Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa, or, as she is now known to Catholics, St Teresa of Calcutta. (As with her actual death, the anniversary seems to have been rather overshadowed by that of Princess Diana!)
Mother Teresa is best known for her work among the poorest of the poor, caring for “all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society” in the slums of Calcutta. By her death in 1997 the order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity, had grown from a 13-member Calcutta congregation to more than 4,000 sisters who managed orphanages, AIDS hospices and charity centres worldwide, caring for refugees, the blind, disabled, aged, alcoholics, the poor and homeless and victims of floods, epidemics and famine.
However, she was also praised (and fiercely criticised) for her staunch opposition to abortion. She spoke up for the unborn on the biggest stages imaginable, including when she accepted her Nobel Peace Prize. She didn’t let famous people off the hook either, keeping up correspondence over many years with Hilary Clinton to try and change her mind on abortion.
So, on this twentieth anniversary of her death, what lessons does Mother Teresa have for pro-lifers today?
1) Dare to speak out
Speaking out about abortion can be hard. It is such a controversial topic, and people’s reactions can be so extreme, that we can all feel the temptation to be quiet about our beliefs, or perhaps stick to more socially acceptable causes. Mother Teresa’s main work was with the poor and hungry, and I’m sure it would have been easier for her to stick to that work and enjoy the praise she received for it. But she didn’t. She used the platform her fame had won her to speak out for the most marginalised, the unborn. When accepting her Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she said:
“And I feel one thing I want to share with you all, the greatest destroyer of peace today is the cry of the innocent unborn child. For if a mother can murder her own child in her womb, what is left for you and for me to kill each other?”
She reiterated the sentiment at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C, on February 5, 1994, where guests included the then President Bill Clinton, and his wife Hilary.
“But I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself.”
Here, she stood in front of the most powerful people in America, if not the world, and dared to call out abortion for what is it – the killing of a child.
2) Reach out in love
However, Mother Teresa also reminds us that we must spread this truth with love. This quote is also taken from the prayer breakfast address:
“How do we persuade a woman not to have an abortion? As always, we must persuade her with love and we remind ourselves that love means to be willing to give until it hurts.”
While I’ve yet to encounter the pro-lifer of common stereotypes, who shouts “murderer!” at women seeking abortion, we can never be reminded too often that the only way to reach out to an abortion-minded woman is with love, and by offering support.
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3) Recognise the real difficulties
This also means recognising the very real situations that people find themselves in. Mother Teresa knew that keeping a baby often isn’t easy – love means to be willing to give until it hurts. Working with people in the most unimaginable circumstances, she knew better than anyone how difficult it can be, and that a baby changes the parents’ lives beyond recognition.”So, the mother who is thinking of abortion, should be helped to love, that is, to give until it hurts her plans, or her free time, to respect the life of her child. The father of that child, whoever he is, must also give until it hurts.”
4) Do your part
This recognition requires those of us fighting for the cause to give of ourselves. Mother Teresa told the assembled VIPs in Washington what she and her sisters did to put her pro-life rhetoric into action. “We are fighting abortion by adoption — by care of the mother and adoption for her baby. We have saved thousands of lives. We have sent word to the clinics, to the hospitals and police stations: ‘Please don’t destroy the child; we will take the child.’ So we always have someone tell the mothers in trouble: ‘Come, we will take care of you, we will get a home for your child.'”
We may not be able to personally care for mothers and babies to this extent, but we should all be willing to translate our beliefs into real action – we too must give until it hurts. This could be by volunteering, or by making it known to those around you that you would help them in any difficulty, or by lobbying your MP, or simply by speaking up for your beliefs. To use another famous quote from Mother Teresa, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”
5) The greatest destroyer of peace
Perhaps the greatest lesson Mother Teresa can give us is an understanding of just what it is we are fighting. Abortion doesn’t just kill babies and damage mothers, it affects the whole of society. It isn’t just those women and those babies that are affected, but all of us. Abortion certainly affects the fathers: “…that father is told that he does not have to take any responsibility at all for the child he has brought into the world. The father is likely to put other women into the same trouble. So abortion just leads to more abortion.” It also affects the entire country where abortion is permitted: “Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.”
There are many other causes worth fighting for, but we must never let ourselves be convinced that the pro-life fight is a side-issue, or one that affects only a small number of people. It’s not just that we care about babies, and also their mothers – we care about everyone. A final quote from the Washington address:
“Many people are very, very concerned with the children of India, with the children of Africa where quite a few die of hunger, and so on. Many people are also concerned about all the violence in this great country of the United States. These concerns are very good. But often these same people are not concerned with the millions who are being killed by the deliberate decision of their own mothers. And this is what is the greatest destroyer of peace today — abortion which brings people to such blindness.”