MOTHER TERESA DIES
September 5, 1997
Mother Teresa, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and internationally renowned humanitarian, has died at the age of 87. After a brief background report, Phil Ponce and guests pay tribute to the woman whose name personified charity.
PHIL PONCE: Born of Albanian parents in 1910, Mother Teresa entered the convent at the age of 18. As a teacher in the mission schools in India's slums, she dedicated her life to helping society's poorest and sickest people. In 1950, she founded the Missionaries of Charity in an abandoned, rundown hostel in Calcutta. There, she was the mother superior, hence her name, Mother Teresa. The order grew to more than 4500 nuns in 111 countries. And Mother Teresa, herself, became a symbol around the world for compassion and comfort.
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DEMONSTRATORS: We want Mother! We want Mother!
An international figure, honored the world over.
PHIL PONCE: In South Africa, she visited children in the poverty-stricken schools of Cape Town. She met with Soviet leaders after the devastating earthquake in Armenia in 1988. Three years later, she flew over flood-ravaged Bangladesh, and just last May, she visited a hospice in Baltimore and was greeted by nuns from her order, which also ministers to the needy in this country. She met Princess Diana four times, and they shared an interest in helping the homeless and others in need. Mother Teresa had planned to hold a service for Diana in Calcutta on Saturday.
Mother Teresa became a prominent envoy for Pope John Paul II. She was a voice for conservative values, speaking out against abortion, contraception, and divorce. Her fight against poverty and disease earned her numerous awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
MOTHER TERESA: (1979) Let us all together thank. God for this beautiful occasion where we can all together proclaim the joy of spreading peace, the joy of loving one another, and the joy acknowledging that the poorest of the poor are our brothers and sisters.
PHIL PONCE: Six years later, Mother Teresa received the highest U.S. civilian award when President Ronald Reagan presented her with the presidential Medal of Freedom.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: (1985) Some very few people are in the truest sense citizens of the world. Mother Teresa is.
PHIL PONCE: In 1994, she met with President Clinton at a national prayer breakfast. And this year, Congress awarded her the Congressional Medal of Honor.
MOTHER TERESA: (June) The work for the poorest of the poor is so beautiful and attractive because it fills the heart with great joy and with great love. And the more we are in love with the poor, the closer we come to the heart of Jesus.
"The other day I dreamed that I was at the gates of heaven and St. Peter said, 'Go back to Earth. There are no slums up here.' "
PHIL PONCE: In recent years, she suffered heart attacks, bouts of malaria, and broken bones from several falls. But her sense of humor endured. She was recently quoted as saying, "The other day I dreamed that I was at the gates of heaven and St. Peter said, Go back to Earth. There are no slums up here.' "
PHIL PONCE: Late this afternoon the Vatican announced the Pope will say a Mass for Mother Teresa tomorrow at his private residence in South Side Rome.
Joining us now, Eileen Egan, an editor with a religious publication, The Catholic Worker, who knew Mother Teresa for more than 40 years. Her biography of Mother Teresa is called Such A Vision: Mother Teresa, the Spirit, and the Work. And Father Leo O'Donovan, president of Georgetown University.
Eileen Egan, there are many good people in the world, many people who work with the poor. What made Mother Teresa different?
Out of many, an exceptionally caring person.
EILEEN EGAN, Mother Teresa Biographer: I think it was her concern for the person not because the person was a leper or was lying in the gutter or needed food, was famished, but because that person was Christ in a distressing disguise.
PHIL PONCE: And she evidently had the ability to convey that concern to others?
EILEEN EGAN: Yes, she did. I went to Calcutta the first time in 55, and I had come from Europe, pockmarked with DP camps and refugee camps and broken cities, a war that had taken 50 million lives, and maimed countless others, and I saw this unknown, little woman, dressed in a rough sari, going out to this scourged city and picking up people covered with spittle, people famished, people near death, and bringing them to a place where she could give them just a human death. But she was giving it in such a way that made them realize that they were the repository of the divine.
PHIL PONCE: Father Leo O'Donovan, how do you describe what made her a singular person, again, lots of good people in the world, lots of people attempting to do good work.
FATHER LEO O'DONOVAN, President, Georgetown University: Well, Phil, I never had the great honor of spending time with her, as Eileen did. I admire your work very much, Eileen. But I don't think there's anybody in the second half of our century, probably in good measure as far as publicity goes, because of television, who didn't become aware of this small woman who was enormous. I think, to my mind, the most remarkable thing was how profoundly she loved God, but that love was inseparable from her love of all God's children, especially the poor and the suffering. And it radiated from her. And she was never distracted from it. And that, I think, was--became impossible to overlook and impossible not to respond to.
PHIL PONCE: So you're saying that it was her ability to radiate, to somehow convey that essence about her that sort of made her different from many other people who are also attempting to do good work?
FATHER LEO O'DONOVAN: Well, many people are--many people shine with the love of God, but she was unshadable, one just saw it everywhere in her and in the way she turned to people in such desperate need. I had been to Calcutta to visit her foundation there, and as a young priest teaching in New York, I became familiar with her sisters when the first convent opened in Harlem in 1971, the year I happened to start to teach in New York. More recently, I've become aware of the work because Georgetown University Hospital supports the wonderful Gift of Peace Home just across town in Northeast, which was opened in 1986 chiefly for AIDS patients but also for people who would otherwise not be cared for, suffering from terrible disease.
PHIL PONCE: Eileen Egan, Mother Teresa was seen by many people as a world figure, as somebody on the world stage. How did she see herself?
"She saw herself as a poor, ungifted person."
EILEEN EGAN: She saw herself as a poor, ungifted person, who just saw God in everyone. People were saying to her, what will happen when you go, what will happen to the work, and she'd say, "Wait till Mother Teresa dies. You'll find someone who'll do the work. I'm not important."
PHIL PONCE: You mean she thought of herself as ungifted, even after she won the Nobel Peace Prize?
EILEEN EGAN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. She was very, very humble. When I first saw her working in the home of the dying back in 55, I could see picking up someone who was dying and caring for that person as an emergency act, then going off to someone--something else. But she was doing it every day. And I said, Mother, how can you come back and do this day after day, every day of the year, and she said, "Each one to me is Jesus in a distressing disguise." She saw each one as the person to get attention at this moment. And she started her work by taking a man caught in the gutter in a wheelbarrow to the nearest hospital. And he was turned away. And then she took him then to this hostel that was dedicated to Kali, the Goddess of Destruction. But she thought that was ordinary. And her idea that each person was of infinite value, was utterly sacred, somehow shone from everything she did and said.
PHIL PONCE: Father O'Donovan, what is it about her--looking at her operating in the world arena, on the public stage--that would cause world leaders to open their doors to her?
FATHER LEO O'DONOVAN: I think the humility that Eileen mentions made room for such luminous love. And her sense of what she was about was so clear that, on the one hand, people felt a great presence, and on the other, they knew--she knew what she wanted and so many leaders don't, who are looking for a message, looking for a mission. She had a mission, a message, and she was so single-minded in turning to the poor. That's very compelling.
PHIL PONCE: You talk about her luminous qualities and yet, she had--she must have had some organizational savvy. I mean, her order has 4500 nuns operating in more than 111 countries and so forth. What were the sort of management skills, the real people skills that she must have had?
FATHER LEO O'DONOVAN: I think Eileen has certainly mentioned the first and last of them, which was her trust in providence. I think her sense of priority is as important for any manager as anything there is, and the fact that she treated everybody the same, Phil, nobody was more important to her than anyone else, except that you were most important if you were suffering. That undoes people and unlocks hearts. It also unlocks funds for her work. If everybody matters the same, because everybody's a child of God, then that's a different approach to life, which really levels--levels all sorts of prejudices, disinclination to help.
PHIL PONCE: Eileen Egan, was she aware of her media status, the fact that she drew attention wherever she went?
EILEEN EGAN: At first, she didn't want any. We invited her early on to come and talk to the National Council of Catholic Women, and she said, "I don't want to talk to people. I don't want to be on a platform." So she went to the archbishop of Calcutta, and he said, yes, you have to talk, you have to go. And she did it as a real sacrifice. Someone said to her, Mother Teresa, what is the greatest sacrifice that you are making and have made for the world, and in front of her were all the cameras and all the photographers and the newsmen, and she said, "This."
Not above criticism.
PHIL PONCE: Eileen Egan, she was not above--as with many public figures--she was not above criticism. Some people would criticize her for accepting money from controversial figures. How would she respond to any criticism that she might have received?
EILEEN EGAN: She, first of all, didn't answer criticism. You know, if it was there, it was there. She never defended herself. Yes, it's true; she accepted funds from people who later suffered in jail and so on, but she felt that to that extent that they were willing to help her, to help the lepers and the homeless and so on, that that was a good act.
PHIL PONCE: Father O'Donovan, she held very conservative views on issues such as abortion, contraception, divorce, and yet, she seemed to be able to transcend that particular--that particular approach and still have some appeal. Why was that?
FATHER LEO O'DONOVAN: Well, first of all, Phil, I'm not sure I'd call them conservative. I'd say they were--
PHIL PONCE: Some people might call them conservative.
FATHER LEO O'DONOVAN: Of course. I would say they were morally very serious. When you care for the whole of human life and for the least of God's children, you don't focus ever on one single issue, and so she could be passionate about those issues which she was, but she was passionate about peace wherever it could be found. This led her, of course, to oppose the Gulf War, very eloquently, one can well disagree with that. But there was a consistency in her commitment to the love of all human beings and peace among human beings that transcended any particular issue or argument, I would say.
PHIL PONCE: Father O'Donovan, Eileen Egan, thank you both.