptive birth control and abortion, the latter she called "murder in the womb" and then said, "A child is a gift of God. If you do not want him, give him to me." She never addressed the question of whether it makes any moral or common sense to bring a child into the world only to suffer neglect and abuse or starve to death when there are means to limit population growth and to teach women to take control of their lives through sensible family planning. She was no friend of women's rights either within or without the church. She gave unquestioning obedience to a religious hierarchy and institution that many consider to be authoritarian, reactionary and patriarchal. But then I would not expect a conservative Catholic nun to think or act otherwise.

I certainly honor Mother Teresa for her willingness to minister to any human being in need regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. The poor, the sick and the dying were never asked to convert to Catholicism before receiving aid and succor. And people of all faiths have worked together with the Missionaries of Charity to minister to the poor. Years ago, in a story recounted in the GLOBE, she had an encounter with a diplomat at the United Nations. He said to her, "I am not Catholic. But how shall I pray?" She took his burly hand in hers and spread out his five fingers. When you pray, she said, it is Jesus speaking to you in your actions. Reexamine every day at the end of it, and count out on each finger these words spoken to you by Jesus: You did this to me." The diplomat was stunned, yet there was a happiness that brought tears to his eyes. He held up his hand, a trophy of newfound insight. And he kept looking at it: You did this to me." Those lines from the Gospel of Matthew, "Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me," was the core of her teaching and the bases of all her deeds and actions. What she did and how she responded to each person she met, she did in the name of the God within them.

One thing that pleased me in my research about Mother Teresa is that when she came to Massachusetts for a visit in 1976, she asked a friend and Catholic physician from Concord, who had worked briefly in her Calcutta orphanage a few years before, to drive her out to see Henry David Thoreau's cabin on Walden Pond. She was a great admirer of Thoreau because of the similarities of his beliefs to Mohandas Gandhi. If she could admire one of our near Unitarian saints then she has my vote for canonization.

When Mother Teresa was asked about whether she should be declared a living saint she replied, "No, please wait until I'm dead." To the young man sick with AIDS, ostracized by his parents, afraid of dying alone, she whispered in his ear, "Do not be afraid, because even if you believe that no one loves you, Jesus loves you, and the love of Jesus is the greatest love of all. You are a child of God. Do not forget that. I love you and my sisters love you. You will never walk alone." The young man, who had expected to die a long time ago, is still alive, and working as a volunteer at Seton House, a home in the Boston area for people with AIDS that Mother Teresa helped set up in 1989. He declares, "The main reason why I'm here is because of Mother Teresa. Of course, I realize, medicine is important. But medicine does nothing for the soul. That's what Mother Teresa did for me. Gave me the spiritual power to fight, to go on, to believe I had dignity. I'll never forget her. To me she is already a saint."

Saint or no saint, Mother Teresa an extraordinary human being whose life was a lesson in love. She was a plain spoken woman and put her moral and spiritual beliefs in simple words that all could understand. And so let us conclude this tribute to the people's saint by letting her speak for herself. (MOTHER TERESA SPEAKS)

The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody. The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference towards one's neighbor who lives at the roadside assaulted by exploitation, corruption, poverty and disease.

Hear in the cry of every abandoned child the cry of the Bethlehem child; recognize in every leper's stumps the hands which once touched sightless eyes and made them see. I see God in every human being. When I wash the leper's wounds I feel I am nursing the Lord himself.

We need to tell the poor that they are somebody to us, that they too have been created by the same loving hand of God, to love and be loved.

There are many in the world dying for a piece of bread but many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is not only a poverty of loneliness, but also of spirituality. There's a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.

Of course I convert. I convert you to be a better Hindu or a better Muslim or a better Protestant. Once you've found God, it's up to you to decide how to worship him.

We need to find God, but God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature--trees, flowers, grass--grow in silence; see the stars, the moon and sun, how they move in silence.

The more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life. The essential thing is not what we say, but what God says to us and through us.

The best way to show our gratitude to God and the people is to accept everything with joy. A joyful heart is the normal result of a heart burning with love.

Be kind and merciful. Let no one ever come to you without coming away better and happier. Be the living expression of God's kindness; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile, kindness in your warm greeting.

The other day I dreamed that I was at the gates of heaven. And St. Peter said, "Go back to Earth, there are no slums up here." In the slums we are the light of God's kindness to the poor. To children, to the poor, to all who suffer and are lonely, give always a happy smile. Give them not only your care, but also your heart.

True holiness consists in doing God's will with a smile. Let our every action be something beautiful for God.