Ines Angeli Murzaku has studied and written for many years about the history of Catholicism in Eastern Europe. Her new book, titled Mother Teresa, Saint of the Peripheries and published recently by Paulist Press, is devoted to one of the best-known new saints in the Catholic world.
Dr. Murzaku recently spoke with CWR about Mother Teresa’s approach to missions and witness, her approach to living with spiritual darkness, her embrace of the “peripheries”, and her special connection with St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
CWR: Tell us about your background
Dr. Murzaku: I am a Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Director of the Catholic Studies Program and the Founding Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. I earned a doctorate of research from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, part of the Pontifical Gregorian University Consortium, and have held visiting positions at the Universities of Bologna and Calabria in Italy and University of Münster in Germany.
My book publications include (sole author or co-authored): Mother Teresa, Saint of the Peripheries (Paulist Press 2021); Life of St Neilos of Rossano (1004) (Dumbarton Oaks, Harvard University Press 2018); Italo-Greek Monasticism from St Neilos to Bessarion (Ashgate-Routledge 2018); Monasticism in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Republics (Routledge 2016); Monastic Tradition in Eastern Christianity and the Outside World: A Call for Dialogue (Peeters University of Leuven 2013); Returning Home to Rome? The Monks of Grottaferrata in Albania (Analekta Kryptopherres 2009); Quo Vadis Eastern Europe? Religion, State and Society after Communism (Longo University of Bologna 2009); and Catholicism, Culture and Conversion: The History of the Jesuits in Albania (1841-1946) (Orientalia Christiana Analecta, Pontifical Oriental Institute 2006).
I am a regular commentator to media outlets on religious matters and have worked for or collaborated with the Associated Press, CNN, Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Voice of America, Relevant Radio, The Catholic Thing, Crux, The Record, The Stream, Vatican Radio, and EWTN.
CWR: There is no shortage of books on Mother Teresa. What led you to write yours, and how does it stand out from some of the others?
Dr. Murzaku: Definitively not; actually, books on Mother abound. This includes popular-general public books, children’s books, spiritual books and the list can go on. However, there are not many scholarly and fewer theological books on Mother Teresa. By accident, I started this project. The spark and the first itch for the project came in 2016, the year of her canonization. My colleague Dr. Christopher Bellitto from Kean University and I were part of a CNN special on Mother Teresa, an extraordinary program, well researched and professionally put together, to celebrate the celebrated saint of the twentieth century. Since September 2016, researching and writing about Mother Teresa has been at the focus and center of my research. I felt that there was (as in fact still is) so much to be explored and analyzed about the woman from the Balkan peripheries who became Mother Teresa of Kolkata and from 2016 St. Mother Teresa of Kolkata.
It stands out as a book focusing on Mother, but this is a theological exploration of Mother’s life and mission; Mother is not seen as isolated but in intimate connection to others who shaped, prepared and impelled her for a mission in the faraway periphery of India. The book explores Mother’s mysticism in connection to that of other mystics including St. Francis of Assisi and St. Padre Pio, who shaped and trained Mother. Her feminine genius was to hold strong to the classics but also to mark her own novel mysticism al femminile.
Mother proposes novel theological, mystical missionary paths which she herself walked and on which she was incredibly successful. She was an active theologian, mystic and missionary.
CWR: This is a very different book from your scholarly work on Greek monasticism in southern Italy. What, if any, connections do you see between these books?
Dr. Murzaku: Yes, and no. Yes, because Mother Teresa is a twentieth-century saint, missionary, mystic. My books about Italo-Greek monasticism deal with Medieval monasticism and monastics, a very particular, extraordinarily austere and, dare I say, peripheral form of monasticism in Southern Italy.
However, I found Mother Teresa and her theology to be monastic. For example: in founding her new, periphery-bound order, Mother Teresa was revisiting the roots of Christian asceticism, keeping in mind the fleeing-the-world, ascetic principle. She was envisioning a place outside Calcutta, where the sisters would have a contemplative start in the order, which would prepare them for active, evangelical life. She was thinking of perfect and life-long-perfecting poverty, a poverty which for her was not a theological or academic abstraction but a living poverty: the most difficult part of applying the virtue of poverty. Poverty – besides being an ideal, a vow—should be a living reality and a guiding principle.
The two monastic giants and their Rules – St. Benedict of Norcia and St. Francis of Assisi and their respective Rules, -– coming from different centuries and contexts in the history of Christian monasticism, became the two pillars of St. Mother Teresa’s religious community and the Constitutions she wrote for the Missionaries of Charity. She did not see any contradiction between the Benedictine and Franciscan Rules, as some traditionally have presented them; instead, both rules regulating monastic life were complementary, a complementarity she made a foundation and enriched further. Mother and her Constitutions moved a step further in combining Benedictine and Franciscan charisms into a rich synthesis particularly suited to her time and place.
It might be safe to say that Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity picked up and completed where these two traditional and fundamental orders left off, and this is the order’s contribution to continuity and progress, while keeping faith with Scripture and the Benedictine and Franciscan traditions alike.
CWR: “Peripheries,” of course, is a word much on the lips of Pope Francis, with whom you begin your prologue, and conclude in your last chapter. Tell us a bit about the “theology of the periphery” and why the whole Church (and not just saints or popes!) must go to the peripheries.
Dr. Murzaku: The theological backbone of this book—where I place all the “actors,” with Mother being the main character—is based on the theology of peripheries of Pope Francis. What is the theology of peripheries? “Go out, head for the peripheries” – the leitmotif of Pope Francis’ pontificate. Since the very start of his papacy in March 2013, Francis has moved the Church from security to risk-taking, from inward looking to outward looking, from the center to society’s edges. There is, in fact, much convergence between St. Mother Teresa and Pope Francis regarding the periphery.
Rather than a purely geo-political or geo-economic construction, for Pope Francis and Mother Teresa the periphery refers to a multiplicity of peripheries: geographical, existential, mystical, biblical, moral, intellectual, religious, and extending in all of these cases to include the female periphery (the periphery al femminile). While recognizing that peripheries have a variety of meanings and connotations, this study explores periphery and center in concert, as one cannot be concerned with the peripheries and justify neglect of the center. Mother Teresa certainly did not.
As the study explains, her mission was to bring the periphery to the center and vice-versa. So, the center and periphery are explored not in opposition but in partnership. The study draws close parallels between Pope Francis’ and Mother Teresa’s theology of periphery. Both Francis and Teresa were centered in the periphery, and both served the Church from and in the geographic peripheries of Argentina and India, respectively. However, there is a “peripheral distinction” between the two: Mother Teresa’s geography of serving the Church went from the Balkan periphery – Scopje – to the Indian periphery, or a full-circle periphery. On the other hand, Francis moved from the Argentinian periphery to Rome – the center. Nevertheless, both Mother Teresa and Pope Francis equally brought the periphery to the center of world’s attention. They complemented each other.
CWR: I sometimes think of Dorothy Day in connection to Mother Teresa in that Day famously said she didn’t want to be called a saint for that domesticated and dismissed her too easily and allowed the poor, whom she served, to remain invisible behind her halo. Has there been any danger of our doing that to Mother Teresa?
Dr. Murzaku: In fact they met in 1970 when Dorothy Day visited Kolkata and spoke to the Missionaries of Charity novices. The two women had a lot in common in their radical response to the Gospel. As a society we need Mother Teresas and Dorothy Days – there is a thirst out there, especially among the millennials and Gen Z. I witness it among my students.
I’m not sure if there is damage done to Mother Teresa becoming St. Mother Teresa with a halo. As she herself said – “If I ever become a saint — I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven — to light the light of those in darkness on earth.” She promised to light the way and intercede for the people on earth. The poorest of the poor and the peripherals remained central to her even from above and behind the halo.
CWR: It seems to me that Mother Teresa has sometimes been glibly regarded (even before her death and canonization in some quarters) as impossibly heroic and holy, and the problems of poverty so complex and intractable, that we throw up our hands in despair, seeing no way of conquering either our own vices or poverty. And yet, as you show, despair is misplaced insofar as she is the saint of the small, daily “humble work,” our “little part” that advances our salvation. How did she, who was so widely and universally respected, not become self-important but maintain her focus on doing her little part each day with humility and love?
Dr. Murzaku: Self importance, publicity was not her thing; we can say she was a monastic at her best who had won over self. She was not interested in publicity and public speaking. Mother was also concerned that the time she spent in travel and public appearances meant time away from her religious congregation and her poor. Focus and perseverance were centrally important to her. She remained totally focused and persevered in things that mattered, adopting the “little way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, doing ordinary things with extraordinary love, and depending on God with a childlike trust. It was the little way that united Thérèse and Teresa.
CWR: As you so powerfully illustrate, especially in your fourth chapter, Mother Teresa’s life was not easy, her spirituality not glib or facile. For long periods she felt not blinded by a halo but instead by spiritual darkness. When stories of her long dark night of the soul broke in the media a few years ago, they generated a lot of attention. Why do you think that was? Are there lessons from that period of her life and those struggles we need to understand more deeply?
Dr. Murzaku: Oh, yes, definitively. Mother taught, even when she was going through darkness. Darkness was brought by God, so she had accepted it as a gift. Atypically, Mother’s darkness would remain until the time of her death, unlike the experience of other saints who suffered the dark night of the soul.
After forty-five years of trial and darkness, St. Paul of the Cross was able to find spiritual consolation – “from time to time only, the Lord granted him a short respite”1 – and especially during the five last years of his life, when he had an apparition of Our Lady of Sorrows, he seemed to have reached the beatitude of heaven. However, both St. Paul of the Cross and Mother Teresa, who through darkness achieved union with Christ, sought to lift up others or to open the way for others to union or divinization, and this is one of their commonalities, besides creating new religious orders—Mother Teresa, the Missionaries of Charity, and St. Paul of the Cross, the Passionists. Darkness led Mother Teresa to action and more service. Even in darkness she was going for magis – more actively helping world’s poor.
Darkness united her to Christ, to the poor, and to suffering humans who were working their way to redemption and divinization. As darkness increased, so did her thirst for God and the redemption of souls. Lesson taught: Her darkness was an active participation in the redemptive suffering of Christ. Moreover, her own darkness could bring light to others bearing the same burden. Maybe Christians need a more nuanced spirituality of darkness, as at some point in spiritual maturation many Christians might go through doubt and darkness, and they should know how to search for and discern light in the darkness. Mother Teresa’s spirituality can be an excellent guide in this element of Christian life: her faith had the force to turn darkness into light; with Mother, the sunshine of darkness was bright.
CWR: Mother Teresa moved from her native Albania to India, and both countries are marked by their religious diversity, with significant numbers of Muslims as well as Eastern Christians. (As you note, about 20% of Albanians in Mother’s homeland were Greek Orthodox.) Do you know of any significant interactions she may have had, or writings from her about, these groups?
Dr. Murzaku: Of course, the interactions were intense, daily among families, because of intermarriage – it was a “dialogue of life” that went on among these communities. She had no prejudice; she was a daughter of multiculturality and multi-religiosity, so going to India, learning the languages and cultures of her adopted country might not have been hard for her. She was trained in the Balkan laboratory.
CWR: It is 30 years ago this month, as you note that Mother Teresa was finally able, after the fall of communism in Albania, to open a Missionaries of Charity house in Tirana. How is her community faring today, both in Albania and elsewhere in the world?
Dr. Murzaku: Pretty well. It continues to be a vibrant order even after Mother’s death. In 2016, when Mother was canonized, there were 5,161 sisters and 416 brothers.
CWR: You make some comparisons between her and other hugely celebrated figures, including St. Francis of Assisi. Tell us a bit about some of the similarities you see between her and Il Poverello.
Dr. Murzaku: Yes, there is a lot of St. Francis in Mother Teresa although they lived under very different historical and theological circumstances and centuries apart. Spiritually, St. Mother Teresa and St. Francis of Assisi have many things in common, including family histories; holiness in littleness and dedication to the world’s peripheries; bridge-building and peace-building; the same “I thirst” for Jesus Crucified; striving to be Christ-like via imitating Christ; a religious life of combined contemplation and action; the veneration of Mary; and the suffering, which for St. Francis was visible and for St. Mother Teresa was invisible.
Both enjoyed grassroots saintly status well before the Church’s official canonization, founded religious orders for men and women, and shared their love for Lady Poverty and the Church of the poor. St. Mother Teresa and St. Francis of Assisi further both demonstrated complete dependency — both spiritual and material — on Divine Providence for the needs of their communities, with no worries about tomorrow but with a resolve to live in the present with complete trust in God.2 Both saints also shared the utmost care for society’s discards, peripherals, and sinners, which goes hand in hand with their love for the Creator and creation.
There is a mystical and “peripheral” connection between St. Mother Teresa and St. Francis. What did St. Francis of Assisi and St. Mother Teresa have in common? As I show in my book, they shared Parents and Family; Periphery of Prisoners and Lepers; Peace and Joy.
CWR: Sum up your hopes for this book, and tell us who especially should read it.
Dr. Murzaku: My hope for this book was to offer a new and theological interpretation of the life and mission of St. Mother Teresa, beginning from her roots in Scopje (North Macedonia) to India, her second home. It is an Easter book, with hope in the redemptive work of the Lord. It models Mother’s thirst for the love of Christ that every Christian should have. The student, scholar, the faithful – all will be able to find and construct their own devotion to “Mother Teresa.” I have mine…
CWR: Having finished this book, what are you at work on now?
Dr. Murzaku: Well, for several years I have been researching and writing on the Italo-Greeks/Italo-Albanians or Arbëreshë of Southern Italy. It is a fascinating piece of ecclesiastical Byzantine history and theology – how these Byzantine communities united with Rome but not “uniate” have survived under Latin bishops. The Eparchy of Lungro (Calabria) of the Italo-Albanians celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2019. I think this is a good occasion to reflect on the 100 years of the eparchy and to appreciate the connection of its establishment to the history of the Byzantine Church in Calabria and Sicily. I am excited about this project as there is very little written in English about this church and its tradition. In a way I will continue to use Pope Francis’ theology of the peripheries, because indeed the history of the Italo-Albanian church is peripheral and marginal to the history of the Byzantine Catholic Church.
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