Mother Teresa and her time
Agnes Bojaxhiu's origins were not in poverty. She was born into a Catholic family in Skopje in 1910. Her father, Nikola, was a prosperous building contractor. A generous and progressive man, he insisted on sending his daughters to school along with his son, and always left money to feed anyone who came to the door in his absence. The only Catholic member of Skopje's town council, he was probably poisoned for being a fervent Albanian nationalist. Despite the happiness of home life, Agnes would have been aware of the widespread violence and brutality of the Balkan territories in the early part of this century.
With her father's death, discussion of missionary activity replaced political debate in the household. Influenced by her mother, Drana, a local Jesuit priest and the magazine Catholic Missions, Agnes decided to devote her life to God. She chose the Loreto sisters, and arrived in Rathfarnham, Dublin, in 1928. Before the year was out, she found herself in India, shocked to the depths of her being by the indescribable poverty of her new environment. She spent nineteen years teaching Indian girls from middleclass families, specialising in geography, and became headmistress of the school. In those days, nuns rarely left the confines of the convent: to do so required special permission. A walk outside the convent through Calcutta in 1935 changed the focus of Agnes, now Mother Teresa, for ever.
In the destitute, the homeless, the insane, the dying pavement dwellers, Mother Teresa saw Christ, and she knew that, for her, Christ's work was to love these people. For this she had to leave the security of the Loreto convent and be with the poor of the streets.
The local bishop was not at all enamoured of the project. At this point in her life, Mother Teresa's single-mindedness and determination were born. She would not take no for an answer. Guided by a higher power, she fought the powerful male hierarchy with the same ruthlessness with which she shamelessly confronted many public leaders later in her life.
Released from the convent, Mother Teresa wandered the streets, doing what she could: cleaning, washing, looking after a sick child. One incident early on illustrates the single-mindedness with which she sought help for the poorest of the poor. Needing medicines for some of her patients, she visited a pharmacist who declined to supply them free of charge. She passed the rest of the day sitting in the pharmacy, saying the rosary. By closing time, the pharmacist relented and supplied her requisites on the house.
Her new order added to the usual three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience a fourth - to serve the poorest of the poor. Anne Sebba tells us that her sisters are taught how to bargain with travel agents before they learn any theological intricacies . All the Missionaries of Christ enjoy free air and rail travel today. But access to television and newspapers is avoided.
In the second part of her book, Anne Sebba attempts a study that will give Mother Teresa's spiritual imperatives a political, social and historical dimension. Based on the evidence of a small number of former workers, some with medical skill, Mother Teresa stands accused of dubious medical standards, and an obsession with articulating in public the Vatican's teaching on contraception and abortion at every opportunity. The author wonders why Mother Teresa did not use public opportunities, such as her address to the United Nations General Assembly, to challenge the world about the evil of structural sin. This is to misunderstand Mother Teresa's basic theological stance.
Charity, based on Matthew's gospel imperative that "what you do to the least of these you do to me", was enough for Mother Teresa and her missionaries. Her option for the poor does not demand transformative justice in the fashion of liberation theologies of the less developed world. Mother Teresa's theological and biblical understanding was both orthodox and traditional. Although she took on the hierarchy in the founding of a new order, she would never challenge the notion of an all-male priesthood. Her own theological formation in the 1930s and 1940s took place in the context of a rigid and unquestioning system of beliefs and practices. She was a woman of her times.
Gina Menzies is a scholar and critic