Mother Teresa and the fourth vow Dead at 87: Lived only to bring comfort to the abandoned poor and the dying.

September 07, 1997

FOR MILLIONS, she was a living saint, or at least proof that in the modern world one might yet live a saintly life. The message from her work with the poorest of the poor in Calcutta spread through the world across all boundaries of class, nationality and faith. The death of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, at 87, is near-universally mourned.

Nuns in the Catholic Church take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. For the Missionaries of Charity she founded in Calcutta in 1948, Mother Teresa added a fourth -- compassion. It was a vow to share the life of the poor and to work exclusively with the destitute, the abandoned, the orphaned, the misshapen, the plague-stricken, lepers, prisoners and prostitutes.

She began it in a pilgrim hostel at a Hindu temple but soon had centers all over India. Lest the world be smug, she found the need in Rome itself to put idle nuns and priests to work. She set up centers for drifters in Los Angeles and AIDS patients in New York.

Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, a tiny woman, was born Albanian in Skopje, now the capital of Macedonia. She had a vision in 1946, while teaching the daughters of the rich, that her home and work were with the poorest of the poor. Why? Call it selfish: "When I wash the leper's wounds, I feel I am nursing the Lord himself. Is it not a beautiful experience?"

Had she wallowed in others' poverty, she might have deserved the opprobrium that a few critics heaped on her. But she worked to improve their lives. She accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1979 ''in the name of the hungry, the naked, the homeless, of the crippled, of the blind, of the lepers, of all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.''

Other critics were offended by her Roman Catholic view that abortion, divorce, contraception and sex outside marriage are profoundly wrong. Guilty as charged. There was no more ardent or effective spokesman for those views.

In 1982, she persuaded Israeli soldiers and Palestinian guerrillas in Beirut to stop shooting until she led 37 retarded children to safety. When she had done so, they resumed shooting. She was merely one small and frail old woman who did more than almost anyone, but did not work miracles.

Once after recovering from illness, she suggested that God would not let her die because there are no poor to be attended in heaven. There are plenty down here. Her radiant influence will continue to make life better for many.

Pub Date: 9/07/97

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