While the 20th century saw its share of influential figures who made a positive impact on society, it is difficult to think of many who are more praised or celebrated than Mother Theresa. Born 100 years ago today in what is now modern Macedonia, Mother Theresa was a nun of Albanian descent who worked to provide care to India’s poor, sick, and orphaned. Establishing a charity in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta), Theresa’s Indian charity ultimately expanded to hundreds of missions operating in 123 countries at the time of her death in 1997.
Though Theresa is a modern-day paragon of the Catholic Church, people of varied faiths in countries throughout the world are commemorating the birthday of this celebrated and sometimes controversial figure. While Pope Benedict XVI and nuns of the Missionaries of Charity, the order which she founded in 1950, held a special mass in Kolkata, a train named in her honor will undergo its maiden launch in India, and the Niagara Falls Peace Bridge, a sign of international friendship, will be lit in the blue and white colors synonymous with Theresa and her nuns, according to Zenit.
More than her tireless devotion to society’s often-ignored poor and downtrodden lower classes, Theresa’s fame stems arguably from the sheer numbers of lives she touched. India’s population, now the second largest in the world, has traditionally seen systemic poverty, traditionally concentrated in shanty towns and poorer districts the kind of which were recently highlighted in the Academy Award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. While Slumdog was an international success, it was Mother Theresa who first put a spotlight on poverty, forcing the international community to recognize and come to terms with a problem that had arguably been swept under the rug for generations.
Despite her international acclaim, which included a Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, along with being awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s top civilian honor, in 1980, Mother Theresa’s memory is not without controversy or detractors. Notable atheist debater Christopher Hitchens was perhaps the boldest and most unabashed of her critics, savaging the nun in his 1995 book The Missionary Position.
While it is tempting to dismiss Hitchens, he has pointed out little known details regarding Theresa’s work which at least give pause. According to Hitchens, Theresa seemed to suggest that the suffering of the poor had a positive influence on the world, implying that it was better for them to “accept their lot,” rather than for society to prevent poverty in the first place. Hitchens has also cast doubt on her miracles, leveling criticism against Theresa as recently as 2003.
Hitchens isn’t the only critic of Mother Theresa. with other critics including Susan Shields, a former nun who worked with Theresa in Kolkata. Shields claimed that donations obtained for the Mission weren’t properly used to benefit the poor, and kept secret from other nuns.
While hero worship is easy, the truth about any individual human being is typically more complicated than even the most concise histories would otherwise portray. Whatever imperfections or flaws Theresa may have had, society can make of her life’s work a symbol, an example, a model from which all people can learn and benefit.