Fr. Robert Barron looks at the Cardinal virtues and illustrates how a Saint elevates these virtues through grace. Following my post on Dawn Eden and living a chaste life, I wanted to explore more about Temperance which is the virtue that chastity belongs to. The best way to show these virtues is to do what Fr. Barron does here – illustrate them through the life of a Saint. He uses Mother Teresa to show us an example of elevated Temperance.
About The Cardinal Virtues
Prudence is the virtue that oversees and governs the moral life, and justice is the heart and soul of ethical activity. Fortitude is the excellence that allows one to do the prudent thing in the face of external threats, most especially the prospect of death. The fourth and final cardinal virtue — temperance — is that which enables one to overcome obstacles to goodness coming from within the structure of one’s own subjectivity. As such, it orders and renders peaceful the soul, producing what Aquinas calls quies animi, serenity of spirit. Josef Pieper comments that temperance is an attention to the self, but for the sake of selflessness, whereas intemperance is an inattentiveness to the self, conducing to self-destruction.
Unlike the inner order of a plant or animal, human ordo is not simply a natural given but rather an achievement of intellect, will, and discipline: “the discipline of temperance defends one against all selfish perversion of the inner order through which alone the moral person exists and lives effectively.” The perversion in question has to do with excessive exercise of the drives for self-preservation: hunger, thirst, and sexual desire. Precisely because these are so strong and primal, they tend rather naturally toward excess and distortion.
Thomas Aquinas, borrowing from Aristotle, says that temperance concerns the ordering of the sense of touch, since all three of these elemental desires are related ultimately to that most basic and perfect of the senses. Because we want so passionately to touch, to satisfy our longings for food, drink, and sexual pleasure, we will become quite easily twisted away from right moral action. Temperance is the virtue that monitors and limits this tendency.
The first dimension of temperance that Aquinas analyzes is chastity, the ordering of the sexual desire. Because the very words chastity and temperance have puritanical overtones, at least to our ears, it is most important to note that there is not a hint of Manichaeism in Thomas’s approach to sex. He never tires of reminding us — over and against some fairly weighty intellectual authorities — that sex in itself is nothing but good. One of his more remarkable comments is that the sexual pleasure of Adam and Eve in paradise, prior to the fall, was greater than that which we heirs of original sin experience.
Pieper reflects Thomas’s view quite closely when he observes that “heresy and hyperasceticism are and always have been close neighbors.” Thus chastity is not a flight from sex but an ordering of sexual desire so as to place it in the higher context of self-forgetting love. An intriguing implication of chastity is a deepened appreciation for the beautiful, for it removes desire from preoccupation with the sexual. Pieper comments, “Unchaste lust has the tendency to relate the whole complex of the sensual world, and particularly of sensual beauty, to sexual pleasure exclusively.” The rightly ordered and disciplined self is thus far more capable of taking in the dense objectivity of the aesthetic.
Next, Aquinas examines the second major aspect of temperance, the ordering of the desire for food and drink. The basic purpose of abstinence and fasting is to free the soul for a readier contemplation of higher things and a more prompt exercise of moral virtue. Thomas Merton once observed that our desires for food and drink are something like little children in their persistence and tendency to dominate. Unless and until they are disciplined, they will skew the functions of the soul — including reason itself — according to their purposes.
Now what happens when this moral virtue is invaded and elevated by grace? Chastity becomes radicalized into what Aquinas calls “virginity,” the willingness not only to order sexual desire but to eschew sexual relations altogether so as to realize a supernatural end. In Thomas’s own language, “It [virginity] is made praiseworthy only by its end and purpose, to the extent that it aims to make him who practices it free for things divine.” The love of God has so seized a person that she is willing to give up permanently and definitively an activity that the naturally chaste person would only discipline, in order that she might be utterly available to God.
And when ordinary abstinence is invaded by the divine life, it becomes the radical asceticism of the desert fathers, of St. Benedict, St. Francis, and Charles de Foucault. Obviously, no one can sensibly abstain absolutely from food and drink as one might from sex, but one can press and push the natural disciplining of sensual desire into a radical form — once again, for the sake of loving and serving God more fully. In the strict sense, temperance is not in itself a realization of the good but rather the necessary prerequisite to that realization. This remains true in regard to elevated temperance. Neither celibacy nor radical asceticism is sought for its own sake. Were that the case, each would be at best a rather peculiar form of ascetical athleticism, a test of endurance. They are, in point of fact, conditiones sine qua non for the achievement of a love that seeks to imitate, however inadequately, the unlimited love of God.
The saint I have chosen to illumine this virtue of elevated temperance is Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I realize that this might strike my reader as a strange choice. In her utterly generous gift of self on behalf of the poor and the dying, Mother Teresa seems to be, even more than Katharine Drexel (whom Fr. Barron had used to illustrate the cardinal virtue of Justice), the paragon of elevated justice.
Let me observe first that the virtues are mutually implicative and interdependent. In fact Thomas feels that it is next to impossible to have any one virtue in its integrity and not to have the others concomitantly. Thus it is not surprising that we should notice elevated justice, as well as courage and prudence, in someone marked by elevated temperance. Second, in her own accounts of her life and work, Mother Teresa put a constant emphasis on the utter necessity of asceticism and celibacy as conditions for the work that she and her sisters undertook. This protective and ordering virtue was, in a word, indispensable to the effecting of the justice that was the far more visible dimension of the life of Mother Teresa.
Mother Teresa’s Birth and Early Years
Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born on August 26, 1910, in Skopje, Serbia, the youngest child of Nikola and Dranafile Bojaxhiu. Agnes’s father was a merchant and entrepreneur, trading in a variety of different goods and providing various services in Skopje, eventually becoming a prominent player in the town’s civic life. Her mother was a dedicated housewife and mother whose very traditional views of a woman’s role in the family would have a marked influence on her daughter. Nikola became involved in the political movement that eventually led to the independence of Albania from Serbia, and in the years just after World War I, he was active in bringing the province of Kosovo under the control of Albania.
In pursuit of this latter goal, one day he left with some friends to attend a political meeting in Belgrade. Though he departed in seemingly perfect health he returned desperately ill from an internal hemorrhage, possibly the result of poisoning. Emergency surgery proved fruitless, and he died at the age of forty-five, leaving his wife and family in rather severe economic straits. In this regard, Mother Teresa’s story comes quite close to Edith Stein’s.
After an initial period of intense grief and psychological disorientation, Drana, Agnes’s mother, gathered herself and stabilized her family both emotionally and financially. But she was well aware of the law of the gift. Drana insisted that their family table be open to the poor, both in her extended family and in the town. She also cared for an old woman who had been abandoned by her family and the six children of a destitute widow. Agnes øften accompanied her on these missions of mercy, taking in the lesson that her goods, however meager, were meant to be shared.
Her Call to the Religious Life
‘When she was twelve, Agnes felt called to the religious life, though she had never, to that point in her life, so much as laid eyes on a nun. A key player in the shaping of her vocation was a young Croatian Jesuit priest, Fr. Jambrekovic, who had become her parish priest in 1925. He introduced the young people of the town to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and their challenge to orient one’s life radically toward the service of Jesus. When Agnes asked him to help her discern her call, he responded in the Ignatian spirit that joy is the compass by which one should steer one’s life. Both of these themes, the totality of dedication and the primacy of joy in the spiritual life, would remain central to Agnes to her last day. But perhaps Fr. Jambrekovic’s greatest impact on the future Mother Teresa came from his contagious enthusiasm for the missionary work undertaken by the Jesuit order throughout the world — especially in Bengal.
Inspired by his stories, Agnes applied at the age of eighteen to join the Loreto Sisters, the Irish branch of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which had a strong missionary presence in India. After an initial interview, Agnes was recommended to the mother general of the order, who accepted her and sent her to begin a postulancy at Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, Ireland. There she commenced her study of English, the language in which she would operate, spiritually and practically, for the rest of her life, and there she endured her first of many culture shocks. But she had little time to adjust to her new environment, for she spent only six weeks in Ireland before setting sail for India. During her postulancy in Rathfarnham, Agnes took the name Sister Mary Teresa of the Child Jesus, devoting herself thereby to the recently canonized Therese of Lisieux. The spirituality of Therese — accepting one’s littleness before God, taking every moment as an opportunity for great love, being happily subject to the divine providence — would come to radically mark Mother Teresa.
Early Years in India
When she arrived in India, she was dazzled by its luxuriant natural beauty and shocked beyond words by its grinding poverty. Though she had associated with the poor in Skopje, nothing had prepared her for what she saw in India. We have this passage from the journal she kept at this time: “Many families live in the streets, along the city walls…Day and night they live out in the open on mats they have made from large palm leaves…They are virtually naked, wearing at best a ragged loincloth…. As we went along the street we chanced upon one family gathered around a dead relation, wrapped in worn red rags…It was a horrifying scene.” The conviction that service to such poor would necessarily involve a radical simplifying of her own life, a willingness to join them in their destitution, began to form in Sister Teresa’s mind.
After completing her novitiate in Darjeeling, Teresa made temporary vows and began teaching in the convent school there and working part time as an aide to the nursing staff at a small hospital. Here again she confronted the suffering face of India: “Many have come from a distance, walking for as much as three hours. What a state they are in! Their ears and feet are covered in sores. They have lumps and lesions on their backs. Many stay at home because they are too debilitated by tropical fever to come.”
Once a man arrived at the hospital with a bundle out of which protruded what appeared to be twigs. When Teresa looked more closely, she saw that they were the impossibly emaciated legs of a child, blind and on the point of death. The man told the young sister that if she didn’t take the boy, he would throw him to the jackals. Teresa’s journal takes up the story: “With much pity and love, I take the little one into my arms, and fold him in my apron. The child has found a second mother.” And then the passage from the Scripture dawned upon her: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matt. 18:5). This is the key to the mature practical spirituality of Mother Teresa: in serving the suffering and the poorest of the poor, one moves into the mystical ontology assumed by Matthew 25, the coinherence of Christ and the least of his brothers and sisters.
From Darjeeling, Teresa was sent to Loreto Entaly, a school run by the Loreto Sisters in Calcutta. It was thus that she came to the city that would be her home and base for the rest of her life, a city that would, in many ways, define her and her ministry. At first, she was relatively isolated from the worst of Calcutta’s poverty, teaching courses in geography and English behind the high walls of the boarding school, which served orphans and girls from broken homes. But in time she began to make her way to St. Teresa’s primary school, some distance from Loreto Entaly, and there she came face to face with truly dire poverty. She taught outside, drawing figures and letters in the dirt, or inside a kind of stable, and the filthiness and destitution of the children filled her with anguish. But she discovered that her identification with these poorest of the poor, her willingness to live where they lived and do what they were compelled to do, brought great consolation to them: “Oh God,” she wrote, “how easy it is to spread happiness in that place.”
On May 24, 1937, Sister Teresa took the formal religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience for life and thereby became, as was the Loreto custom, “Mother Teresa.” Throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, Mother Teresa worked at a furious pace, teaching, administering schools, visiting the sick, and making frequent forays into the poorest sections of Calcutta. Her frenetic activity led to a breakdown in her health, and her superiors decreed that she should spend three hours each afternoon resting in bed. When this did not prove sufficient, she was told to go on a kind of extended retreat, convalescing and praying at the hill station of Darjeeling where she had done her novitiate.
On September 10, 1946, while she was making her way on the dusty train to Darjeeling, Mother Teresa had an experience that would change her life. Though it is fair to say that Jesus had gotten into her boat many years before, when she accepted the call to religious life, on that train to Darjeeling he began to direct her life even more radically and completely. Though she would speak of it only sparingly, she specified that what she received during that train ride was “the call of God to be a Missionary of Charity” This was, she said, “the hidden treasure for me, for which I have sold all to purchase it. You remember in the Gospel, what the man did when he found the hidden treasure — he hid it. This is what I want to do for God.”
A New Order
When she got to Darjeeling, she commenced her formal retreat, and during that extended time of reflection and prayer, she received even more inspirations in regard to this new vocation. She scribbled down her thoughts on tiny slips of white paper, and when she returned to Calcutta, she gave these to Fr. Celeste Van Exem, a Belgian Jesuit priest who had become, somewhat against his will, her spiritual director. What he read on those bits of paper was an outline of the order that Mother Teresa would found: a new congregation dedicated to working in poverty and a spirit of joy with the poorest of the poor, free of any connection to hospitals, schools, or other institutions.
In a series of talks that Mother Teresa herself would give upon her return from Darjeeling, another defining dimension of the spirituality of her new order would become clear: thirst. In the narrative of the woman at the well, as we have seen, Jesus expresses his thirst in the presence of the Samaritan woman: “Give me a drink.” Mother Teresa interpreted this, along Augustinian lines, as God’s thirst for our faith and friendship. Accordingly, a principal work of her community would be to slake the thirst of Jesus for intimacy with human souls. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink” (John 7:37). All human beings are thirsty, ultimately, for friendship with God, and thus Mother Teresa determined that a major work of her new order would be facilitating that relationship. The two motifs perfectly dovetail in the passage in chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus explicitly identifies himself with those who suffer: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink” (v. 35). The human thirst for God becomes God’s thirst for our love. This multivalent theological meditation on thirst would be expressed later in every house established by Mother Teresa’s congregation, with an image of the crucified Jesus and, next to him, the words “I thirst.”
Despite all of this spiritual inspiration, insight, and energy, Fr. Van Exem urged Mother Teresa to wait and to test her call. They would pray over the matter until January of the following year, and only if at that time both were convinced that this new congregation was congruent with God’s will would they present the idea to Ferdinand Perier, the archbishop of Calcutta. When January came, both the young nun and the young priest were persuaded that God desired this undertaking, and they accordingly contacted Perier. The gruff archbishop, however, was not at all in agreement. There were, he argued, already a number of women’s orders taking care of the poor; furthermore, it was highly irregular and more than a little spiritually dangerous for a nun to leave her congregation; and finally, it seemed impolitic during a time of intense Indian nationalism to found another order headed by a European. These were, to be sure, serious objections, but the archbishop’s opposition was also a classic example of the kind of testing that is de rigueur in such situations: if she persevered despite all obstacles and pressures, her vocation might be from God.
For over a year, Mother Teresa and Fr. Van Exem exorted, cajoled, and demanded, and the archbishop remained adamant. When he fell seriously ill, Mother Teresa informed him that if he got better, she would take his recovery as a sign from God that she should move forward with her plan. He did recover but did not give in. Time and again, he impatiently rebuffed Van Exem when the Jesuit came to beg on Teresa’s behalf. Secretly, however, the archbishop was intrigued by the idea and impressed by this prayerful, stubborn young nun. He thus consulted with experts in canon law to determine the feasibility of her proposal. In early 1948, convinced that her call was genuine, Perier gave permission for Mother Teresa to petition for permission to leave her Loreto community — but he insisted that she apply not for exclaustration, which would allow her to remain under vows, but for secularization, which would effectively and finally cut her off from Loreto. Once again he was testing her, seeing whether she would be able to trust totally in God’s providence.
Rome Says Yes
In her simple, unaffected style, Mother Teresa wrote the cardinal in charge of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome, explaining her mission and asking permission to leave her community to commence this work among the poor. In April 1.948, a decree came from Rome, granting her a year to experiment with this new form of religious life, under the direction of Archbishop Perier. When Van Exem brought her the decree and explained it to her, Mother Teresa’s immediate response was “Father, can I go to the slums now?”
In preparation for leaving Loreto, Teresa bought three saris at a local bazaar: white garments, edged with blue stripes. They were the cheapest she could find, and the blue stripes appealed to hei, for blue is the color of the Virgin Mary. In time, of course, these would provide the model for the distinctive habit of the Missionaries of Charity. Under cover of night, so as to avoid a tearful leave-taking, she slipped away from the Loreto convent by taxi, holding only five rupees in her pocket and trusting utterly in God’s providence. She went first to the Holy Family Hospital in Patna, run by the Medical Mission Sisters, in order to acquire some basic medical know-how. After only a few weeks of instruction, she felt that she had sufficient training and was ready for her work. Returning to Calcutta, she began looking for suitable accommodations for herself and for those that would, she was convinced, eventually join her. Her first lodging was with the Little Sisters of the Poor, and from this small room she set out, on December 2, 1948, to work in the slum district of Motjhil.
A Home In the Slums For the Dying
Within a few weeks, she had established a school attended by dozens of children. Once more, she used the ground as a blackboard and sought to inculcate the rudiments of Bengali and English in her very young charges. When she had finished instructing the children for the day, she would take them with her on her rounds, visiting the sick and the destitute. Once she saw a woman lying on the street just outside a hospital that had refused her admittance. Mother Teresa petitioned on her behalf, but she was turned away, and the woman died on the open road. This experience convinced her to make a home for the dying, “a resting place,” as she put it, “for people going to heaven.”
These first several months of ministry in the slums were far from idyllic. Mother Teresa endured terrible bouts of loneliness, depression, and discouragement — and an accompanying desire to return to the relative stability and ease of Loreto. In her journal from this period, we find a powerful passage in which she recounts the struggle and the resolution: “Our Lord wants me to be a free nun covered with the poverty of the Cross… The poverty of the poor must be so hard for them. While looking for a home, I walked and walked till my arms and legs ached. I thought how much they must ache in body and soul, looking for a home, food and health. Then the comfort of Loreto came to tempt me.” The temptation was toward self-indulgence (curvatus in se), and the solution was a radicalized temperance conducing toward freedom.
As we have seen, courage holds off the threats to moral rectitude that come from without, and temperance battles those that come from within. Accordingly, both virtues are oriented toward freedom. The radical moral form that Mother Teresa chose required, she saw, an equally radical modality of temperance, the very destitution of the poor she served. Clothed in that “poverty of the Cross,” she could be a “free nun.”
In early 1949, with the help of Fr. Van Exem, Mother Teresa moved into a room on the second floor of a home in east Calcutta. The furnishings consisted of a bench, which served as a bookshelf, a cardboard box for a table, a single chair, and a green almirah which served as a small altar. When one of her former colleagues among the Little Sisters of the Poor came to inspect the place, she commented, “Well, you are sure to have Jesus with you. They cannot say that you left Loreto to become rich!”
The third floor of the. home was a single long room, and Mother Teresa immediately envisioned it as a dormitory for the girls who would, she was sure, in time come to join her. And they came soon enough. In March of 1949, Subhasini Das, a Bengali girl who had been one of Mother Teresa’s pupils at the convent school of Entaly, moved into the sparsely furnished room, and she was joined in April by Magdalen Gomes, another former student whose fierce patriotic feelings Mother Teresa had managed to channel into a fierce love for the poor. In May of that same year a sixteen-year-old girl, the future Sister Margaret Mary, was taken on as a “boarder.”
At this early stage, these four women did not constitute a religious order but simply — to use the formal canonical terminology — a group of “pious women living together.” But Mother Teresa moved rapidly to form them in the rudiments of the religious life, for her goal was from the beginning to found a congregation. Thus, she brought them to a local parish for training in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius, which had had such an impact on her when she was very young, and she began to shape them, practically and theoretically, for work among the poorest of the poor.
A Franciscan Love Of Poverty
All this time, Archbishop Perier was watching over the development of this group with a fatherly care, for he was technically Mother Teresa’s religious superior. He urged her to formulate, with the help of Fr. Van Exem, a rule of life for her new community, and this she did, scribbling down her wishes in a little yellow notebook. Though they drew heavily from the rule of Loreto, which in turn was indebted to the constitutions of the Jesuits, Mother Teresa added special features dealing with poverty. For example, she carefully stipulated that “Missionaries of Charity” would own none of the buildings from which and in which they served the poor. Though this particular regulation was eventually deemed impractical, given the exigencies of both ecclesial and civil law, there remained in the rule much of the spirit of St. Francis, li poverello.
As the community increased in size, the sisters embodied this Franciscan love of poverty with a vengeance. Mother Teresa insisted that in order to understand those whom they served, they must live like them, and therefore all that the first Missionaries of Charity possessed was “their cotton saris, some coarse underwear, a pair of sandals, the crucifix they wore pinned to their left shoulder, a rosary, an umbrella to protect them against the monsoon rains, a metal bucket for washing, and a very thin palliasse to serve as a bed.” Since they were utterly dependent upon the generosity of others — much like the earliest Dominicans and Franciscans — the Missionaries of Charity often had trouble procuring even these simple staples. Once, they were short of shoes, and one of the sisters had to wear an old pair with red stiletto heels; another time, a sister was compelled to wear a habit made out of material that had been used to store wheat, so that through the thin fabric of her sari, across her behind, the words “not for resale” were clearly visible! One winter, they were short of shawls, and some of the sisters had to wear their bedclothes to attend Midnight Mass.
And there was a kind of poverty built into the very rhythm of their day. During the week the sisters rose at 4:40 a.m., and on Sundays at 4:15 a.m. They washed their faces with water drawn with empty milk tins out of a common tank; they brushed their teeth in ashes taken from the kitchen stove; and they scrubbed their bodies and their clothes with a small bar of soap, which had been divided into six. Between 5:15 and 6:45, they meditated, prayed, and attended Mass.
Then they ate a very basic breakfast (though Mother Teresa stipulated that they drink plenty of water in order not to tire in the intense heat) and were on the streets doing their work by 7:45. Just after noon, they returned to the mother house for prayers and ate a meal consisting of five ladles of bulgur wheat and a few bits of meat, if meat was available. After housework, they rested, at Mother Teresa’s insistence, for a half an hour, and then they did spiritual reading for an hour before returning to their pastoral work in the slums. At six, they gathered again at the mother house for dinner — usually a collation of rice and vegetables — and next engaged in whatever tasks of cleaning and sewing were necessary before recreation, evening prayer, and bed by ten o’clock. Mother Teresa called for a poverty that went beyond mere physical hardship and deprivation.
One rather aristocratic newcomer to the order “found the toilet dirty one day and hid herself away in disgust. Mother Teresa happened to pass by without seeing the Sister. She immediately rolled up her sleeves and took out a broom and cleaned the toilet herself,” manifesting to the reluctant novice the kind of spiritual simplicity called for by the community. Another time, a young member of the group won a gold medal for her medical studies, “and Mother Teresa directed her to surrender it to the student who had come in second.” The hoarding of honors would be just as detrimental to their work as the hoarding of food and drink. An essential aspect of the temperance and poverty of the Missionaries of Charity was an utter confidence in the efficacy of divine providence — and an accompanying abandonment of self-reliance and self-disposition. Once, when the sisters were completely without food for the evening meal, they resolved to pray. Suddenly, a knock came to the door and there stood a woman carrying some bags of rice — just enough, it turned out, to feed the community that night. She told the sisters that some inexplicable impulse had brought her to them.
Ignatius’ Spirit of Detachment
A spirituality of detachment — which Mother Teresa had learned from the exercises of Ignatius — was inculcated at all times. The sisters were instructed to pray special prayers while they put on each article of clothing at the beginning of the day. While they donned their habit, they prayed that this distinctive garb would remind them of their separation from the world and its vanities: “Let the world be nothing to me and I nothing to the world.” ‘While they girded their waist, they prayed for the purity of the Virgin Mary: “surrounded and protected by that absolute poverty which crowned all you did for Jesus.” As they put on their sandals, they prayed that they might have the detachment to follow Jesus wherever he prompted them to go.
Further, they were compelled to be detached from their own will through a strict obedience. Despite her affability and kindness, Mother Teresa exhibited toward her sisters a toughness that outsiders sometimes found off-putting, or at the very least surprising. She consistently acted out of the conviction that obedience was “to be prompt, simple, blind, and cheerful,” precisely because Jesus was obedient unto death.
Now all of this might strike us as a bit exaggerated, an asceticism bordering on puritanism. But we must recall the radicality of the love to which Mother Teresa was calling herself and her followers. To will the good of the poorest of the poor, the most destitute and alone, the most physically repulsive and spiritually hopeless, required, she discerned, a radicalized temperance. Charity to an extreme degree necessitated a self-control and detachment that went far beyond the natural forms of those virtues. Because it is ordered most directly to God, love is in itself unlimited, and hence when love invades the soul, it causes the natural virtues to participate in its infinity And so what we have already seen in regard to courage, prudence, and justice, we now see in regard to temperance: a natural virtue supernaturalized, a moderate ethical habit rendered immoderate.
Missionaries of Charity Growth
For the first ten years of its existence from 1949 to 1959 — the Missionaries of Charity continued to grow, but its work was restricted, by canon law to the confines of the diocese of Calcutta. When the period of probation was over, Mother Teresa was eager to extend her work throughout India, and almost immediately she received invitations to establish houses in Ranchi, Delhi, Jhansi, and Bombay In 1965, almost twenty years after she had her first inspiration to establish an order to work among the poorest of the poor, Mother Teresa received word from Rome that the Missionaries of Charity had been formally named a society of pontifical right.
For the public announcement of the decree in Calcutta, chairs and benches had to be borrowed so as to accommodate the visiting dignitaries; Mother Teresa squatted on the ground as she listened to the declaration. Following the formal establishment of the order, the Missionaries of Charity spread with amazing rapidity around the world. In late 1965, responding to an invitation from a local bishop, the community opened a house in Venezuela, where they worked among the millions of baptized Catholics who had fallen away from the practice of the faith and into extreme material Poverty In 1968, at the Prompting of the pope himself, Mother Teresa set up a house in Rome, taking, she was proud to say, the poorest quarters ever occupied by the Missionaries of Charity. Later that same year, they opened houses in Tabora, Tanzania, and in Melbourne, Australia. By the end of the 1970s, there were Missionaries of Charity establishments on all six continents, and by the close of the 1990s, there were more than five hundred houses around the world. When she was asked how far her work would spread, Mother Teresa said, “If there are poor on the moon, we shall go there too.”
Although she could hardly supervise each convent personally, she determined, as far as was able, to monitor her followers’ exercise of the virtue of poverty. Again and again, she insisted that fundraising on behalf of her work was against her wishes. “I don’t want the work to become a business but to remain a work of love,” she wrote her sisters. “I want you to have that complete confidence that God won’t let us down.” When Terence Cardinal Cooke of New York offered to pay each of the Missionaries of Charity in his archdiocese five hundred dollars a month, she retorted, “Do you think, Your Eminence, that God is going to become bankrupt in New York?” And when, especially in Western countries, her sisters were offered gifts of labor-saving devices such as washing machines, she insisted that they accept nothing but a glass of water by way of hospitality, since that was all that the poor could offer.
Her Later Years
For the remaining years of her life, Mother Teresa, though based in Calcutta, would travel widely, visiting her numerous establishments, in this regard calling to mind the lifestyle of Katharine Drexel, whose active career was coming to an end just as Mother Teresa’s was beginning. Like Mother Drexel, she would try to travel in the simplest, least expensive way, sometimes sleeping in a luggage rack of a third-class train car. When she traveled by plane, her baggage would consist of a small paper package wrapped in string and marked “Mother Teresa.” She accepted a number of prestigious prizes and honors during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985, using these occasions to raise the consciousness of the world concerning the plight of the poor and the responsibility of the wealthy nations. When she was invited by President Bill Clinton to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994, she dismayed her host by speaking vigorously against abortion, a mode of state-sanctioned abuse that, she argued, disproportionately affects the poor.
Throughout the 1 990s Mother Teresa’s health gradually deteriorated, and her travels became less frequent. In 1990, she tried to hand over direction of her order, but she was compelled by her community to take back the reins of authority. Finally, in early 1997, she insisted that her bad health precluded her continuing as superior, and a general chapter of the Missionaries of Charity elected as superior Sister Nirmala, a Hindu convert who had joined Mother Teresa in the early days and who had been head of the contemplative branch of the Missionaries of Charity. This transition seemed to please Mother Teresa, assuring her of a measure of institutional continuity in the community to which she had given her life. Throughout 1997, her condition steadily worsened, and she died on September 5 at the age of eighty-seven.
When it was displayed for public viewing, Mother Teresa’s body was, of course, clothed in the habit of the Missionaries of Charity, but it was left shoeless, revealing her remarkably misshapen feet. For many people, those gnarled feet bore the most eloquent witness to the hard years that she spent on behalf of the poorest of the poor.