One of the mainstays of Mother Teresa’s spirituality was a willingness to suffer in the service of others, to share their material poverty and, as she eventually came to believe, Christ’s passion. But in the final decade of her life, ill health was added to her burden of suffering. Years of backbreaking work finally caught up with her, and her body began to give way.
She was diagnosed with heart problems as early as 1989, but refused to lighten her schedule of travel and work. Two years later, after an exhausting tour to the United States and Mexico, she collapsed the day after Christmas with a bad case of ﬂu that turned into pneumonia. While in the hospital, cardiologists discovered that she had serious arterial blockage and performed an angioplasty on her. Had she not undergone the procedure, she most likely would have died.
In February 1992, less than two months after her brush with death, she became ill again and was admitted to the hospital, this time in Rome. The following year she slipped on the wet floor of a bathroom and broke or bruised three of her ribs. Just three months later, she was hospitalized again, this time suffering a relapse of malaria which weakened her already damaged heart and lungs. Despite her age and weakness, cardiologists decided it was imperative to unblock yet another clogged artery.
In 1996, a year before her death, she fell on two different occasions, breaking her collarbone and spraining an ankle so badly that she was forced to use a wheelchair. That summer she was rushed back to the hospital with heart failure. Medical personnel were astounded when she rebounded enough to return to the motherhouse in Calcutta, but the last few months of her life were full of physical suffering.
Weakness, heart pain, breathlessness, and dizziness ﬁlled her days and nights. Toward the end, she also suffered from periods of confusion. She ﬁnally died on September 5, 1997, shortly after making her last public statement, a prayer for Princess Diana who had just been killed in an automobile accident in Paris. Teresa and Diana had been friends for years, and had last met one another just two months earlier.
Mother Teresa was a troublesome patient. She always balked at entering the hospital because of the cost of her treatment, insisting that her medical bills robbed the poor of badly needed funds. Once, she even tried to tiptoe out of a hospital to which she’d been admitted, prompting the matron on duty to caution the ward nurses to keep an eye on her lest she try to slip out again. Nor was Teresa punctilious in taking the medications prescribed for her, and she strongly resisted her doctors’ advice to curtail her activities and travel. She had always been diligent in the Lord’s work, never slacking or cutting corners. In the last few months of her life, when she sensed that time was short, she struggled to redouble her efforts.
But there was one burden she was entirely willing to lay aside: her role as the superior general of the Missionaries of Charity. It wasn’t just that she feared her increasing frailty would prevent her from satisfactorily performing her duties. She also believed she needed to step down so that she would have time to mentor whoever took her place. The order, she insisted, didn’t belong to her. Besides, according to its constitution, a superior general was eligible for only two consecutive two-year terms. The Vatican had repeatedly exempted Mother Teresa from this rule.
Once asked what job she could perform for the order if she stepped down from leading it, she replied, only half-jokingly, that she was a skilled bathroom cleaner. But her Sisters had no intention of handing her a mop and pail, and Mother Teresa, despite her protests that she was too ill and old, was reelected yet once more in the 1990 General Chapter. Fr. Van Exem, Teresa’s confessor, noted that the outcome pleased both the Sisters and Pope John Paul II. Teresa was considerably less pleased, but accepted the election’s result in obedience to God’s will. She was at last able to lay down the burden of leadership seven years later in January 1997, only seven months before her death. Sister Nirmala Joshi was elected her successor.
Immediately after her death, Teresa’s body was lovingly washed and dressed by her grieving Sisters. It was then transferred in an ambulance with the word “Mother” chalked on its windshield to St. Thomas Church. It was a church in which Loreto Sisters worshipped, a gracious homage to the order in which Teresa had served for two decades.
Long before she was officially canonized by Pope Francis, Teresa was applauded by millions as the “saint of the gutters” who had dedicated her life to alleviating the thirst of the Christs in distressing disguise throughout the world’s slums, ghettoes, hospitals, hospices, and orphanages. She had been a living saint who brought the light of Christ’s love to people who felt abandoned and unloved. What made her service even more remarkable was that for ﬁfty years she helped untold numbers of people ﬁnd God, even though she could no longer sense his presence in her own life. She accepted as her own the suffering and desolation of Our Lord’s passion in order to bring comfort to those most in need of love.
And as she promised, this self-described “saint of darkness” will continue to do so.