Teresa of Kolkata: A radical humanitarianBy: Tina McCormick PhD
Mother Teresa, the most recent Catholic saint, is, indeed, a saint for all. Catholic, or not, people around the world know Mother Teresa of Kolkata as a woman who gave her life to tending to the abandoned and desperate. The Missionaries of Charity, an order founded in 1950 by the humble yet strong-willed Albanian nun to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor,” is seen throughout the world as practicing the gift of self in service of the poor. Today, there are more than 4,500 Missionaries throughout the world. They run orphanages and hospices as well as centers to care for refugees, the blind, disabled, aged, alcoholics, the poor and homeless, and victims of floods, epidemics, and famine in more than 100 countries around the world.
Saints of the Catholic Church are generally considered role models for a Christian life. There are more than 10,000 saints recognized by the Church—at least one with whom every variety of human personality can relate and imitate. There are, of course, some whose lives and saintliness resonate with only Catholics. Some of those with wider appeal, such as St. George, St.Christopher, and St.Valentine appear to be more folklore than real. But there are certain Catholic saints whose real life examples reach far beyond the limits of Christian identity. Their lives are a testament to what it means to be fully human in a relational way. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was just such a saint. She epitomized the Christian faith in a way that touches human hearts beyond the limits of religious denomination. She was a radical humanitarian whose life and works should challenge any observer to ponder life’s purpose and the purpose of their actions.
Many Catholics have focused on Mother Teresa’s “darkness within,” her testimony to feeling an internal emptiness and to, at times, feeling abandoned by God. Her agony over not feeling God’s presence within has been likened to Christ’s sense of abandonment on the cross, a reliving of Christ’s suffering. Many a Christian can relate to moments of such divine silence and the accompanying sense of loneliness, and it a consolation for many that a contemporary saint felt the same. But this narrow reading of this unique woman does a disservice both to Catholics and to all of humanity. In fact, Teresa’s great works were, in fact, evidence of the God she longed for inside. With her practical labors of love and care for the desperate and abandoned, she bore witness to the loving God she hoped to find. As God worked through her, Mother Teresa became the reflection of a love that unites all of humanity, a deep commitment to the humanity we all share.
According to Rodney Stark, it was the humanitarian works of the early Christian communities that instigated most conversions. When others shuttered their doors or fled the cities during diseases and natural calamities, Christians stayed and tended to the sick and injured. Early Christianity was focused on building communities centered around care for one another and it was this impulse that left a lasting imprint on observers.
It is her actions, that make this Catholic nun be a saint for all humanity.
It was a faith of action, humanitarian service, and community rather than an introverted, self-centered faith. God was seen to speak through a Christian rather than to a Christian. A Christian was known, above all, through his deeds. Like the early Christians, Teresa’s dedication to the poor deepened the faith of others and drew many non-believers to the faith. It is her actions, not her internal darkness or loneliness, that make this Catholic nun be a saint for all humanity.
There has been much cynicism and petty criticism of the Missionaries of Charity even during Mother Teresa’s canonization process. Just as this steadfast woman will be remembered as a light to the world, she will also remain a thorn on the side of those whose who feel threatened by the radicalism of her sacrifice and dedication. Many critics of the saint seem to reject examples of true voluntary sacrifice for the sake of others and the charity that ultimately leads to communion among people. Have people become too self-referential, jaded, and shallow to appreciate true goodness? Indeed, Princess Di’s death in August of 1997 was mourned with hysteria, Mother Teresa’s death only five days later received much less media attention. But that’s the story of the saints. Princess Di might very well continue to have admirers and dedicated fans who cannot resist the appeal of her fairy tale life of glamour and personal disappointments. Yet her celebrity status will fade with the passing of her generation. Mother Teresa’s radical humanitarianism, on the other hand, will help define the history of charity and will continue to serve as a universal example of kindness. The communities she built were true examples of charity and love and the only possible witness to the God she could not find within.
This column first appeared in the NewBostonPost Sept. 10, 2016, and is reprinted at CNA with permission.
Tina McCormick, who has a doctorate in history from Harvard, is raising her five children in Massachusetts. She is the publisher of NewBostonPost.
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