Let’s Learn from Mother Teresa, Not Attack Her

A nun from the Missionaries of Charity holds a prayer card with an image of Mother Teresa. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)
Love. Love. Love. So needed and yet so stifled

‘A father and mother — by loving their children, by loving one another, they are loving God.”

“The family that prays together, stays together. But more and more we see that families are not staying together, and this is the greatest destroyer of peace in the world.”

“If there is so much disturbance in the world today, if there is so much sadness, so much killing and anxiety, it is because the family is no longer united. . . . Father against mother, children against children, . . . a mother committing a murder in her own womb.”

“If a mother can kill her own child, what is there to stop others from killing one another?”

Well, I guess those are fighting words today. They are from 1997 Nobel Peace Prize winner and canonized saint, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She was recently subject to the New York Times headline “Was Mother Teresa a Cult Leader?” The author of the opinion piece pointed to a recent documentary that depicts the Missionaries of Charity, which Mother Teresa founded, “as a hive of psychological abuse and coercion.” The film “raises the question of whether the difference between a strict monastic community and a cult lies simply in the social acceptability of the operative faith.”

This is far from the first time there has been criticism of Mother Teresa. The late Christopher Hitchens was the negative color commentator on ABC’s coverage of her funeral. Archbishop of Los Angeles José Gómez, who is the current president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, once said of Dorothy Day, “I don’t know if she’s a saint, but I know she makes me want to be one.” I feel similarly about Mother Teresa — though I’m confident she’s a saint. I also know that doesn’t mean she was perfect.

We have a problem when we think of saints as perfect. Or weirdos. They actually aren’t as exotic as we make them out to be. They are people who, by surrender to God and His supernatural grace, displayed heroic virtue — people truly living the Beatitudes. That’s certainly not supposed to be a rarity.

And yet, do we really think that there wasn’t something heroically virtuous about Mother Teresa, who cared for so many in their intense suffering? The late Cardinal John O’Connor, while he was being vilified and sacrilegiously attacked by ACT UP activists for teaching Catholic sexual morality, would quietly spend hours without cameras caring for men dying of AIDS in a Missionary of Charities home in Manhattan. His successor, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, tells the story of an experience from his young priesthood in Washington, D.C., in one of their homes. A dying man had asked to see a priest, after spending his time spitting and saying the vilest things to the Missionaries of Charity caring for him. He wanted to be baptized. He wanted to be a part of whatever it was that gave them the love with which they loved him, even while he was being so terrible to them. That’s a miracle. That’s what love is.

I can’t tell you that psychiatrists would agree with everything the Missionaries of Charity do, or that medical doctors would, for that matter. They care for people, probably without social distancing now and again during COVID-19. But we need people like that. We need prudence, but sometimes the embrace needs to happen, or the heart and soul may die. People died of other things than the coronavirus in the past year or so. COVID-19 isn’t our only pandemic. People feeling alone, even in their über-connectedness — that’s devastating in ways we don’t always recognize. The MCs reach out to people cast aside. We need more people like them, not fewer.

Religious community life, such as the Missionaries of Charity live, requires obedience. That’s an extreme humility to modern ears, but it also makes room for tremendous charity, something we could also use more of, as we so often do, maybe especially after these pandemic days, when we are talking about inflation. There is a beauty to religious community life that is foreign to us. But perhaps instead of attacking, we might see what we can learn from the likes of the Missionaries of Charity, or my beloved New York–founded friends, the Sisters of Life, and others.

“If today there is so much suffering in the world, so much pain, it is because the child — the unborn child, the innocent child — is unwanted, unloved, uncared for,” Mother Teresa said. Again, these might not win an opinion poll if cast in terms of politics. But could that simply be a challenge? Pro-life or pro-choice — can’t we agree with her here?

I think the best gift we can give to any child is to make that child feel wanted, loved, cared for — because that child is the greatest gift of God to the family, to the nation, to the world. Because that child is the Life of God, created for greater things, in the image of God — to love and to be loved.

That’s about way more than abortion — although it is certainly about that. A recent court ruling seems to make it next to impossible to talk to a young girl or woman walking into an abortion clinic. Why not allow for real choice? There’s nothing like informed consent happening in many places today when a scared teenager walks in for an abortion. And what about all the 400,000-plus children in foster care? Isn’t it possible that all the violence we see today has to do with our callousness and ignorance and indifference on these fronts? Instead of attacking Mother Teresa — or dismissing her — we’d be better off if we learned from her.

Thanks be to God she is praying for us. We clearly need the help.

This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universals Newspaper Enterprise Association.


The Latest