The first time I saw Mother Teresa was in the video for Michael Jackson’s 1988 number-one hit, “Man in the Mirror.” The song is a famous anthem of personal responsibility in a broken world, declaring, “If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change.” Amid disturbing images of violence, racism, and poverty, the video also shows flashes of hope in the faces of servant leaders, and among them the tenacious little woman we now call St. Teresa of Kolkata. Back then, everyone in the world agreed: A world with Mother Teresa in it was a better one.
But my own MTV days are long gone, and according to Patrick Kelly, Executive Producer of the new film Mother Teresa: No Greater Love, it is time “to tell Mother Teresa’s life story to a new generation.” Directed by David Naglieri and produced by the Knights of Columbus, No Greater Love is an inspiring, stylish film for today’s Church and for the wider world.
Naglieri puts Mother Teresa’s legacy first, beginning the film in modern-day Brazil and Kenya, showing the sisters hard at work, before backing up to 1910 to depict the childhood of Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu in a minority Albanian Catholic community in Skopje in modern day North Macedonia. That the future saint spent her earliest years as a “minority of a minority” in what was then a remote outpost of the Ottoman Empire is a significant detail about her life that many viewers may not have known. The film features interviews with some of Mother Teresa’s family members who all attest to her zeal for Christ and her desire to serve the poor from her earliest years.
No Greater Love’s depiction of Mother Teresa’s wholehearted ministry includes various testimonies from people in India about how she endeared herself to the people by learning Bengali, becoming an Indian citizen, and dressing in what became her order’s habit—a simple cotton sari worn only by the poorest women. In one scene, Bishop Barron speaks of the connection between Mother Teresa and her spiritual forbear Thérèse of Lisieux, and at various points in the film we see how the “little way” was the only way to make any progress amid the utter destitution of the streets of Kolkata. When pressed on questions of eradicating poverty through political means, Mother Teresa routinely deferred to others to worry about the big picture. She and her sisters simply did what they could, where they were.
Amid more footage of the Missionaries of Charity at work in the Bronx, Haiti, India, and again in Brazil, the film draws us into two areas of profound spiritual turmoil from Mother Teresa’s life. The first is her intense struggle in the late 1940s as she heard God’s “second calling” to leave the Loreto convent and embrace a life of street-level service to the poorest of the poor. Mother Teresa was finally released by her bishop in 1948, and the film makes affecting use of the letters she wrote to her spiritual director during this period of discernment.
The second struggle is the now well-known period of darkness and doubt that Mother Teresa experienced over the course of fifty years, even as she toiled in India and later travelled the globe as an ambassador for Christ. Years before the full scope of Mother Teresa’s spiritual struggles became known with the publication of her private writings, Come Be My Light, she admitted in interviews that doubt was normal. “We all have to go through it,” she told a reporter, describing the feeling of spiritual solitude as “a sign of purification and greater love.” The film includes a testimony from Catholic producer, director, and writer Jim Wahlberg, who describes how seeing Mother Teresa in prison helped him find the love of Christ after years of his own experience of spiritual abandonment.
The highlight of the film is its depiction of Mother Teresa as a cultural icon—a saint that the people of the twentieth century witnessed earning her heavenly crown in real time. Various commentators note in the film that she never sought publicity, but it came anyway, notably through the writing and broadcasting of Malcolm Muggeridge. In 1979, Mother Teresa stood on a global stage as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the film reminds us that she used her acceptance speech to advocate for the unborn, telling the world, “the greatest destroyer of peace today is the cry of the innocent unborn child. . . . The nations that have legalized abortion, they are the poorest nations.”
The scenes featuring Mother Teresa and her fellow twentieth-century saint, John Paul II, are delightful, providing a clearer picture of how the Church’s intellectual life and active service are always two sides of the same coin. Knowing that he had a great resource at his disposal, John Paul sent Mother Teresa where he could not go, and he asked her to do what she, not he, was equipped for. Mother Teresa went to the ends of the earth, but the scenes in which she cares for AIDS patients and drug-addicted mothers and babies in the First World teach us that the demands of charity are not confined to far-flung places.
Mother Teresa’s death came near the very end of the century of which she was a pivotal figure. As Jesus promised, the poor are still with us, but as No Greater Love demonstrates, everywhere Mother Teresa went, there remains even now brighter light and more hope. At her canonization in 2016, Pope Francis encouraged the faithful to “carry her smile in our hearts,” and the efforts of Naglieri and the Knights of Columbus will surely help share the legacy of Mother Teresa’s selfless joy with a world in as much need of it today as ever. Don’t miss Mother Teresa: No Greater Love.