St. Teresa of Calcutta: A True Servant Leader

As you may have likely heard in the news, we recently saw the canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. To clarify what this means: in Catholic tradition, ALL those who have died and are in heaven with God, are saints. This means that you and I, should we make it to heaven in the next life, will too then become a saint. So, as you can imagine, according to Church tradition, there are countless, albeit mostly unnamed, saints in heaven (with the lower-case S). When the Church declares, or canonizes, a specific person a Saint, it is merely the public acknowledgment that that person is now, without question, living in heaven with God. Further (and this is partly why the Church lifts up such individuals), he or she should be regarded as positive role model to live by. 

As is the case with Mother—now St. Teresa of Calcutta. Honestly, I cannot say that know a whole lot about the life of St. Teresa. However over the weekend I felt inspired to watch The Letters, a movie about her life that was just released last year (it is now streaming on Netflix). The title refers to a series of letters that Mother Teresa wrote to her spiritual advisor sharing her inner-most struggles and feelings of abandonment from God. The irony of course is that one would have never known this about Mother Teresa during the course of her life: she rose to the level of worldwide fame in spite of her efforts to constantly divert attention from herself personally, and draw it to the needs of the poor—and to the glory of God—both of which she served.  She regarded herself as nothing more than a servant.

This fact is most prominently revealed toward the end of the film, in which her spiritual advisor Fr. Celeste van Exem (played by Max von Sydow) expresses that she did not wish that her letters be made public, as she feared it would draw more attention to her and away from God and the needs of the poor. Despite her wish (born out of true humility), the letters, and the inner struggles they revealed, did become known as the cause for her canonization continued.

In the film, there is a scene when a reporter approaches her requesting an interview. Of course, Sr. Teresa declines, gesturing instead to the poor around her and telling him to report about them and their needs. I could not help cringe inside thinking to myself, “Doesn’t she get it? If she engages the reporter she’ll be able to call attention and support to her work!” But that was not her way, and who am I to judge?

That said, it reminded me of my time when I worked in capital fund raising. During some campaigns (which we managed for nonprofit organizations around the country, such as hospitals, schools and others), we would encounter the occasional big gift donor who wished to remain anonymous. While we respect the humility in such a request, we typically also discouraged it. In the case of charitable giving, the example that one named person could set, can be used as an inspiration for others to follow. In these circumstances, even as the Bible tells us to “…not make a show of it…” (Matthew 6:2), there is something to be said about doing so with humility and setting an example for others to follow. What’s amazing to me is how St. Teresa did both. While she did not toot her own horn, there were plenty of others so inspired to do that for her—and share her message and example of love and mercy.

The need for true servant leaders in our world today has never been greater. I am thankful that we have role models like St. Teresa of Calcutta to teach and inspire present and future generations on what true servant leadership. Honestly, our world depends upon it.

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