Since receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Mother Teresa has been a global symbol of mercy and charity embodied in the selfless worship of God. Her renown is likely to grow in the next year if the canonization process that commenced almost twenty years ago is completed. Following her death at eighty-seven in 1997, she was beatified. Pope John Paul II waived the normal five-year waiting period before a “cause” leading to canonization may commence, and allowed the process to begin in 1999. Already in 2000, Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim believers joined Catholics in Kolkata to pray for her canonization to proceed.
In 2002, John Paul recognized the first miracle associated with Mother Teresa: the disappearance of a large abdominal tumor from the body of a non-Christian Indian woman for whom the Missionaries of Charity, the order she founded, were praying. That led to Mother Teresa’s designation as “Blessed” in the following year.
At the beginning of December 2015, Holy Father Pope Francis recognized the second miracle required for Mother Teresa’s sainthood. The Italian Bishops’ Conference confirmed the news: The miracle involved a Brazilian man who awoke from a coma caused by a disease of the brain in 2008, and who recovered. The man’s wife had prayed to Mother Teresa. At the end of January, the Vatican confirmed that she will be canonized soon, but did not say when. Many hoped the event will come during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, which began on December 8. They were not disappointed. On March 14, Pope Francis announced that Mother Teresa would be canonized as a saint on September 4.
While living, saints are exemplary in their virtue and service to faith, but their inspiration continues after they die. This is not unique to Catholicism. Miracles caused by a saint’s intervention in worldly affairs after his or her death are recognized in all the monotheistic religions. Jews honor “wonder-working” rabbis. Orthodox Christians, like Catholics, have a calendar of saints. Muslims, especially spiritual Sufis, revere Islamic saints by visiting their tombs and praying toward them (though the Saudi Wahhabi sect of Islam, which prohibits any honors except to God, denounces these practices). In the Indian subcontinent, Hindus visit Muslim Sufi shrines to receive blessings.
For believers, affirmation of Mother Teresa’s activities and miracles will suffice for her sainthood. But in taking the full measure of her commitment to the divine, we should go further back in time, long before she won the admiration of the world starting in the 1960s. The details of her early life are little known, but they offer several clues as to why this humble nun turned into an international figure of faith and love.
Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu—“Gonxha” is the Albanian word for “rosebud,” pronounced Gondzha—was born in 1910 in Skopje, now the capital of the Slavic ex-Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, which was then under Ottoman political control. Her ancestry was rooted in Kosovo, of which the district of Skopje, while the Turks ruled it, was a part. Her father was a rich businessman and the most prominent Roman Catholic Albanian in the city. Though often described as Macedonian, she is claimed by Albanians as one of their own, since that was her family background. Albanians make up at least 25 percent of the Macedonian population.
The Balkan territory was a landscape of terror and would soon be devastated by war. For two decades, nationalist extremism against the Ottomans disrupted life in Macedonia. In 1912–1913, a Balkan alliance of Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro seized and partitioned most of the Ottoman possessions in Europe, with Serbia conquering Slavic Macedonia and Kosovo. The Serbian acquisition of those territories was confirmed after a brief, second Balkan conflict in 1913 between Bulgaria on one side and Serbia, Greece, Romania, and the Ottomans on the other.
In this geopolitical context, the Albanians were the most disadvantaged. They had no state until the end of 1912 when, taking advantage of the first Balkan war, Albania declared its independence. Their sovereignty brought no peace. Only weeks later, northern Albania was attacked by Montenegro, another of the aggressive Balkan allies, supported by Serbia.
Worse bloodshed came to the region in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I. In 1915, Serbia and Bulgaria fought again over Macedonia. The consequences of these campaigns in the Balkans were catastrophic, especially for civilians and smaller nationalities. Don Lush Gjergji, a Kosovar Albanian Catholic cleric and the Albanian biographer of Mother Teresa, has interviewed those who knew her as a child. They say she expressed interest in her vocation early on. While Mother Teresa seldom commented on her childhood, it was clear to them that in the midst of the chaos, she was searching for a more spiritual existence. Later, after her fame spread, Mother Teresa remained reticent about almost everything personal. All was dedicated to God. She was not to be the object of attention.
By 1928, Agnes had decided to commit herself to a religious life. She was inspired particularly by the stories of missionaries in India. She had also taken to visiting the Catholic shrine of the Black Madonna of Letnica in the mountains of Kosovo, and there she received her calling. She joined the Sisters of Loreto and traveled to Ireland to be educated for service in India. She worked mainly as a teacher at a Catholic girls’ school in Calcutta before she founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950.
India must have struck Mother Teresa as a different world, but in one sense, it was all too similar to her homeland. In both places, violent conflicts were commonplace, and hostile religious and ethnic communities abounded. Political tumult was what she knew as a child, and so the upheavals in India in the late 1940s and early 50s would not have shocked her. Indeed, she was wholly prepared to respond to them with religious solutions. Moreover, she went to India as a Christian—a representative of only 2.4 percent of India’s population today. In her status as a member of a minority, not much had changed: Catholics account for 10 percent of Albanians, and are the smallest major religious community in the Balkans, where they are far outnumbered by Orthodox Christians and Muslims.
In 1946, four years before she founded the Missionaries of Charity, Agnes Bojaxhiu watched Calcutta erupt in the fighting between Muslims and Hindus that led to the breakup of India, as the earlier Balkan Wars and World War I had shattered the place of her birth. Her sensitivity to the commitment of the Missionaries of Charity in India was demonstrated by her decision to adopt a white and blue sari, or traditional Indian women’s covering, as their uniform. The Indian-style dress was intended to minimize the difference between the Missionaries of Charity and those they served. Furthermore, the Missionaries of Charity refrained from proselytizing and pledged simply to demonstrate their love of the people for whom they cared.
The Missionaries of Charity are known for their hospices and other services to the starving, sick, and dying. Underlying their work is a principle of faith that Mother Teresa adhered to all her life: that religion resolves the wounds of a troubled society, whether on the Balkan Peninsula or the Indian subcontinent. She brought to a subcontinent riven by religious differences the example of the Albanians, who do not allow distinctions in faith to divide them. While the majority of Albanians are Muslim, members of all faiths have maintained an extraordinary national unity. Albanian Catholics have played a special, leading role in promoting literacy and culture. For that reason, Mother Teresa is more than the most famous Albanian of the last fifty years; she is also the most beloved representative of the Albanian nation, among Christians and Muslims alike.
Nearly all Albanians are loyal to her. In 2009, imam Shefqet Krasniqi, a prominent radical Muslim preacher in Kosovo, denounced her for not being Muslim. Using vulgar insults, Krasniqi said she had led a life of vice and was “deep” in hell. Krasniqi’s attacks brought forth a widespread backlash. Many defended Mother Teresa, regardless of their religion or lack of one. In the comments section of the Kosovo online daily Express, which covered Krasniqi’s hateful diatribes, Blerim Latifi, now an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Prishtina in the Kosovo capital, compared the imam to the Taliban and said, “What this man said about Mother Teresa is a national shame. Only a blind fanatic, who has lost the minimal capacity for reason, speaks in this manner.” A man named Vali, from the Kosovo border town of Gjilan, added the most dramatic possible statement: “If the Islamic authorities side with Shefqet I will leave Islam.”
The full canonization of Mother Teresa has a deep relevance for religious believers who were oppressed by Communist states, as Albania was from the end of World War II to the end of the Marxist dictatorship in 1990. Albanian Communism prohibited all forms of religious adherence and observance after 1967, proclaiming itself the “first atheist state in the world.” The leading Catholic intellectuals in Albania were ruthlessly suppressed, imprisoned, and murdered. Catholic and Orthodox churches, monasteries, and schools, Sunni mosques and madrassas, Sufi sepulchres—all were converted to secular use, some as sports facilities, others as movie houses, factories, and warehouses.
With the fall of Communism, Albania has experienced a kind of miracle. The harsh repression visited on its religious communities turned out not to have succeeded. Religious life had been nurtured underground, often in the face of the most extreme punishments. Pope John Paul II visited Albania in 1993 for one day, during which he reestablished the Catholic hierarchy by appointing bishops at the Cathedral of Shkodra in northern Albania, where Catholics are the probable majority. As a veteran of the Catholic cultural resistance to Communism in Poland, John Paul was especially sensitive to the plight of Albanian believers, as he demonstrated by his support for Mother Teresa’s cause.
In the quarter century since Communism collapsed, the Catholic Church has revived in all the European and Central Asian countries where it was formerly suppressed, except the Russia of Vladimir Putin, where it has no legal standing. Among Albanians, its rebirth is especially impressive, since it had been institutionally devastated. In Prishtina, a large cathedral dedicated to Mother Teresa has been erected close to the main square, and the writings of Catholic authors—including many chronicles of atrocities suffered in Communist prisons and labor camps—are available and read widely. Albanian Catholics are now petitioning for the beatification as martyrs of some dozens of clerics and teachers killed under the Communist regime.
The arc of Mother Teresa’s life enlarges the sanctity of her spiritual and humanitarian work. She proceeded from the Balkan microcosm to the Indian macrocosm and from there touched the world. She returned the concept of religious service to its most elementary and authentic sphere: that of direct love of others. Born into one political disorder and settling in another, she demonstrated that a Catholic—indeed, a member of a small and obscure minority Catholic community—could bridge the differences between all believers. She worked miracles in life and after her life. Her canonization will be an expression and continuation of her gift to the world.
Stephen Schwartz is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism.