Mother Teresa of the Missionaries of Charity was canonized a saint by Pope Francis yesterday in Rome. I remember her 1997 death and her later-revealed witness as a “saint of darkness,” which made her even more fascinating to me. (Bishop Barron has a short reflection on this.)
There’s this idea that the saints of any generation are likely to be the men and women who most contradict their own generation—who contradict its sense of what’s true about human life, about virtue, about life generally. In Mother Teresa we see the servant of the poor in India in the form of a woman who contradicts her era and place’s indifference to rampant human misery through simple human encounter. This was her witness to what we now call the developing world. But in Mother Teresa we also see her as a voice to the developed world in what the fullness of her witness to Western nations. Two examples of this witness that stand out are her 1979 Nobel Prize lecture and her 1994 National Prayer Breakfast address in Washington.
In 1979 she reflects on the simple way human encounter starts: “…let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love, and once we begin to love each other naturally we want to do something.” This reflection arrives after, however, an extended commentary where she three times comments on abortion as a gateway practice to the denial of human personhood:
I was surprised in the West to see so many young boys and girls given into drugs, and I tried to find out why – why is it like that, and the answer was: Because there is no one in the family to receive them. Father and mother are so busy they have no time. Young parents are in some institution and the child takes back to the street and gets involved in something. We are talking of peace. These are things that break peace, but I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a direct war, a direct killing – direct murder by the mother herself. And we read in the Scripture, for God says very clearly: Even if a mother could forget her child – I will not forget you – I have carved you in the palm of my hand. We are carved in the palm of His hand, so close to Him that unborn child has been carved in the hand of God. And that is what strikes me most, the beginning of that sentence, that even if a mother could forget something impossible – but even if she could forget – I will not forget you. And today the greatest means – the greatest destroyer of peace is abortion. And we who are standing here – our parents wanted us. We would not be here if our parents would do that to us. Our children, we want them, we love them, but what of the millions. Many people are very, very concerned with the children in India, with the children in Africa where quite a number die, maybe of malnutrition, of hunger and so on, but millions are dying deliberately by the will of the mother. And this is what is the greatest destroyer of peace today. Because if a mother can kill her own child – what is left for me to kill you and you kill me – there is nothing between. And this I appeal in India, I appeal everywhere: Let us bring the child back, and this year being the child’s year: What have we done for the child? At the beginning of the year I told, I spoke everywhere and I said: Let us make this year that we make every single child born, and unborn, wanted. And today is the end of the year, have we really made the children wanted? I will give you something terrifying. We are fighting abortion by adoption, we have saved thousands of lives, we have sent words to all the clinics, to the hospitals, police stations – please don’t destroy the child, we will take the child. So every hour of the day and night it is always somebody, we have quite a number of unwedded mothers – tell them come, we will take care of you, we will take the child from you, and we will get a home for the child. And we have a tremendous demand from families who have no children, that is the blessing of God for us.
In her later address at the National Prayer Breakfast, Mother Teresa echoes some of these thoughts while developing others further, addressing a crisis at the heart of Western affluence:
I can never forget the experience I had in visiting a home where they kept all these old parents of sons and daughters who had just put them into an institution and forgotten them—maybe. I saw that in that home these old people had everything—good food, comfortable place, television, everything, but everyone was looking toward the door. And I did not see a single one with a smile on the face. I turned to Sister and I asked: “Why do these people who have every comfort here, why are they all looking toward the door? Why are they not smiling?”
I am so used to seeing the smiles on our people, even the dying ones smile. And Sister said: “This is the way it is nearly every day. They are expecting, they are hoping that a son or daughter will come to visit them. They are hurt because they are forgotten.” And see, this neglect to love brings spiritual poverty. Maybe in our own family we have somebody who is feeling lonely, who is feeling sick, who is feeling worried. Are we there? Are we willing to give until it hurts in order to be with our families, or do we put our own interests first? These are the questions we must ask ourselves, especially as we begin this year of the family. We must remember that love begins at home and we must also remember that the future of humanity passes through the family.
In opposition to Western autonomy—where we can do what we want, right up until we put our parents (or we find ourselves put) in the old folks home, left to look toward the doors, Teresa offers the possibility of family as the place where we discover our humanity. Learning to live in love with those closest to us is presented as the best way to “practice” the sort of love that any humanitarian would need deeply embedded within himself before he could go out and offer it to the wider people of the world. Teresa’s critique of the West is that our obsession with autonomy requires a violence at the heart of our culture:
By abortion, the mother does not learn to love, but kills even her own 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. That father is likely to put other women into the same trouble. So abortion just leads to more abortion. Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.
It is in these insights that Mother Teresa so vividly emerges as the 20th century’s great counter-witness, great saintly contradictor of Margaret Sanger’s worship of autonomy at the expense of humanity.
When I pick up a person from the street, hungry, I give him a plate of rice, a piece of bread. But a person who is shut out, who feels unwanted, unloved, terrified, the person who has been thrown out of society —that spiritual poverty is much harder to overcome. And abortion, which often follows from contraception, brings a people to be spiritually poor, and that is the worst poverty and the most difficult to overcome.