Monday, May 28, 2007

Mother Teresa: The Power of Moral Authority

In our generation, no one has demonstrated the power of moral authority more than Mother Teresa. She embodied her vision. She never required anyone to do anything she had not already done herself. Skeptics threw rocks at her theology but never her character. And for that reason, the stone throwers always came off looking rather foolish.

Her vision was to establish an order of nuns whose sole purpose was to care for those who live in conditions unworthy of human dignity. In 1948 she cast her vision to the Vatican and two years later the Missionaries of Charity was officially sanctioned by the Church. Their charge was to seek out and care for the poor, abandoned, sick and dying.

Consistent with her vision, Mother Teresa chose the streets of Calcutta as her parish. It was there that she unintentionally carved for herself a reputation that would win the respect of the world.

In 1952 she and her Missionaries of Charity received permission from officials in Calcutta to use a section of an abandoned temple for their first enterprise: a home for the dying. Mother Teresa referred to it as Nirmal Hriday. Here, the poor of Calcutta who often died alone in the streets could find comfort and cleanliness in their final hours.

It didn’t take long for word to spread that a group of Catholic missionaries had taken up residence in their neighborhood. Hindu priest were uncomfortable with a missionary organization so close to their temple. They petitioned city authorities to relocate their hospice.

On one occasion, priests from the Kali Ghat Temple led a large delegation to the Nirmal Hriday and demanded that the missionaries leave immediately. It is reported that Mother Teresa came out and personally addressed the crowds with these words: “If you want to kill me, here I am! You can merely behead me but do not disturb my poor patients.”

Eventually an opportunity arose for the Missionaries of Charity to demonstrate the sincerity of their call and the purity of their motives to those who had eyed them suspiciously. It is an opportunity most would have missed.

It came to Mother Teresa’s attention that one of the Hindu priests was in the advanced stages of tuberculosis. Because his illness was untreatable, he had been denied a bed in the city hospital.

In an unprecedented gesture of kindness and grace, Mother Teresa brought the dying priest to Nirmal Hriday then she personally cared for him until the day he died. The Missionaries of Charity then carried the priest’s body back to the temple for Hindu rites.

This event captured the hearts of the people of Calcutta. Mother Teresa’s willingness to live out her message broke down the theological and cultural walls that separated her from the people she had come to serve.

Source: Andy Stanley, Visioneering (Sister’s Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 1999), 186-187.

Image: Mother Teresa.