At this time, late summer, 21 years ago two women died. And their deaths dominated the news throughout the world.
These two world-renowned women were about as unalike as any two persons could be. An article in the newspaper captured the
contrast well when it wrote: “Diana, tall, glamorous, rich and young, was a romantic figure who won the affections of first a prince and then finally a playboy. Mother Teresa was short and plain; purposefully poor, dressed always in a cheap cotton sari, and pledged to a man who died 2000 years ago.”
Now it’s very easy to understand why the British princess achieved such fame. She had all the qualities needed to fascinate us: wealth, youth, and stunning good looks. But how do we explain Mother Teresa’s appeal to a worldwide audience from heads of State, to people of all faiths and no faith, to the poor and to the powerful? She was old and frail, wrinkled and worn, a woman who vowed to be chaste and celibate, obedient and poor. She had been born to wealth, but chose to be poor.
And yet this tiny woman wielded more influence than many presidents, parliaments, and politicians who work hard to project a perfect image. Ironically, Mother Teresa never tried to project an image or to give a spin to what she did with carefully crafted words. Both she and her message were genuine, authentic and consistent. When she spoke, her words were not “tailored “ to suit the audience. She never watered down her opposition to abortion, doctor-assisted suicide, or contraception, in case anyone in her audience might take offence.
But neither did she ever insult, demean, or vilify those who disagreed with her. Her strong respect for all human life wouldn’t permit her to treat with disrespect those who did not share her convictions. Mother Teresa had the rare ability to promote a cause without alienating, and to disagree without demeaning or insulting.
On February 3, 1994, Mother Teresa addressed an audience of 4000 at the National Prayer Breakfast in our nation’s capital. The audience included President Clinton, Vice president Gore, their wives and many members of congress. She spoke plainly about the evils of drug abuse, abortion, violence and contraception. She spoke strongly in support of adoption and natural family planning. She spoke simple words to the leaders of the richest, most powerful nation in the world. She said, “The great destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of an innocent child, murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that a mother can even kill her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? By abortion the mother does not learn to love, but kills her child to solve her problems. And by abortion, the father is told that he does not have to take any responsibility at all for the child he has brought into the world…Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but uses violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion…We cannot solve all the problems in the world, but let us never bring in the worst problem of all, and that is to destroy love…The poor are very great people. They can teach us so many beautiful things.”
How did Mother Teresa get away with such plain speaking without offending or insulting? Perhaps it results from her being such an authentic advocate of the weak, the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable. She together with other Missionaries of Charity, the religious community founded by her, have taught the world the true meaning of compassion by their quest for the poor, the dying, the victims of AIDS, the unwanted children.
Compassion is from two Latin words that mean “to suffer with” and Mother Teresa shared the suffering of the poor, the world’s rejects. She and her followers lived in poverty even as they alleviated the poverty of others. They told desperate mothers considering abortion, “Come to us, please don’t destroy the child, we will take the child. Come to us we will take care of you, we will get a home for your child.” And even to hurting post abortive women she would say the same thing, “Come to us, we will take care of you, our good God is rich in love and mercy. He knows your pain, he knows your sorrow, and he forgives.”
One of the dying, abandoned, unfortunates she took from the slums of Calcutta to her home for the dying told Mother Teresa, “I have lived like an animal in the street, but I am going to die as an angel, loved and cared for. Sister, I am going home to God.” He died with dignity and a smile on his face.
With such practical love Mother Teresa answered with her life St. James’ rhetorical question, “Did not God choose those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom he promised to those who love Him?”
Pax et Bonum,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley