Saint Teresa of Calcutta: Model of Mercy and Charity
September 5 marks the feast day of Saint Teresa of Calcutta – a beautiful servant of God who is one of our most celebrated mothers and a universal symbol of God’s merciful and preferential love for the poor and forgotten. She has been widely known as both a model of mercy and of charity.
There is no one more renowned for practicing the heroic virtue of charity than Saint Teresa of Calcutta! A diminutive figure, just under five feet tall, she gave every ounce of strength she had to care for the poorest of the poor with love, prayer, and all the gifts God had given her.
Mother Teresa’s parents named her Agnes—or Gonxha in her own language. One of four children born to an Albanian chemist and his wife, Agnes had a comfortable childhood. However, when she was about eight years old, her father died suddenly, which left the family in financial straits.
At the age of twelve, Agnes felt called to religious life to help the sick and the poor, and by the age of fifteen, she had focused her attention on India. When she was seventeen, she learned about the Sisters of Loreto in Ireland and left home to enter the order. There she received the name Sister Mary Teresa after St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the patroness of the missions. Two months later, she departed for India. Sister Teresa was assigned to the Loreto community in Calcutta, where she taught history, geography, and catechism at St. Mary’s School for Girls. She spent fifteen years teaching at the school, a job that she was very good at and enjoyed a great deal.
Then, one day, she heard a second call—a call within a call—that she could not ignore. On September 10, 1946, during the train ride from Calcutta to Darjeeling for her annual retreat, Sister Teresa received her inspiration. God was calling her to a life of service in charity. In this call, he revealed a deep longing for her to manifest his love to all his children. In short, God was calling her to serve the poorest of the poor—those who had been ignored and unloved by the rest of society.
Sister Teresa received permission to leave her order, live with the poor, and even dress like them. She changed her habit from the traditional one worn by the Loreto sisters and now wore a blue and white sari, symbolizing the love of Mary.
For two years, Mother Teresa worked to found the Missionaries of Charity. In this order, each nun vows to serve the poorest of the poor in addition to professing to the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In 1952, Mother Teresa opened a home for the dying and destitute, which accepted only those hospitals refused. Her services expanded to include homes for the poor, schools, orphanages, leprosy clinics, homes for alcoholics and drug addicts, AIDS hospices, and facilities to care for the physically and mentally handicapped.
As the order grew, it extended outside India and expanded to include nearly every country in the world. Mother Teresa worked tirelessly for the next four decades in her mission to the poorest of the poor. She was awarded the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize by Pope Paul VI 1971, and she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Although Mother Teresa received much public acclaim for her work, she never took credit for it. Instead, she used the publicity to draw attention to the plight of the poor. During the last years of her life, despite severe health problems, Mother Teresa continued to direct her community and respond to the needs of the poor and the Church. By the time of her death in 1997, Mother Teresa’s sisters numbered nearly 4,000 members and were established in 610 foundations in 123 countries worldwide.
Less than two years after her death, her canonization process was started. She was beatified on October 19, 2003. In his homily for the beatification ceremony, Pope St. John Paul II stated, The cry of Jesus on the Cross, “I thirst” (Jn 19: 28), expressing the depth of God’s longing for man, penetrated Mother Teresa’s soul and found fertile soil in her heart. Satiating Jesus’ thirst for love and for souls in union with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, had become the sole aim of Mother Teresa’s existence and the inner force that drew her out of herself and made her ‘run in haste’ across the globe to labor for the salvation and the sanctification of the poorest of the poor.”
On September 4, 2016, Mother Teresa was canonized by Pope Francis. In his homily, he said, “She bowed down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity; she made her voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crime of poverty they created. For Mother Teresa, mercy was the ‘salt’ which gave flavor to her work, it was the ‘light’ which shone in the darkness of the many who no longer had tears to shed for their poverty and suffering.”
~ copyright Jean M. Heimann 2017 — excerpted, in part, from Seven Saint for Seven Virtues by Jean M. Heimann copyright 2014.