The number one Catholic in the world, Pope John Paul II, called her “an icon of the Good Samaritan.” The number one atheist in the United States, Christopher Hitchens, called her “a religious fundamentalist, a political operative, [and] a primitive sermonizer.” Planned Parenthood called her a “very successful old and withered person, who doesn’t look in the least like a woman.”
That old and withered, primitive sermonizer was canonized as a saint on September 4, 2016, by Pope Francis.
During her lifetime, she was known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Today, she is known as Saint Teresa of Kolkata (the name of the city Calcutta, India, was changed to Kolkata in 2001).
You’ve probably heard of the Singing Nun. Mother Teresa was the Smiling Nun.
Susan Conroy was a 21-year-old American college student when she started working with Mother Teresa. She later wrote a book, Mother Teresa’s Lessons of Love and Secrets of Sanctity. In a recent article that was published in the National Catholic Register, “Willing Hands, Loving Heart,” Susan wrote about Mother Teresa’s joyful spirit:
Mother Teresa used to say that “a smile is the beginning of love.” A spirit of joy, as seen in a smile, was so important to Mother Teresa. She used to say, “We will never know just how much good a simple smile can do.”
Mother Teresa made it sound so easy! If you have hands and a heart, you can do it! There was actually one more thing you needed in order to help this saint serve the poorest of the poor: Besides a smile, you had to come with a spirit of cheerfulness. Mother Teresa explained that many of those whom she and the sisters served were physically or mentally ill; they were lepers, abandoned children, the dying and the lonely. She said that if we went to them with a sad face, we would only make them more depressed. So come with a smile! Come with joy!
She taught us that joy is half the gift we bring. “She gives most who gives with joy!”
To those who were suffering and dying, our smiles and good moods seemed so much more valuable and desirable than a dish of rice. While the rice fed their bodies, our spirit of cheerfulness and our smiles lifted their hearts and souls. I witnessed many times how our joy-filled presence could take their minds off their misery in a beautiful way.
Mother Teresa died on September 5, 1997. She was 87. After her death, TIME magazine published an article that provided a fascinating glimpse into the personal struggles that she went through during the time she was building the Missionaries of Charity into the greatest modern-day Catholic organization in the world.
According to Mother Teresa’s own personal journal, she experienced more than 45 years of torment and darkness. During those years, she continuously struggled with her faith and doubted that she was worthy of ever entering heaven.
How was Mother Teresa able to rise above her inner turmoil and accomplish so much during her lifetime? She revealed where her strength, perseverance, and resilience came from in a 1988 interview with TIME magazine’s New Delhi bureau chief, Edward Desmond. Here’s a sample of the questions that she answered:
Why have you been so successful? Jesus made himself the Bread of Life to give us life. That’s where we begin the day, with Mass. And we end the day with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I don’t think that I could do this work for even one week if I didn’t have four hours of prayer every day.
But you do not evangelize in the conventional sense of the term. I’m evangelizing by my works of love.
There are people who would say that it’s an illusion to think of the poor as joyous, that they must be given housing, raised up. The material is not the only thing that gives joy. Something greater than that, the deep sense of peace in the heart [is key]. They are content. That is the great difference between rich and poor.
Malcolm Muggeridge once said that if you had not become a sister and not found Christ’s love, you would be a very hard woman. Do you think that is true? I don’t know. I have no time to think about these things.
Are you ever afraid? No. I am only afraid of offending God. We are all human beings; that is our weakness, no? The devil would do anything to destroy us, to take us away from Jesus.
What is your greatest fear? I have Jesus; I have no fear.
What is your greatest disappointment? I do the will of God, no? In doing the will of God, there is no disappointment.
What are your plans for the future? I just take one day. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not come. We have only today to love Jesus.
In her “Willing Hands, Loving Heart” article, Susan Conroy concluded with this tribute to Mother Teresa:
We were filled with joy, filled with peace, filled with love. After conversing with Mother Teresa even for a brief visit, we could then go out into the worst slums and face the worst human suffering — and yet we couldn’t stop smiling. We couldn’t hold back the joy! We were spilling our love onto everyone we met.
One of the many special things about Mother Teresa was seeing how she treated each individual with whom she came in contact. When she lifted up a tiny newborn from a crib in the orphanage, that little baby became her whole world. All of her love, care and attention went into that one little life in her arms. When she interacted with a destitute man in the Home for the Dying, that poor and emaciated human being became her whole world; all of her love, respect and attention were poured into that one human life, as if no one else even existed.
Mother Teresa used to say, “One, one, one. Just begin, one human being at a time.”
Since the death of Mother Teresa in 1997, the number of religious sisters in the Missionaries of Charity has grown from approximately 1,000 to over 5,000. The number of religious houses has increased from 594 to 758. The Missionaries of Charity now has a presence in 139 countries.
Not bad for an old and withered, primitive sermonizer and the Divine Savior who inspired her. And she did it all with a spirit of cheerfulness and a smile on her face.
Saint Teresa of Kolkata, pray for us.