Guest blog post: A Call to Mercy

Dr Simon Yarrow of the School of History and Cultures at the University of Birmingham discusses the life and work of Mother Teresa in the context of her canonization on 4th September 2016.


Nineteen years ago last week two women famous throughout the world died. The first of them was known for her charity work, her natural aptitude with children, her empathy for others, and her ability to comfort the suffering and outcast. The other was Mother Teresa. The sudden death of Diana, princess of Wales, triggered such mass public outpourings of emotion in Britain that for weeks the country could hardly recognize its stiff upper-lipped self. People queued around medieval cathedral naves to sign condolence books. Flowers, votive teddies and candles mounted up at makeshift places of reflection, mourning and devotion, and op-eds talked of a country in freefall, or perhaps rewind, to a time before the Reformation, when saints pulled crowds of pilgrims in to their shrines, and royalty touched their subjects to heal them of scrofula. Much less melodrama (or anguish if you prefer) attached itself to the death of Mother Teresa, the news of which was eclipsed in the Anglophone media by that of ‘the people’s princess’. The circumstances of their deaths had a lot to do with it, Diana’s death sudden, Mother Teresa’s after long ill health. But of course the life of Mother Teresa bore much greater resemblance to a medieval saint than that of Princess Diana. (The princess had occasional private meetings with Mother Teresa). And so it is perhaps unsurprising, following confirmation of a second miracle attributed to her, that Mother Teresa was canonized last weekend by Pope Francis I.


Agnes Bojaxhiu, or Mother Teresa, was born into a prosperous Albanian family in 1910. Her father died when she was seven, leaving her mother to keep the family together. The local church supported them and inspired Agnes; the possibility of religious work in India was brought to her attention by a parish branch of the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary. By the age of 18 Agnes felt a calling to work with the nuns of Loreto in Bengal, and, after initial time spent in Ireland with the order’s mother house, she arrived in India at the start of 1929. She took her avowed name from St Thérèse of Lisieux, the French Carmelite nun who died aged twenty-four in 1897, the pioneer of a form of spirituality known as ‘the little way’, (though the spelling was borrowed from St Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth-century nun and spiritual writer to avoid her being confused with one of her novice contemporaries).


The departure in Mother Teresa’s life that really distinguished her from others called to make religious vows, was the ‘calling within a calling’ she experienced in the Summer of 1946, demanding that she leave the order to work among the poor. Over the next five years, Teresa cajoled enough highly  ranked churchmen – including the Pope –  and convinced them of her substance and intent, to emerge in 1950 the Mother Superior of a new religious order, the Missionaries of Charity, dedicated to serving the poor of Calcutta (since 2000, Kolkata) in their own neighbourhoods. The order’s constitution enshrined, in addition to the observance of poverty, chastity and obedience, what became known as the fourth rule of ‘wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor’. As well as the motherhouse, under Teresa’s direction the order established across Calcutta a centre for orphans and unwanted children, a leprosy centre, and a home for the dying. Among other things, the sisters cared for the sick and dying, educated and housed orphans, and supported those stigmatized by their families and communities for unwanted pregnancies, marriage, alcoholism, mental illness and disease. The Calcutta operations expanded internationally into over a hundred countries during her lifetime. Like a multinational corporation, it developed certain terms and working practices that framed the mission, though of course these served different aims to the financial priorities set by corporate shareholders. Her official biographer, Navin Chawla, describes the practical approach and spiritual tone set by Mother Teresa’s leadership. There were to be no endowments from which to draw regular funds; favoured instead were the hand to mouth management of ‘sacrificial money’, and faith in divine providence over strategic planning. By these means were emphasized the web of personal and spiritual relationships that generated material resources for the order, that might be otherwise compromised by government grants of welfare or charitable trusts. There were no employees. Those curious about the work were invited to volunteer as ‘come and sees’, and there was an order of brethren. There were networks of ‘co-workers’ who raised and administered funds to support the work of the sisters, and ‘second selves’, the corresponding ‘spiritual mentees’ of the sisters, otherwise prevented from fulfilment of their vocations because of chronic or extreme ill health. All these and other arrangements enacted Mother Teresa’s fiercely literal understanding of the poor as Christ ‘in distressing disguise’. The idea comes from Matthew 25:35-40, ‘whatever you did for one of the least…. you did for me’, in which all are called to give account of themselves before the throne and the sheep are separated from the goats.


Critics of Mother Teresa question her true intentions and actual achievement. Christopher Hitchens called her ‘a religious fundamentalist, a political operative, a primitive sermonizer and an accomplice of worldly, secular powers’. He depicts her frequent jet-setting to raise funds and set up new missions (she would boast of the free flights certain airlines gave her) sinisterly as a front for international papal intrigue and a fig leaf for murderous political regimes. He draws attention to her abhorrence of contraception and abortion, perhaps not surprising for a Catholic nun, and, even less surprising, her acceptance of donations from proven criminals and dictators (the Church has been in the business of shaking down the rich and powerful for centuries). Hitchens’ allusions to hypocrisy and conspiracy leave the impression of a secular polemicist using Mother Teresa more generally to bait the Catholic Church, and as polemic they shed little light on the Mother Teresa phenomenon. His barbs are easily discounted by audiences beyond his own constituency because they fail to address the fact that in the figure of Mother Teresa, power and morality combined in an ages old formula known as charisma, that compelling license some attain to channel divine authority (‘it is the will of God… I am nothing’), in a way recognized by the faithful as sanctity.


My own interest in saints lies in the forms and uses of such moral power, and in those tense, daily calculations we all make in attempting to trust others’ persuasive efforts – through their words, deeds and bodily gestures – to communicate good intention, competence and even fitness to lead. There was something about Mother Teresa’s small stature, benign countenance, and overwhelming positivity communicated through love, her simple wisdom tenaciously lived by, and embrace of poverty, her odd insistence on personal hygiene (bars of soap were constantly distributed among children as school prizes), and allegedly mischievous sense of humour; to almost all she met, these qualities were the compelling hallmarks of a living saint. But this brings us to the question of her actual achievement. Do these spiritual and moral qualities equip people to do their best by the poor? I have to confess I doubt it, not by themselves. A regrettable side effect of Mother Teresa’s holiness for me, was the spiritual premium it placed upon physical association with poverty, sickness and the most wretched of human material circumstances, rather than upon the alleviation of its causes and promotion of its remedies. There were efforts toward the improvement of material circumstances, but nothing to amount to liberation theology, or compare, according to Amit Chaudhuri, with the communist land reforms of the Bengali authorities. Instead, an emphasis was placed on spiritual consolation, the dignity of the meek, and acceptance of one’s lot in life. On such terms the danger is that the poor become involuntary accessories to another’s personal spiritual development, their suffering a kind of aesthetic spectacle offered up to God. Stories of the lack of proper drugs for the sick, and absence of palliative care for the dying might reflect the tightness of resources available, but a refusal to support contraception in the face of daily evidence of its ghastly consequences (backstreet abortions, female infanticide, abandoned fetuses) offends modern ethical standards of public health care. And yet… Believers would say this misses the point, that Mother Teresa’s work was not about health care but about spiritual awareness raising, and that reaching out to people in extremes of suffering, at their own places of calvary, and not looking away, is precisely the call to serve that this world needs right now. We have only to remember that Mother Teresa’s mission began and grew in Calcutta, a city beleaguered by waves of mass rural inward migration during the Great Famine of 1942-3, and again by mass refugees of war in the early 1970s, to be made to reflect on the human catastrophe happening today in the Near East, and of the choices we might make (or fail to make) in responding to the basic needs of displaced and deeply traumatized Syrian children and families heading for Europe. We might also look upon the canonization of Mother Teresa this weekend and remember the fevered weeks following the death of Diana, as a way of gaining imaginative insight into Mother Teresa’s life and its significance to the worldwide congregation of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis I will use her canonization as a call to mercy and service.


Dr Simon Yarrow teaches the history of religion and society in the early and central middle ages, and undertakes research on the cult of saints’ relics, miracles and religious cultures from the tenth to the thirteenth century in England. Dr Yarrow is also the Director of Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures.


Further Reading:

Navin Chawla, Mother Teresa (London, 1992, rev. ed., 2002.

C. Hitchens, The Missionary Position (London, 1995).

A. Chaudhuri, ‘Why Calcutta’ London Review of Books, 4th January 1996.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s