Why Mother Teresa Still Matters

How we remember a religious figure says a lot about ourselves

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Tim Graham / Getty Images

Mother Teresa accompanied by children at her mission in Calcutta, Dec. 5, 1980.

How do secular people remember a saint? As Mother Teresa‘s birthday on August 26th and the anniversary of her death on September 5th approach, I found myself thinking about this. I tried to imagine what I would know about the woman, 15 years gone, if I didn’t write about religion for a living. Probably that she was good to the poor. Short. A friend of Lady Di’s. I concluded that unless I were a pious Roman Catholic, I would know very little, which led me to consider the difference between the way the Roman Catholic church treats its deserving dead and the way society at large does.

(PHOTOS: For the Centenary of Mother Teresa’s Birth, a Trove of Rare Photos)

Here’s how her Church remembers a Teresa. The moment she dies, a clock starts ticking. After a year the Vatican commences an investigation into her possible sainthood. That process’s first step is to determine that — in life — she had exhibited qualities (“heroic virtue”) that Catholicism finds amazing and exemplary. Next the focus shifts to her post-life. In 2002, the Vatican validates as miraculous the disappearance of a tumor in a woman who prayed to Teresa in heaven, and consequently, 250,000 people flock to Rome to attend her “beatification” as the Blessed Teresa. There is anticipation of and perhaps some impatience about a second miracle — not yet identified — that will enable her to be canonized as a saint. There are hurdles and steps, disappointments and triumphs, through which Teresa’s afterlife becomes nearly as eventful as her pre-death. Year after year, believers are led through a dynamic process defining and testing her meaning to the church.

Now compare this to the way in which non-Catholics are remembering — or rather, rapidly forgetting — Mother Teresa. For the most part, Americans are the opposite of the kid in The Sixth Sense: we don’t see dead people. Actors and artists may live on through films or novels; athletes perhaps on videotape. Save for U.S. presidents and Martin Luther King, Jr., moral and political heroes quickly devolve into name-checks. It’s as if the more polarized and fragmented a society we become, the less agreement there is on who should be remembered.

(MORE: Mother Teresa and the Kidney Stone)

Least likely to be recalled is a subcategory of the famous dear to my profession:  religious figures like Teresa, whose fame transcends their creeds. She was part of  the kind of greatest-generation bumper crop that also included Billy Graham, Pope John Paul II, and (every team needs a junior member) the Dalai Lama. But can their memory survive them? Graham finished in the Gallup poll’s top 10 “most admired” men 55 out of the last 56 years. How long after he passes on will anyone but evangelicals remember why? What will be left of the Dalai Lama on the public retina but his smile and the borders of Tibet? The religious boundaries that such figures knock down in life by sheer force of personality or achievement close in on them again with the walls of the grave.

(MORE: Why We’re Still Catholics)

I can’t pretend to reverse this cross-denominational amnesia in any kind of general way — it’s who we are now. However, I’ve solved it to my own satisfaction regarding Teresa, someone I personally would like to remember. I made up a mnemonic. (She loved mnemonics.) I use a bland phrase — “she worked with the poor” — and remind myself of how she managed to revitalize  and electrify each word of it. For “the poor,” Teresa substituted “the poorest of the poor,” creating both a new category and a corresponding moral obligation, first identified in Calcutta’s worst slums and then — surprise! — almost everywhere you looked.  She intensified the concept of “worked with” by plunging her nuns into an intimate, systematic, sometimes brutal coexistence with the poorest. And thanks to organizational genius, public relations savvy and nonstop travel, she transformed the humble mandate into institutions: thousands of schools, orphanages and hospices in most of the countries in the world. (Not covered by my catchphrase is the fact, revealed in letters after her death, that she accomplished all this despite a devastating 40-year spiritual depression — backwards, as it were, in heels.)

“Worked with the poor” is not among the catchiest memory gimmicks on record. (Those, predictably, are Property of the Church: the Stations of the Cross, the Rosary). But it enables me to summon up more than just a weathered face when I try to remember why Mother Teresa might remain important to a secular Jew like myself. And — as sometimes happens — the more I recall, the more worthwhile the recalling seems.

MORE: Have We Evolved to Be Religious?

50 comments
EileenGHinrichs
EileenGHinrichs

The year '97, the fifth day of June.    The Rotunda was filled, the activity soon.    All focused on one, unassuming and frail,    Dressed in white garb, blue outlining her veil.    She sat slightly forward in a chair made     with wheels,     Quite silent and waiting for time to reveal.    The Congress had voted a medal of gold.    To be given to her, whose achievements were bold.    She hails from Calcutta, her mission not greedy     Her focus in life is to care for the needy.    The accolades followed one after another,     The wonderful work of this woman called Mother.    When time to respond, she lifted her eyes,    One expected her voice to be soft, not to rise.    "Thanksgiving to God for His love to us all"    Her statement was brief, not hard to recall.                She repeated the words, "What you do to my brethern,            you do unto me."    They encompassed her work for the world to see.    But wait, these pronouncements should rightly be shared.    With those in attedance who, from want have been spared.    The term "public servant" describes all assembled,    Their mission the same, results should resemble.    The road may be rocky, the way lightly traveled,    But follow her footsteps the Light will unravel.    It shall become quite crystal clear     The reason that you are all here.    You're joined in one specific quest,    To serve those in need, at His behest,

Eileen Gladys Hinsrichs

Shams Aci
Shams Aci

For being a humanitarian one does not require to be recognized as a Roman Catholic, Protestant. Jew, Muslim, Secular or whatever,  rather one needs to be just  a good human to become great, that's enough.   

  -  A.R.Shams's Reflection  -  Press / Online Publications.

      http://arshamssreflection.blog...

Virender Singh Rawat
Virender Singh Rawat like.author.displayName 1 Like

It is strange that in these time when science has reached such great heights in medicine and other fields talking of miracle by some one seems rather odd. The drama is played out by the church with all character in place to forward its one and only motive of propagation of christianity. What better place to do so in the slums of calcutta to exploit the weak and poor. There are many other who are doing service to the humanity minus the string of conversion attached to it. Hence she may matter for the church but not for my country.

cetude
cetude

 And Priests are famous - for raping boys!

cetude
cetude

The Catholic Church is against birth control and abortion because the priests want a steady supply of BOYS so they can RAPE them.  ** WARNING! PRIESTS RAPE BOYS!** And every time you donate to the Catholic church you are paying a salary of pedophiles who are raping children.  

cetude
cetude like.author.displayName 1 Like

POVERTY itself is a disease, but the poor breed and breed perpetuating the problem. The Catholic Church is rotten because they preaching birth control is "evil".  While feeding the poor, they make the problem much worse.  Instead they need to be teaching about birth control, encourage abortions, and QUITE BREEDING.  If you can't afford a baby, then DON'T HAVE ONE.  The Catholic Church is going straight to hell.  PS: Many priests rape boys. 

anonymous7
anonymous7

Essentially, your argument for abortion and birth control is that to save people from dying we need to kill them. But its ok because they had not come out of the womb yet. That makes it all better. PS: Many priests do not rape boys. Few priests were involved in the scandals but becuase everyone expects Catholics to be good it was blown out of proportion by the media to such an extent that no one can use their head on this subject.

cetude
cetude like.author.displayName 1 Like

Mother Teresa devoted her life to exploit the poor and made the Catholic Church millions - while she received private planes, wealth, and even hob-bobbed with the likes of Presidents and Kings .  She wasn't a Saint - she was a fraud.

anonymous7
anonymous7

Congratulations. There are not many things that can make me laugh but your comment just made the list. It is quite likely that it is the most ignorant thing I have ever read.

Godzilla1960
Godzilla1960

Mother Teresa was an extreme fundamentalist and the head of a missionary cult, who supported the suspension of civil liberties in India, cavorted with dictators, and encouraged the poor to accept their lot in life.

If you want to remember someone who helped the poor, Mr. Van Biema, write an article about Norman Borlaug, whose work is credited with creating a Green Revolution that saved the lives of a billion people, many of them the very Indians Mother Teresa was willing to condemn to a life of holy poverty.

anonymous7
anonymous7

This is the second most ignorant thing I have ever read, after cetude's comment above. What did you do, take the exact opposite of what Mother Theresa did and write it down for fun?

Jeffrey Geez Glavick
Jeffrey Geez Glavick

Sainthood? hahahah- what is wrong with people and their religions, is there no common sense in this world? Whose make believe person in the sky is the greatest? mine is, believe that or I will kill you.

Jeffrey Geez Glavick
Jeffrey Geez Glavick

How secular people remember a Saint? by remembering there is no such thing as a Saint, that's how. Cut the religious BS

Vincent Lovece
Vincent Lovece

I pity those who have bad things to say about Mother Teresa. Their hearts have been hardened to a level that is hard to imagine. That, and spreading unsubstantiated rumors about a saintly woman is pretty low.

Good and Godless
Good and Godless

Spreading a lie about a god who will judge you after you die based on your life and decide to torture your soul for eternity and other unsubstantiated rumors is the ultimate in "low".

anonymous7
anonymous7

You're absolutely, completely, 100% right. Or you would be if we God didn't exist anyways. Good try though.

Godzilla1960
Godzilla1960 like.author.displayName 1 Like

No, we have just read beyond the propaganda the Church has put out about this extreme fundamentalist. Mother Teresa is not beloved or well remembered in India. You would think that they, of all people, would have the most accurate view of this woman and her work.

TZJ
TZJ

David, thank you for this phenomenal article.  I'm stunned by some of the hateful comments I see here (which, of course, say much more about the commenters than Mother Teresa) but we'll lift them all up in prayer.

Rachel421
Rachel421 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Refusing to sterilize needles because "there's no point" and allowing children to die from this practice rather than sending them to hospitals for care is an act of pure evil.

Refusing to offer pain killers to those who are suffering needlessly because suffering was "like Christ on the cross" is an act of pure evil.

Sitting on millions of dollars that was given to help the poor but instead letting it fester in bank accounts or laundering it back to the Vatican is an act of pure evil.  That money could have been spent building hospitals, schools, giving proper sanitation, food, shelter....

You can also ask, how many people did she willfully allow to suffer and die because she held a fanatical view against using condoms to prevent AIDS?  How many women were forced to bear children until they died because they could not gain access to birth control?  

You should try educating yourself.  Start by Googling "Mary Loudon" and "Susan Shields."

Jake
Jake

It isn't hate to accurately describe what a person did.

Or in her case so often failed to do even when she had the resources to do something.

Godzilla1960
Godzilla1960

Hateful or truthful?  You would do well to spend less time in prayer and more time reading about this fanatic the Church calls a saint.

Samuel D Johnson
Samuel D Johnson

this was a generally horrible journalism piece. secular institutions, like empirical science (as opposed to superstitious belief systems), have always remembered the dead for their wonderful contributions to society. think of citing research journals. it's done all the time, every day... by researchers across the globe. people researching HIV transmission, cancer treatments, and thousands of other diseases are the ACTUAL people who should be recognized, not uneducated women who refuse medical treatment for desperate, starving, poor individuals who have no other options.

we have war memorials for people who died for their beliefs. we have memorials for all sorts of heroes throughout time... which are not even limited to humans. there are at least two movies dedicated to balto, a dog... and what EXACTLY are the nobel peace prizes, such as the one mother teresa recieved, actually awarded for? we remember all these people, even as a secular society. we have history classes for this very reason. 

what a horrible, biased, uneducated, self-serving article... i hope to see better articles from time magazine in the future, especially since they have such a wide audience and far-reaching impact.

Arvind Nunner
Arvind Nunner

Mother Teresa is one of the most fantastic human souls God ever allowed to roam earth. Its so easy to play the tramp trollop or attention grabber but  to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, work in third and fourth world nations under war conditions she proves that faith devotion love and persiverance will be rewarded. She is a Saint she is an angel now and God sees her and is most pleased at his work. To my ideal woman Mother Teresa you will always be in my heart I love and admire you Amen

cetude
cetude

WRONG! She's burning in hell. PS: You are so gullible.

Good and Godless
Good and Godless

Mother Teresa showed the world that praying was pointless and to "help the poor" you had to go and "help the poor".  

It is tragic that the bigoted church sat on billions in assets while sending this frail woman out with little resources to help the needy and only "Sainting"  her efforts as a massive P.R. stunt to motivate others to be charitable so the church can continue to horde monies.The best thing coming out of Teresa's work are people like Mary Johnson who recognized the dichotomy and attributed the proper cause. It is a very good time to leave the church.

Judson Wallace
Judson Wallace

She helped to have a known pedophile reinstated as a Priest. He went on to molest 8 more children.  She also turned a blind eye to nun's that abused other nun's... this is from the account of those that worked with her. 

KaleoK
KaleoK

One has to be incredibly naive to believe that MT (empty) was a saint. Among other reasons:

1. She was a publicity hound. There are/were many others doing good work for the poor and sick. She was the only one to exploit the media to gain so much attention for herself.

2. She promoted a very negative image of India and Indians in order to boost herself.

3. She hobnobbed and accepted money from some of the most questionable and despicable characters to disgrace this earth.

An egotist pretending to be humble.

Mike P
Mike P

this woman was nothing but a masochist.

burn in hell

George_Augustine
George_Augustine

Teresa catapulted to sainthood like no other before here. Reason is, she collected money for the poor and gave it to Vatican faster than anybody did. The poor, she felt, had to suffer like Christ without any medicine. But for her own diseases, she went to New York. But why intelligent writers still harp on her sainthood is something beyond common sense.

cetude
cetude

Even adults dying of cancer - which has spread throughout their body including the bones, was in excruciating pain, and was RARELY given any pain medication, not even an aspirin.  Meanwhile Mother Teresa slept in the finest living accommodations and was given the BEST medical care modern society had to offer.

omegafrontier
omegafrontier

She matters to the Catholic Church and its propaganda machine, such as this article.  How can one discuss her legacy without criticism? 

Let's mention some of the awful things that she did in the name of God.

 1) dead bed conversion hospital -- were she and her nuns there to treat the poor or to convert them for the Vatican?  The hospital was a dead bed horror, uncleaned needles, bad sanitation, almost no medical treatments.  How was it even a hospital? 

2) condom is bad, but not as bad as poverty and AIDS.  What are the major causes of poverty?  Overpopulation due to bad family planing certainly contributed.  AIDS epidemic that devastated Africa certainly has to do a lot with poverty.  Empowering of women is a good cure to poverty.  Teresa spent her life supporting poverty is bad, but not as bad as condom.  You go to hell for using condom, but you don't go Hell for being poor. 

3) She went to Haiti took money from the Duvalier family, who were known dictator and corrupted ripping off the poor of Haiti.  The Duvalier family was wanted by the UN for charges and Teresa gave them her blessing, pledging for their character.

 4) She took money Charles Keating, an American financier that ripped off other Americans with his savings and loan scandal.  She never gave back the dirty money.

5) Dare I say about the gays?  Treatment of our fellow human beings?

We all know the miracles and Saint stuffs are BS.  So why even make a big deal out of it, if it was not for the sole purpose of propaganda?

happydayfortennis
happydayfortennis

Did you conduct a survey to find out that Catholic people are more likely to remember Mother Teresa's good deeds than secular people? Because otherwise this article makes a lot of generalizations about both groups.

Ancient Brit
Ancient Brit

Journalist and author Mary Loudon wrote about her time spent as a volunteer working for Mother Teresa. The picture she paints is horrifying. It would be a travesty to confer sainthood upon Mother Teresa.

Julianne Wiley
Julianne Wiley

"Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams"  - Fyodor Dostoevsky

AugustineThomas
AugustineThomas

What's your point? (We already knew that secular people have no culture outside of watching Madonna shake her saggy 60 year old body around.)

Godzilla1960
Godzilla1960

Such broad generalizations of secularist is no different than saying all Catholic priests are pedophiles.

Celestektw
Celestektw

Stephanie explained I can't believe that anyone can profit $5500 in one month on the network. have you seen this(Click on menu Home)

jonMcc
jonMcc

She not only devoted her life to the poor in India but she lived the life of the poor in India.  Her life was her sermon.  The order she founded continues that life and the mystery of that life is hidden in the heart of God.  Thanks for the article.

Triciairh
Triciairh

Jean implied I'm amazed that a student able to profit $9528 in 4 weeks on the network. have you look this(Click on menu Home)

18235
18235

saint christopher hitchens made sure to note that all the millions whats her name raised was given right to the vatican to dole out however it choosed---and those millions werent spent on helping any of the poor in India.

Julianne Wiley
Julianne Wiley

Mother Teresa never asked for any money.  Isn't that remarkable?  Never. She asked for no financial "love offerings", she broadcast no pleas, she sent out no fundraising letters, she marketed no products, she charged no honorarium, she solicited no funds: neither herself, nor did her sisters, nor did any organization whih she controlled.  But people gave her money: she received it, she thanked them, and --- as they hoped she would --- she used as she saw fit.

And how did she see fit?  Some of it went to her little clusters of sisters and their work.  But the bulk of it she put in the hands of the universal Church.  She brushed her hands clean of it. She was almost unexampled in the history of the world, in her detachment from money.

Incomprehensible, I know.  Christopher Hitchens --- whom in many ways I admired --- did wrong by misinterpreting this profoundly, and slandering her for it.  I feel certain, though, that she prayed, as I did and even now still do, for Hitch's eternal well-being and redemption. Wouldn't it be wonderful to see them both safe home at last!

Good and Godless
Good and Godless

She was the recipient of numerous honours including the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize. She refused the conventional ceremonial banquet given to laureates, and asked that the $192,000 funds be given to the poor in India.

Good and Godless
Good and Godless

At a Knights of Columbus banquet in New York in 1995, Mother Teresa held up her newly presented gold medal and asked How much is it worth? Observing that the banquet itself might have been a costly affair, she also remarked how nice it would be to return to Calcutta with the amount of money that had been spent on the dinner. One bishop laughed as he recalled later that the organisers were stuck with giving her about $100,000 more than they had anticipated.