Honouring Humanity- Mother Teresa, ‘a heroine of our time’

The ongoing global pandemic has highlighted the work of humanitarian organisations around the world. The United Nations estimates that 274 million people will require humanitarian assistance and protection in 2022. Throughout this year, we will celebrate the selfless acts of humanity by a select number of individuals while appreciating the ongoing work of thousands of humanitarian workers across the globe. 

Prevent and Alleviate Suffering

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is guided by four humanitarian principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. The first of the seven fundamental principles of the International Red Cross (IRC) and Red Crescent is also ‘Humanity’, as the organisation ‘endeavours – in its international and national capacities – to prevent and alleviate suffering wherever it may be found.’ The IRC is committed to protecting human life and health and ensuring that every human being is respected by promoting ‘mutual understanding, friendship, cooperation and lasting peace amongst all peoples.’

Martin Griffiths, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the United Nations has observed that the international humanitarian system is strong, and has risen to the challenges posed by pandemic, conflict and environmental change. Reflecting on the events of 2021 he paid tribute to the determination and innovation of national and international humanitarian workers in delivering much-needed aid. These sentiments were mirrored by United States First Lady Jill Biden who praised ‘the dedication shown by the doctors and nurses, educators and parents, first responders and all front-line and essential workers’.

A symbol of hope

Today’s humanitarian workers emulate the selfless service of individuals and organisations who have worked in the past to alleviate suffering and promote human welfare. Mother Teresa, for instance, became a ‘symbol of hope’ to many Indians: ‘the aged, the destitute, the unemployed, the diseased, the terminally ill, and those abandoned by their families.’

Anjezë Bojaxhiu was born in 1910 in Skopje, in what is now North Macedonia. She was the youngest child of an Albanian family, which she left at the age of 18 to join the Sisters of Loreto, a Roman Catholic community in Ireland. The Sisters of Loreto operated schools and colleges in India for young women, and Sister Teresa was drawn to the prospect of religious service in India. The following year she arrived in Darjeeling, India, where she commenced her religious training. When she took her first religious vows in 1931, she chose the name Teresa after the patron saint of missionaries.

Mother Teresa

Sister Teresa taught at a Loreto convent school in East Calcutta for almost twenty years, but her greater concern was for the poverty, famine and violence which she observed in Bengal. In 1946 she felt called ‘to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them’. She began wearing a simple white sari with a blue border, underwent basic medical training and began working in the slums of Calcutta. Sister Teresa founded a school and began her mission amongst ‘the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society’. She became a mother to those who were considered a burden to society.

Missionaries of Charity

In 1949 Mother Teresa was joined by a small group of young women, and the following year she founded what became the Missionaries of Charity. In 1952 she opened her first hospice where ‘people who lived like animals [could] die like angels’, followed by a hospice for those with leprosy and a centre for orphans and homeless young people. Further hospices, orphanages and houses for lepers were opened across India, and the work of the Missionaries of Charity spread to Venezuela, Italy, Tanzania and Austria in the 1960s. The Missionaries of Charity Brothers was established in 1963 and the Missionaries of Charity Fathers in 1984. Lay and non-Catholic missions were also established, as Mother Teresa’s mission spread to the United States, Africa, Asia and Europe.

Mother Teresa believed that her humanitarian calling was world-wide. In the 1980s and 1990s she travelled to help alleviate the suffering of the ‘poorest of the poor’ from war, famine, natural disaster and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. By 1996 her missions were based in more than 100 countries with staff numbering in the thousands and more than one million co-workers. Mother Teresa resigned from the Missionaries of Charity in March 1997, as her health was failing. She died in Calcutta in September 1997, and a former Secretary-General of the United Nations concluded that ‘She is the United Nations. She is peace in the world.’

Saint Teresa of Calcutta

Saint Teresa of Calcutta was canonised in 2015 and was made a co-patron saint of Calcutta in 2017. Pope Francis declared in 2015 that ‘Mother Teresa, in all aspects of her life, was a generous dispenser of divine mercy, making herself available for everyone through her welcome and defense of human life, those unborn and those abandoned and discarded.’

Saint Teresa was also honoured during her lifetime, including the highest civilian award in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was awarded by President Ronald Regan in 1985 to ‘a heroine of our time’.  The award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 recognised ‘her work for bringing help to suffering humanity. In accepting the award Mother Teresa made it clear that she was ‘very happy to receive it in the name of the hungry, of the naked, of the homeless, of the crippled, of the blind, of the leprous, of all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared, thrown away of the society, people who have become a burden to the society, and are ashamed by everybody.’

Author’s Profile:

Dr Aaron Fox is a New Zealand-based military and security intelligence historian. He trained as an historian at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, before directing medallic policy for the New Zealand Defence Force. He later worked as a senior local government manager, and as a specialist advisor to the renowned Weta/Te Papa exhibition ‘Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War’. His current projects include a biography of the notable New Zealand soldier and politician, Brigadier James Hargest.