Mother Teresa Practiced Forgiveness in Personal Tragedy. Christopher Hitchens Attacked Her for It.
Even while dealing with her own tragedy, Mother Teresa practiced forgiveness and exemplified Christ's love.
On Sunday, the Catholic Church will recognize the late Mother Teresa as a saint. So it might be shocking to learn that the late Christopher Hitchens claimed that she endorsed the atheistic regime of Albania’s communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled the county from 1944 until his death in 1985. He points to her laying a bouquet of flowers on his Hoxha’s grave when she first came to her homeland in 1989, her meetings with his widow Nexhmije Hoxha and with the dictator’s designated successor Ramiz Alia, who ruled Albania from 1985 to 1991. Was Hitchens right? Did Mother Theresa endorse one of the cruelest tyrants and enemies of Christianity in the twentieth century?
No. She forgave the dictator and the Albanian government. Forgiveness and hope, compassion and revival: this was what Mother Teresa was demonstrating in her visit to Albania.
Hoxha had kept her out of Albania and away from her close family for almost twenty years. The country’s isolation from the world was in full force. State control over citizens’ lives and the dictatorship of the proletariat and class struggle was complete.
Foreign diplomats and state dignitaries knew of her desire to visit Albania and meet her family. According to her brother, Lazër Bojaxhiu, she had asked for help from president John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, French president Charles de Gaulle and the King of Sweden, Gustaf VI Adolf.
Around 1965, Mother Teresa wrote the Albanian embassy in Rome, asking that her mother Drane Bojaxhiu be granted a visa to travel to Italy for medical treatment, accompanied by her sister Age Bojaxhiu. She explained that she had not seen her mother for over thirty years and this was probably the last chance to see and serve her aging mother. The state said no.
This was followed by a second attempt in 1968. Maurice Couve de Murville, the French foreign minister who knew her personally, presented her request to Javer Malo, Albanian ambassador in Paris. Mr. Malo informed Enver Hoxha that Mother Teresa’s issue had been brought to the attention of various Albanian embassies in the West over the past couple of years.
This time too, the response from Tirana (the capital of Albania) was negative. “The health conditions of Drane Bojaxhiu would not permit her to travel outside the country; the hospitals in Albania could provide the needed expertise and care; and that the son (Lazër) and daughter (Mother Teresa) who had chosen to leave the country should have thought about missing their mother before they left and abandoned her.”
The logic behind the government decision is as follows: If both Drane and Age Bojaxhiu were granted permission to travel, they would probably not return to Albania. The Bojaxhiu family had two members, Mother Teresa and Lazër, living outside Albania, and in the eyes of the socialist state had a “bad biography” and was not to be trusted.
Additionally, in 1967, Albania proclaimed itself the world’s only atheistic country and banned any form of religion. Religion was considered to be reactionary, backward, and an opium to the people. Religious women and men who had served in the country before the establishment of the Hoxha regime were either executed, imprisoned in labor or “re-education” camps, or expelled. Religion in general, and any personal religious leaning and activity, were severely persecuted. Mother Teresa, being a Catholic nun, was immediately classified as an enemy of the people.
Mother Teresa made another attempt, requesting a visa so she could visit Albania for a week. Hoxha and the Albanian authorities were unmovable and unmoved by Mother Teresa’s pleas to visit her mother and sister and by the pressure from foreign diplomats.
Mother Teresa suffered from the decisions. She accepted that her dream of seeing her mother and sister had vanished. In 1974, her mother died. Two years later, her sister died, at the age of 69. Their deaths and the inability to see them might have devastated Mother Teresa, but she kept it all to herself.
She did not make any public announcements or media appearances to express her discontent or revolt against the Albanian government. She never publicly criticized Hoxha. Mother Teresa believed that it was neither her calling nor her vocation to criticize governments. She was more interested in fighting against materialism and indifference.
Following Hoxha’s death in 1985, and the appointment of his close collaborator and designated successor, Ramiz Alia, the government followed a milder policy towards religion. By allowing a highly celebrated Catholic nun to visit the country, Alia wanted to signal a new direction for his country after almost half a century of severe dictatorship, one of the toughest in Eastern-bloc countries.
According to Bashkim Pitarka, who was Albania’s chief delegate to the United Nations, Alia was contemplating a possible appearance before the United Nations General Assembly with the focus of re-establishing diplomatic ties with the United States, which were officially broken in 1946. Moreover, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, had brought up the thorny issue of human rights violations and freedom of movement, especially the case of the celebrated Mother Teresa. According to Pitarka, de Cuéllar strongly encouraged Alia to end this mistake and allow Mother Teresa to visit her country.
Mindful of the situation in Albania and the long-time hostility towards granting entrance to Mother Teresa, Alia presented Mother Teresa’s visit as strictly “private.” Mother Teresa wanted to pay homage to the graves of her mother and sister and visit their home in Tirana. On August 26, 1989, Mother Teresa set foot for the first time in Albania. Nexhmije Hoxha, the dictator’s wife, was among the first Albanian officials to welcome Mother Teresa in Albania.
Besides paying homage and visiting the graves of her mother and sister, Mother Teresa put a bouquet of flowers and prayed at the grave of Enver Hoxha at the Nation’s Martyrs Cemetery. Mrs. Hoxha explained in a 2010 interview published in the Albanian daily Shekulli that Mother Teresa put her hands together in prayer and recited a prayer for the dead. Mrs. Hoxha added, “Mother Teresa was not angry, she did not hold grudges.”
It is true that Mother Teresa never publicly criticized Enver Hoxha, or any other government or institution. She knew what he and his government were like. She knew what it had done to her family and had experienced its persecution herself.
Why would she pray for Hoxha then? She did not consider her role as taking sides in politics or with or against governments. Her role was one God had given her. When he attacked her for laying flowers on the tyrant’s grave, Christopher Hitchens probably overlooked her religious conviction and Christian hope that “God has put good in the human heart.” Mother Teresa tried to find good in every person and in any state. Her particular calling was not to judge but to love.
Ines Murzaku is professor of ecclesiastical history at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. A native Albanian, she earned a doctorate from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. She has written many scholarly works, including studies of Albanian church history and eastern Christian monasticism. Her most recent book is Medieval Italo-Greek Monasticism from St. Neilos to Cardinal Bessarion (1000-1500), published by Harvard University Press.