St. Mother Teresa and the Exaltation of the Cross

It’s hard to believe that people actually had/have the gall to criticize St. Teresa of Calcutta. I have to say that I don’t find any of the objections to be very convincing (but just the same, I’m planning to address them in a future blog post—watch this space!). A particularly serious attack leveled at our newest saint is that she was a mentally disturbed sadist: They say that St. Teresa believed that suffering was a good thing, something noble and invaluable, so, instead of opening hospitals, she opened hospices for the dying so they could embrace their suffering. They say that someone who tells a sufferer that “[s]uffering, pain, humiliation—this is the kiss of Jesus, [so let Jesus kiss you]” can only be crazy or evil.

The critics of St. [Mother] Teresa do not understand her—-more fundamentally, they do not understand Christianity, especially Catholicism! To be specific, they don’t get the idea of redemptive suffering, which is at the heart of our faith.

Christ Carrying the Cross 1580

Today, the Church celebrates the Exaltation of the Cross. The Feast is the acknowledgment of the victorious power of the Cross of Jesus Christ. It’s the opportunity to rejoice that Christ transformed an instrument of death into an instrument of life. He destroyed the power of death by taking it upon himself, and in the process, suffering became redemptive. He took the curse and made it a blessing, the means for salvation. Catholics believe that we can unite our suffering to the suffering of Christ on the Cross, and in doing so, our suffering becomes redemptive, capable of bringing about the salvation of souls. As St. Mother Teresa herself pointed out, “suffering in and of itself is useless,” and there’s nothing remotely good about it, “but suffering that is shared with the passion of Christ is a wonderful gift and a sign of love.”

So, St. Teresa, recognizing that the Cross of Christ is clothed in light, endowed with the power to save souls, saw that suffering, in its proper perspective, could serve a purpose. That doesn’t mean that she created opportunities for suffering, or for prolonging it. Suffering is part of the human reality. It comes to all of us without our asking for it. We should do all we can to alleviate suffering, and for crying out loud, didn’t St. Teresa of Calcutta to her best to alleviate it? If she said that the greatest suffering is the lack of love, and if she did her best to alleviate it by striving to love the poor and the unwanted (by caring for them, taking them out of the street where they would die alone), then doesn’t it follow that she saw physical suffering as something to be alleviated also?

All the Saint said, in keeping with 2000 years of Christianity, is simply, when suffering comes, suffering that is unavoidable, unable to be fully cured, see it as the opportunity of being one with Jesus Christ. I know that in my own life, understanding that my suffering could be used as a prayer, as a means to save people, gave me great consolation. It’s sure beats complaining. And of course, suffering is still difficult, and we must do everything we can to alleviate it. At the same time, we can share in his sufferings, wielding them as forces for good, as instruments of redemption. And then, as surely as Jesus was glorified and rose from the dead never to suffer or die again, we too will share in the victory.

The Church celebrates the Triumph of the Cross, and in her lifetime, St. Mother Teresa faithfully did the same.

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