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Saint of the gutters

  • FATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA

Remembering Mother Teresa, born 100 years ago.

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Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta
26 August 1910-5 September 1997

On Aug. 26, 1910, Agnes Gonxha Bojakhiu was born of Albanian parents in the town of Skopje, Macedonia.

"By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus," is how she would describe herself.

Mother Teresa, as the world came to know her, is being honoured by millions today on the centenary of her birth. Not just by the Catholic Church, which already has declared her to be in heaven, and honoured with the title "blessed." The Peace Bridge between Buffalo, N.Y. and Fort Erie, Ont., will be illuminated in blue and white, the colours of the order of religious sisters she founded, the Missionaries of Charity. More than 4,000 strong upon Mother Teresa's death 13 years ago, they already had become the largest missionary order of women in the Church — and this at a time when religious orders were collapsing the world over.

It would be hard to imagine a place farther from the glamour capitals of the world than the slums of Calcutta, where Mother Teresa began her care for the "poorest of the poor." Amongst the wretched of the Earth, she taught her sisters to see "Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor."

In 1952, Mother Teresa found a woman dying in the streets, half-eaten by rats and ants, with no one to care for her. She picked her up and took her to the hospital, but nothing could be done. Realizing that there were many others dying alone in the streets, Mother Teresa opened within days Nirmal Hriday (Pure Heart), a home for the dying. In the first 20 years alone, over 20,000 people were brought there, half of whom died knowing the love of the Missionaries of Charity. Nirmal Hriday is where one dying man, lying in the arms of Mother Teresa after being plucked from the gutters and bathed and clothed and fed, told her, "I have lived like an animal, but now I am dying like an angel."

Nirmal Hriday was the focus of the 1969 British television documentary produced by the late Malcolm Muggeridge, Something Beautiful for God. It made Mother Teresa famous, though by then she had already spent 23 years in the slums, living off alms and toiling in obscurity.

She then came to be feted in the glamour capitals, receiving dozens of awards. In 1979, she received the Nobel Peace Prize, at that time still a prestigious award. When given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985, the plaque described her as the "saint of the gutters." There have been others who have risen from the gutters to receive such awards, but she was the only one who went back to the gutters to live.

The world only knew her as diminutive and wizened, with a slight stoop and gnarled hands. Yet all who met her found her beautiful, for her eyes sparkled and her smile radiated joy.

Mother Teresa knew that the true good cannot be found in systems or plans, no matter how clever or efficient, but in a person. She was not against the work of welfare agencies, but remarked that welfare was for a purpose, albeit a noble one, whilst love was for a person. Mother Teresa offered love. When criticized by those who accused her of not going to the root causes of problems, she would simply remind them what the true root cause was. "The greatest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody," she would explain. "The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference towards one's neighbour."

Mother Teresa never played to the crowd who wished to obscure the Gospel and reduce her to a humanitarian celebrity. She spoke out against abortion as the "greatest destroyer of peace" when in Oslo at the Nobel ceremony, and shocked the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington when she reminded them of the Christian tradition on the immorality of contraception. She insisted that she was in the gutters for one reason alone — to bring the love of Christ to each of the souls abandoned there.

The world only knew her as diminutive and wizened, with a slight stoop and gnarled hands. Yet all who met her found her beautiful, for her eyes sparkled and her smile radiated joy.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once wrote that ultimately the Church has only two things to offer to the world for the credibility of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: the beauty of her art and the lives of her saints. Mother Teresa captivated the whole world, becoming a patron saint of a difficult century. Like a great masterpiece of sacred art, she was indeed something beautiful for God.

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Acknowledgement

Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Saint of the gutters." National Post, (Canada) August 26, 2010.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

The Author

Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2010 National Post
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