On Oct. 19 the Church beatified, or publicly declared as “blessed,” one of the most remarkable women of our time.
There are few today who do not acknowledge the goodness of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who died in 1997 after a life of service to those she called “the unwanted, the unloved, the uncared for.”
Unfortunately, the picture many have of her is somewhat incomplete, for we tend to like our saints only insofar as they conform to our particular notion of sanctity. Whatever there is about them that does not conform runs the risk of being rejected outright or simply ignored.
History provides numerous examples of this. Writing about St. Francis of Assisi, the always insightful G.K. Chesterton once observed that people are more than willing to praise him for his spirit of compassion but decidedly less enthusiastic about his spirit of penance, if, indeed, they are even aware of it.
Our own age prefers the Hollywood construct of a laid-back Francis, that counter-cultural troubadour who roamed the Umbrian countryside, feeding the hungry and caring for the homeless while taking time out now and again to talk sweetly with the birds. But there was another side to Francis: When it came to following what he saw as God's will, he was a veritable freight train of determination, uncompromisingly hard on himself and demanding on his followers. Although unconventional, he was also unerringly loyal to a Church that often misunderstood and sometimes mistreated him.
Not unlike Francis, Mother Teresa is known and admired the world over for her great works of compassion. Her Missionaries of Charity, who now number in the thousands, currently serve the “poorest of the poor” wherever there exists the greatest need, whether among those dying friendless on the streets of Calcutta or those wasting away with AIDS in San Francisco.
The popular image of Mother Teresa is that of a gentle, self-sacrificing and effective social activist, a champion of the poor and downtrodden whose life stands as an eloquent challenge to the selfish abuses of wealth, privilege and power.
The themes she sounded most frequently had to do with caring for the poor and destitute, simply because they were our sisters and brothers made in the image and likeness of God. “When we touch the sick and the needy,” she often repeated, “we touch the suffering body of Christ.” The dying and the diseased, the unwanted and the unloved were for her none other than “Jesus in disguise.”
She spoke passionately about the dignity of all people and pleaded that no one be overlooked or excluded. “There is only one God and he is God to all; therefore it is important that everyone is seen as equal before God.”
To which the majority of men and women of good will, whatever their religious faith, gladly respond: Amen.
But as with Francis there is another dimension to Mother Teresa. Many who put her on the side of the angels for her great compassion would soon deny her halo if they realized just how completely she embraced the Church's more unpopular teachings. Accepting the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, she wasted little time in broaching one of our most controversial topics: “We are talking about peace,” she told the Stockholm audience, “but I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a direct war, a direct killing, a direct murder by the mother herself.”
I suspect there were sympathizers who afterwards counseled her on how impolitic it was, given the occasion, to have raised the topic, especially in so blunt a manner. Such counsel had little or no effect, for at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., some 15 years later, she was no less blunt: “Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want.”
Time and again, in speeches, letters and interviews, Mother Teresa consistently defended Church teaching on issues ranging from chastity and contraception to euthanasia and papal authority — issues that even those who share her beliefs, some in positions of leadership, frequently side-step or shun.
How do we reconcile Mother's Teresa's hard-nosed views — what some would dismiss as uncritical “dogmatism” — with her popular image as the very soul of sweetness and light? Might this apparent contradiction have something important to teach us about the very nature of the saints, for it seems we never consider them without some curious admixture of love, respect, uneasiness and occasional terror: love and respect because of their obvious and undeniable goodness; uneasiness and terror, either because we are unwilling to fully follow their teachings or because we fear the personal cost involved in doing so.
When what they say affirms our beliefs or justifies our lives, we are quick to praise and honor them; when what they say disturbs or challenges us, we just as quickly refuse to “walk” with them any longer.
Mother Teresa's beatification affords a unique opportunity to reflect on the life of a remarkable human being in its entirety.
What made her life remarkable? What do we find praiseworthy about it? What do we find disturbing and challenging?
This last question is the most difficult and the most important, if only we have the wisdom to ask it — and the courage to answer.
Msgr. Robert Sheeran is President of Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.