This film tells the story of Agnes Bojaxhiu, born in Skopje, Yugoslavia (now Macedonia) in 1910. Most people know her as Mother Teresa of Calcutta who cared for the poor, the sick, the unwanted, the unloved, the dying, and the uneducated, whom she found on the streets of Calcutta and gave them a place to stay during the course of their rehabilitation.
Mother Teresa - Wikimedia
Mother Teresa (played by Juliet Stevenson) corresponded for over 50 years with her spiritual director, Father Celeste van Exem, S.J. (Max von Sydow) and with Ferdinand Perier, Archbishop of Calcutta. This correspondence provided the material which made possible the several unknown facets of Mother Teresa’s life. The revelations in the correspondence will be dealt with later in this review.
Agnes knew early on that she wanted to be a nun, and so in 1928 when she was 18 years old, she joined the cloistered Sisters of Loreto in Ireland to learn English and to become a missionary. When she was sent to Calcutta, she loved teaching the privileged girls who received their education at the Abbey, but she was often disturbed at the poverty she saw from her window. Tension was high between the Muslims and Hindus as India was preparing for their independence in 1947. In the film, we witnessed authorities taking down the British flag and putting up the flag of India.
Juliet Stevenson - Wikimedia
Sister Teresa’s Desire to Work with the Poor
During that year, Sister Teresa spoke to her Mother Superior and confided her desire to leave her teaching position to serve the poor on the streets of Calcutta. Mother said “Our vocation is teaching young girls. You are a cloistered nun. We cannot make an exception for you and let you break your vows.” Sister Teresa answered “I love teaching. I love being a nun. I know that God loves these privileged girls, but He loves the poor too.” Mother Superior asked Sister Teresa to pray about it at her upcoming retreat. While traveling by train to Darjeeling for her retreat, Sister experienced a “call within a call,” as God spoke to her clearly about her decision to serve the poor. Her spiritual director, Fr. Van Exem related that she knew that this was God’s will for her; she had to do it.
Sister Teresa Writes to the Holy Father
She spoke again to Mother Superior who said she would speak to Archbishop Perier. She told the Archbishop that Sister Teresa was seeking “exclaustration,” that is, a return to the outside world after being released from her religious vows. Archbishop Perier suggested that she write to the Holy Father, but Sister Teresa had already done that. She had sent a letter to Pope Pius XII asking that she might be released from her vows, but she had not received an answer. She agreed to continue to pray and to wait for an answer from the Vatican.
Max von Sydow - Wikimedia
Permission is Granted
In 1948, the Vatican wrote to Sister Teresa informing her that the Holy Father had granted her exclaustration for one year or less. She would be under the authority of Archbishop Perier. The young girls whom she had been teaching were devastated as they loved their teacher and did not want to see her go.
Teresa Replaces Her Habit
As part of her training, Sister Teresa was sent to care for the poor in a hospital in Patna, India which was run by the Medical Mission Sisters. She was taught how to treat infections and apply gauzes. She became ill at the sight of it, but was told that she would get used to it. She replaced her traditional Loreto habit with a simple white cotton chira or sari because it was important to her to be accepted by the people. She was Mary Teresa now. She entered the slums with 5 rupees in her pocket, the equivalent of an American dollar.
The Hindus were Suspicious of Her
She went to the poorest, most wretched, parts of the city. She brought with her only an abundance of love in her heart and soul. Some adults were suspicious of her, thinking that she was taking food from their children and teaching them about her Christian God. They said “We do not want you here, we are Hindu. Don’t teach our children about your God. It is best that you go.” She answered “I may not be wanted here, but I am needed. I am not here to convert your children to our faith. I am here to serve you and give them a possibility for the future.”
Rutger Hauer - Wikimedia
A Change of Heart
One Hindu man in particular was against her. But when his wife was in labor with a breach baby, Mary Teresa was there and helped with the birth of his healthy baby. From that day, he was grateful and helped her in many ways. She gathered young orphan children around her and taught them their ABC’s. One of her students from the convent, Shubashini, came to help her although the student’s parents were against her living her life among the poor.
A Place to Live
Mary Teresa told her spiritual director, Father van Exem, that she needed a more permanent place to live. A Mr. Gomes offered her the upper floor of a building he owned. It was a luxurious accommodation, but Mary Teresa told him she needed very little furniture. She would bring in a bed and a chair and some crates. Father van Exem came to bless the house. Out in the streets, she treated the sick and the dying. The greatest suffering is to feel alone and unwanted. She alleviated their fears. Archbishop Perier gave her permission to continue for three more years.
Calcutta, India - Wikimedia
Her Students Want to Help
Two of Mary Teresa’s students at Loreto wanted to be nuns with Teresa and to work with the poor. They had been helping her after school. Mother Superior told them to talk it over with their parents; she did not approve. Mary Teresa learned that Mother Superior was afraid that she was a danger to the Loreto nuns and to the students. Ten had left to be with her; eight graduated before joining; two did not graduate. They stayed in Mr. Gomes upper floor also. Mother Superior felt that they had thrown away their education; she wanted them to join Loreto instead. She wanted to make sure that Mary Teresa would not get another extension and that she would be made to return to Loreto.
A New Hospice
Mary Teresa saw the need to create an official hospice when she saw a woman dying in the streets. She wanted a facility where destitute people would be allowed to die in dignity. A municipal official showed her an abandoned Hindu temple which was a center of worship for the Hindus. He would allow her to use that space. The Hindus in the area were appalled that the Christian woman would be using their old temple. They threw rocks at the door. They formed a riot outside the building until the official told them they would all have to leave or be arrested. Mary Teresa had her hospice.
The Missionaries of Charity Wikimedia
“The Missionaries of Charity” are a Reality
Mary Teresa spoke to Father van Exem. It was 100 years ago that the Vatican approved of a new order. She wanted to apply for permission to form a congregation. There were 12 girls staying with her, and they had nurses and doctors who came twice a week. She would have to show cause why a new order would be necessary. She wanted to name it “The Missionaries of Charity.” Mary Teresa received Vatican permission on October 7, 1950 to start the diocesan congregation that would become the Missionaries of Charity. It was then that she became Mother Teresa.
Although the media wished to interview Mother Teresa time and time again, she never wanted to speak to them about herself. They were never able to take her away from her work.
The Nobel Peace Prize
She was named as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1979. Mother Teresa gave a speech on that day in which she asked all to join her in the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. Her sisters said this same prayer every day after communion.
Death and Beatification of Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa died in 1997 and was beatified in a very short time on October 19, 2003, where she received the title “Blessed Mother Teresa.” In 2002, Pope John Paul II recognized the healing of an Indian woman who had a huge abdominal tumor which disappeared after the Missionaries of Charity had prayed for Mother Teresa’s intervention to cure the sick woman.
Pope John Paul II - Wikimedia
Mother Teresa’s Spiritual Darkness
Mother Teresa’s letters to and from her spiritual director, Father van Exem, and Archbishop Perier disclosed the state of her soul during her entire life as a religious. In the early months of her work in the streets of Calcutta, she experienced doubts about whether this was what God wanted from her, as well as a deep loneliness and the temptation to return to the comfort of convent life at Loreto. The darkness she felt began in 1948 when she started working with the poor. She felt that God had abandoned her and that God was not in her. No one knew about her feeling of isolation. This spiritual darkness grew. She was tireless and cheerful in her work, but inside there was a terrible emptiness. It was 28 years since she had seen her mother and sister. The Albanian government had refused permission for them to leave the country. Mother Teresa went back to Loreto and assured herself that she wanted to remain with the poor and to do God’s holy will.
The postulator for her beatification and canonization had to look closely at this facet of Mother Teresa’s life, her long-term feeling of abandonment by God. It was his conclusion that many people go through similar troubles and that they would be helped in the knowledge that Mother Teresa also suffered in this way. Mother Teresa had wanted her letters to be destroyed but Archbishop Perier felt that the darkness she experienced was essential to her vocation and that the letters she wrote were a testimony to her sainthood. God was using her nothingness to demonstrate His greatness.
St. Peter's Basilica in Rome - Wikimedia
A second miracle is required for the canonization of a saint. In December 2015, the Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis recognized another miracle which was attributed to Mother Teresa. He signed a decree declaring that the inexplicable 2008 recovery of a Brazilian man who suddenly woke from a coma with multiple brain tumors caused by a viral brain infection was due to the intercession of Mother Teresa after the man’s loved ones prayed to her to heal him. The Vatican has scheduled September 4, 2016 as the canonization date for Mother Teresa.
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