Mother Teresa, Sinner or Saint?

In case you haven’t already heard the news, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was canonized as a saint on Sunday. She was an Albanian woman, a Catholic nun, the founder of Missionaries of Charity, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, the winner of 124 awards, and (according to Franciscan Media) “the face of Jesus to the world.” She found her calling in the slums of India and dedicated her life to putting the needs of others before her own. She was, and is, a saint.

But she was also a sinner.

You may have already heard some of the criticisms of Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity. The most famous is probably the documentary by Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ali and Hitchens’ subsequent book, The Missionary Position. This more recent article by Krithika Varagur does a pretty good job of summing up the arguments. Also look here and here. Most of the criticism seems to surround the work done at the hospital Mother Teresa’s organization established in Calcutta. Reports of misdiagnoses or no diagnoses at all, unsterilized needles, patients who were in sore need of medical attention treated only with vitamins, non-existent doctors, malnutrition, all despite the incredible wealth the Missionaries of Charity possess. On a spiritual level, many attacked Mother Teresa and her nuns for baptizing the dying without their consent.

A lot of criticism about Mother Teresa and her mission comes from attackers of organized religion who feel that the emphasis in her mission was on evangelism rather than caring for people’s earthly needs. Others feel betrayed that the image of God has been Westernized in Mother Teresa for so many people in a decidedly non-Western part of the world.

In his book, Hitchens wrote that Mother Teresa told him that “There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering.” I could spend a whole post unpacking how damaging that mindset of joy in suffering is, but I’ll let you work that out for yourselves. For many of Mother Teresa’s objectors, her vision mission and the relationship with the suffering came promoted a white savior complex among Western Christians.

Yet Mother Teresa also said some very profound and faithful things, flawed though they may be. Here are a few select pieces, but I encourage you to look here for more:

“I do not agree with a big way of doing things. What matters is the individual. If we wait till we get numbers, then we will be lost in the numbers and we will never be able to show that love and respect for the person.”

“I see God in every human being. When I wash the leper’s wounds, I feel I am nursing the Lord himself. Is it not a beautiful experience?”

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.”

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

In my religious tradition, we have a pretty strong theology of everyone being at once both a saint and a sinner. We are beloved by God and justified by Christ’s death and resurrection, and that alone makes us worthy to be called a saint. Though we struggle and give in to our weakness time and time again, we remain beloved in God’s eyes. No matter how far we lose our way, God is still there for us and our only job is to do our best to follow.

Mother Teresa’s private letters reveal (I feel it’s important to mention that Mother Teresa did not want this work made public) that in her later years she went through a long and profound period of doubt and no longer felt God’s presence like she did when she was young. Indeed, she first begins experiencing a crisis of faith soon after her work in Calcutta began, so almost for the entirety of her mission she felt a “dryness” in God’s love.

This post isn’t about bashing Mother Teresa. Rather, the point of my post is this: Above all else that Mother Teresa was or wasn’t, she was in all things human, as are we all. She had human hopes and faith. She made human mistakes and had a human-level of understanding about God’s will and mission. She was also a woman of human doubt. She was all of these things and yet she let none of that get in the way of pursuing her call. Despite all of the ups and downs of her ministry, she was a human who accomplished a lot of good for the world in turning her attention to those the rest of the world would rather forget, and that is something worthy of respect.

I’ll leave you with another quote from Mother Teresa herself. “You can find Calcutta anywhere in the world. You only need two eyes to see.” Don’t let judgment or hesitation or fear of not getting it just right or anything else stand in your way between you and doing something good for the world. Go out and find your Calcutta.

2 comments on “Mother Teresa, Sinner or Saint?

  1. Your insight is very thoughtful and telling. None of us should ever doubt God’s faithfulness and love for us, but we do doubt. However, I believe that as we remember Jesus’ words: John 13:34-35
    “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Mother Teresa led by example showing us how to live a life full of love for others and fulfilling the greatest commandment.

  2. I want to share my first hand experience with the Missionaries of Charity. I have visited 3 of their convents in Nairobi, Kenya, Kigali, Rwanda, and Tashkent, Uzbekistan, living with them for a total of 6 weeks. The sisters live lives of extreme poverty and self giving. They pray for at least 5 hours a day and spend the rest of their time in service to the poorest of the poor. In their lifestyle they choose the way of simplicity, rejecting technology, except they do use modern medicine. I saw them taking the sick to modern hospitals and a medical doctor also visits the convent. They themselves also use modern medicine. But in their chores, for example, they cook and wash clothes by hand over wood fires. Another guest couple at the convent in Nairobi was dismayed at their labor intensive laundry methods and thought they were wasting their time. They went out to buy them modern washing machines, which were refused by the sisters.

    I have not yet read the articles referenced here but i know that Hitchens is an atheist who actively seeks to discredit all Christians and their work. The sisters themselves greatly impressed me by their radiant joyful demeanor, their faith, and their communal life. Worshipping and praying with them is the reason that i recently joined the Roman Catholic Church. If Hitchens thinks that the sisters emphasize evangelism over meeting bodily needs, I did not see this, but rather, the reverse. The sisters are very quiet. They do not preach with words, but minister with tender loving kindness and radiant joy, and prayer. As for misdiagnoses, I would say that the people they help are in such dire straights, that they are near death and the sisters are rescuing them from suffering on the street alone with no one at all to help them. They administer first, a loving human presence, and second, get them medical help.

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