Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal
of your mind, that you may discern
what is the will of God, what is
good and pleasing and perfect.
While Mother Teresa was still alive, few who knew of her doubted that she would eventually be inducted into the canon of saints of the Catholic Church. The reality of her sanctity was self-evident in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy that she and her Missionaries of Charity, the religious order that she founded in 1950, performed among “the poorest of the poor” in Calcutta. The “controversies” in which she found herself embroiled while she was alive were themselves a symbol of her sanctity, because they arose entirely from her prophetic willingness to speak truth to power, particularly in defending the unborn when awarded the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize and at the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast, where President Bill Clinton and his wife remained seated while the rest of those in attendance gave the diminutive 84-year-old nun a standing ovation for a full five minutes.
Nineteen years after her death at the age of 87, Mother Teresa has in fact been elevated to the canon of the saints by Pope Francis, but by no means without controversy. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is vying for the presidency of the United States in her own right, and it is hard not to argue that history, as the saying so frequently uttered by those who know nothing of it goes, is on her side.
The memory of Mother Teresa has come under attack by an odd coalition of post-Christian and often even avowedly atheist liberals and certain radical Catholic traditionalists, who have exactly one thing in common: the certainty that the holy nun did not live up to their respective understandings of Christian virtue. The latter group is easily dismissed; they contend that Mother Teresa and her sisters were wrong to let their actions be their chief means of evangelism, to bind up physical wounds and let God handle the rest. The chief spokesman for the former group, beginning a few years before Mother Teresa’s death and continuing right up until his own, was the English journalist Christopher Hitchens, who numbered among Mother Teresa’s chief sins that she didn’t do (in his estimation) enough to heal those physical wounds, because “She said that suffering was a gift from God.” An earlier generation of English atheists would have been embarrassed to make such a charge, having been educated well enough to understand that this belief was not unique to Mother Teresa but is in fact central to both the theology and the soteriology of Christianity. Our salvation was earned by Christ through His Passion; and conforming our wills to His requires us to partake of His Passion by uniting our own suffering with it, both through the Sacrament of Baptism and through the trials and tribulations of everyday life that find their root in Adam’s sin:
We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:22-23).
When it emerged, a decade after her death, that Mother Teresa, from the moment of her founding of the Missionaries of Charity at the calling of Christ Himself, suffered “the dark night of the soul,” Hitchens and other critics called her a “hypocrite” who hoped to recruit the miserable masses of Calcutta to a God in Whom she no longer believed. Yet for nearly 50 years she was able to endure the most profound sense of loss, of abandonment, of the positive absence of God precisely because she had once had faith, the supernatural grace and theological virtue that Saint Paul describes in Hebrews 11:1 as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (emphasis mine). Her dark night of the soul did not mean that she had quit believing in her Lord and Savior; it meant that she no longer had the immediate apprehension of His reality that faith provides. (That Mother Teresa’s belief throughout that half-century was no different from the New Atheist caricature of faith as “blind”—that is, not supported by “empirical” evidence, where the definition of empirical is restricted to the material world—seems never to have occurred to Hitchens.)
The Lord had called her, and Mother Teresa knew that. He had told her what He wanted her to do, and she did it—even when she could no longer feel His presence. She lived far away from her homeland and her own family, among those whom even their countrymen would not touch; and the light of Christ shone through her to all those whom she helped, even as her own soul seemed untouched by that light. She had lost the consolation that faith provides, but she never lost the Way.
“Lord, you have called me; here I am.”
On the very day of Mother Teresa’s canonization in Rome, a young woman named Stephanie Baliga spoke those words in the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels, in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago. A crowd of hundreds had gathered to witness her final profession of vows as a perpetual member of the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago. They came from all walks of life, and from several states, but they had one thing in common: They had all been touched by the life of Sister Stephanie, by her infectious joy and her glowing faith, and by the work of these Franciscans among the poorest of the poor of Chicago. No part of Chicago compares with Calcutta; but if Chicago could be said to have its own Calcutta, West Humboldt Park would be it.
On December 1, 1958, the Catholic school at Our Lady of the Angels was the site of a terrible fire that claimed the lives of 92 schoolchildren and three nuns and led to the revision of fire codes across the country. (The doors to the gym, where the children and the nuns perished, had been locked from the outside.) The tragedy led to an even greater one: The entire neighborhood fell apart, as families, haunted by the ghosts of the past, found that they could not remain. By the time that Fr. Bob Lombardo, at the request of Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George, founded the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels in 2005, this area of the West Side of Chicago had been without any Catholic presence for years.
Even when one knows that Christ is calling him, it isn’t always clear where that call will lead. Peter and Andrew, James and John did not foresee the Cross of Christ, much less their own physical and spiritual martyrdom. Saint Francis of Assisi took Christ’s words literally—“Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins”—not knowing that his mission would extend far beyond the repair of a tiny chapel, indeed even to a destitute area of a city in a country that would not be founded until over half a millennium after his death. Established in 2010, exactly 800 years after the founding of the Franciscan order, the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago are an extraordinarily young, vibrant, and unfailingly orthodox religious community who continue Francis’s missionary legacy, bringing the Gospel of Christ and the sacraments of the Catholic Church to a neighborhood that everyone else has long forgotten.
Suffering is indeed a gift from God, and the call of Christ comes with its daily martyrdoms. Mother Teresa left home at the age of 18 to join the Sisters of Loreto in Ireland, and she never saw her mother and sister again. None of the young nuns of the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago are from West Humboldt Park (yet), but they have pledged their lives to the people there, with whom most would say they share little besides their common humanity. That has meant leaving behind friends and family and home; modern travel and technology cut both ways, easing the pain of separation and, sometimes, increasing it. And yet there is the consolation of knowing that one is doing God’s will; as Sister Stephanie revealed to those who had come to support her as she sets out on a path that most of them will never tread,
I have been blessed to have defined moments of affirmation of my vocation. The final and most definitive one occurred at the Easter Vigil in 2015. As I stood behind my own mom as she entered the Catholic Church and received Jesus in the Eucharist for the first time, I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of how this vocation is not about me, but about the Church of Jesus Christ.
This is the reality that most confounds people like Christopher Hitchens—but also far too often people like you and me, believers whose faith falls just short enough that we find ourselves wondering how a young Agnes or Stephanie can give up the human comforts of kith and kin and home to take up the Cross of Christ and to follow Him wherever He may lead. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23).
We have no trouble, of course, understanding the man who uproots his family to pursue a new job half a continent away for a 10 or 20 percent increase in pay. Should that same man decide to stay, we’re more likely to suspect him a fool, and perhaps a failure as a father and a husband, for not being able to “provide” as much as he could have. And should that same man make a similar move not out of economic considerations but for the purposes of better serving Christ and His Church (and his family through them), we’re likely simply to think of him as mad. The rewards of this world can be calculated; but the graces of the next are incalculable and thus, to our modern eyes, negligible.
Fr. Bob Lombardo, who accepted the call of Christ to rebuild His Church in West Humboldt Park and who drew Sister Stephanie and her fellow sisters to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the service of Christ and the poorest of the poor, once had the opportunity to say daily Mass for Mother Teresa and her Sisters of Charity. Eating with the sisters afterward, he sought Mother Teresa’s advice about something he thought he was being called to do. As the saint’s bright brown eyes bored into his, she simply replied, “Father, if you can discern even a portion of the will of God, you must do it.”
Would that we all had that kind of faith.