‘When she stood up and lectured the president of the United States about abortion during a prayer breakfast in 1994, Mother Teresa was saying something so old, it sounded new,” David Scott writes in The Love That Made Mother Teresa. He writes:
She used almost the same words that a Catholic named Athenagoras used to rebuke the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in A.D. 175. Athenagoras said, “abortion is murder . . . for the very fetus in the womb is a created being and therefore an object of God’s care.” Mother Teresa said: “The child is God’s gift to the family. Each child is created in the special image and likeness of God for greater things — to love and to be loved.”
That same Mother Teresa — who spoke so bluntly in front of President and Mrs. Clinton at the National Prayer Breakfast — will be officially named a saint by Pope Francis this weekend at a canonization Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Scott talks about the significance of the news and some potentially practical realities. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why do we need her recognized as a saint now? Why does the Church designation matter when many have long considered her one?
David Scott: Just watching the excitement and interest among Catholics and non-Catholics in these weeks leading up to her canonization — it’s inspiring. And instructive.
Because we’re seeing people responding to a saint in a way that is personal, that comes from their heart. And I think that’s because she was a saint of our time and place. How many cities in the United States are places that Mother Teresa visited? Here in Los Angeles — she was here a number of times — she spoke once in a huge convention center about the Rosary! She walked in the same streets that we walked. I met a woman yesterday who shook her hand. She is a saint whom many of us touched and talked to.
I think we’re going to see with her canonization that she becomes a saint who, with the passage of time, becomes incredibly important to what people understand the Catholic Church to be all about. She is already universal — known and recognized by everybody, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, atheist. In my book I compare her to St. Francis of Assisi, but I think she will be bigger than St. Francis because it will be impossible to treat her life as the stuff of pious legend. Because we have her own words, pictures of her, talks on YouTube, and the memories of people who knew her.
And through all of that, people will see — like they see with Pope Francis — this is what Catholicism means. It’s a way of life, a way of love and mercy and truth. She makes holiness real, something we can see and touch. And she reminds us that it’s possible for us — more than that, it’s what we are made for.
Lopez: How is calling her a “sound bite saint” not a demotion?
Scott: Like Jesus, she knew how to make deep truths real for us. Our Lord spoke in parables and little stories and in memorable expressions — “Blessed are the merciful for they shall know mercy” — and so did Mother Teresa.
Example: I have been reading Meister Eckhart these days. Beautiful, powerful, makes me want to go deeper in conversion, to be saint. But I can’t quote a single passage for you. But Mother Teresa, I can remember — “Smile five times a day at someone you don’t really want to smile at. Do it for peace.” “Do little things with great love.” “Make your life something beautiful for God.” These things I can remember — might be hard for me to live them, but I can remember them and what I’m supposed to do.
So “sound bite saint” for me means that she was always “on message” and her message was that our lives matter, that what we do matters — not just to those around us, but to the plan of God.
Lopez: How exactly do the saints “function something like the chorus did in an ancient Greek play”? How can we be better attentive to that in general and specifically with Mother Teresa?
Scott: The premise of my book is that God is still “writing” the story of the world, the story of redemption, still trying to tell us how much he loves us and still trying to get us to believe in his love — and that one way he’s doing that “writing” is through the lives of the saints.
The saints are like God’s running commentary on the world, age to age, culture to culture. Going back to your first question, the saints show us what is “unholy” about the world — those aspects of our society and culture that are far from God’s plan; all the indignities, little slaveries, all the injustices and violations of human dignity. They also show us what our priorities should be, they help us to see what above, what is true and pure and gracious.
And of course, the saints remind us that we have a part to play in the continuing story of God’s mercy in the world.
The saints show us what is ‘unholy’ about the world — those aspects of our society and culture that are far from God’s plan.
Lopez: “In the poor, she believed, you meet Jesus,” you write. How could she be so sure? In the man ranting on the sidewalk? In the man who made the choices that got him where he was? Was her experience skewed by her experience with “the poorest of the poor”?
Scott: She could be so sure because we have Jesus’ word on it: “Whatsoever you do for the least of these . . . you do for me.” Two things about Matthew 25 — first is that Jesus doesn’t make it easy. He tells us that he is present in categories of people who really stretch our patience, challenge our comfort and security — the homeless, the prisoner, the immigrant and refugee. The second thing is that he tells us that we have no right to “judge.” Everyone bears the image of God and was created by our heavenly Father. We aren’t justified in calculating whether the people who need our help “deserve” it or not, or whether they meet our “criteria” or not. Our Lord does not have a category for the “deserving poor.” And we have to read Matthew 25 in light of the other passages on judgment in the Gospel, the essential message being — we will find mercy to the extent that we show mercy to others.
Lopez: How important is understanding Mother Teresa in the context of our abortion debates?
Scott: One of the great off-script moments in history was probably her Nobel Prize address — I was just listening to it again the other day. Everyone in the Church should listen to it, at NobelPrize.org — it is a 20-minute program for a new civilization, a civilization of love and mercy.
But when you think about the context of that year, 1979 — hostages in Iran, Saddam Hussein taking power in Iraq, the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan, the Cold War being fought by proxy guerillas in Latin America, the world on the brink of nuclear war. And Mother Teresa says the “greatest destroyer of peace” is abortion! And she’s right because, as she said, “For if a mother can murder her own child in her womb, what is left for you and for me to kill each other?”
It’s still true today — abortion is the foundational injustice in our society and the center of a culture that sees death as a solution, an answer to social problems. We need to learn compassion for the child, for the woman bearing the child, for mothers and families. Peace starts there. Justice starts there.
Lopez: Why did her critics believe caricatures, as you put it?
Scott: Maybe because we make ridicule scares us, and that makes it easier for us to dismiss, to write off. But my friend Bill Donohue has a good new book on the subject, Unmasking Mother Teresa’s Critics.
Lopez: Pope Francis talks a lot about the globalization of indifference. How is she the counter to that globalization of indifference he talks about and how can it change the way we live our own lives?
Scott: The journey we’re all on is to see the world as God sees it — to see that we are family, brothers and sisters, children of the living God who loves each one of us as if we were the only one. “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart.”
Mother Teresa had awareness of the presence of God in every person. And that leads to a whole different way of life. It leads to what Pope Francis calls the “culture of encounter.” My boss, Archbishop Gomez here in Los Angeles, likes to say that Christian love and mercy leads us to encounter the “other” as a brother or a sister. And that’s right. That is what Mother Teresa was teaching us.