Award ceremony speech

Presentation Speech by Professor John Sanness, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee


Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has awarded the Peace Prize for 1979 to Mother Teresa.

The year 1979 has not been a year of peace: disputes and conflicts between nations, peoples, and ideologies have been conducted with all the accompanying extremes of inhumanity and cruelty. We have witnessed wars, the unrestrained use of violence, we have witnessed fanaticism hand in hand with cynicism, we have witnessed contempt for human life and dignity.

We are faced with new and overwhelming floods of refugees. Not without reason the word genocide has been on many lips. In many countries completely innocent people have been the victims of acts of terror. In this year, moreover, we recall the way in which an entire ethnic group was virtually exterminated in Europe only a generation ago. The Holocaust film series has shaken us, not only as an evil memory from our own not-too-distant past, and as we consider the world of 1979, not one of us can be certain that the like may not recur in the future.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has considered it right and appropriate, precisely in the year, in their choice of Mother Teresa, to remind the world of the words spoken by Fridtjof Nansen: “Love of one’s neighbour is realistic policy”.

As a description of Mother Teresa’s life’s work we might select the slogan that a previous Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Albert Schweitzer, adopted as the leitmotif for his own work: “Veneration for life”.

Over the years the Committee has frequently awarded Nobel’s Peace Prize to statesmen, men who have carried out their work under the conditions that obtain in our imperfect world. In the opinion of the Committee they had played a dominant role in bringing to an end wars that had already broken out, seeking peaceful solutions to conflicts, and in preventing fresh outbreaks of war.

The Committee has awarded the prize to idealists who explored avenues leading to a better world, in which war would be meaningless or inconceivable and where traditional statesmanship would be superfluous.

The prize has been awarded to individuals and organisations which, through international humanitarian work and cooperation, have been able to contribute to the brotherhood of nations that Alfred Nobel hoped that his Peace Prize would promote.

The prize has been awarded to scientists and organisations dedicated to the task of tackling and overcoming economic and social privation, not least hunger, which is yet another threat to brotherhood and peace. The Committee has awarded the Peace Prize to champions of equality and fraternity among peoples of different race in every country and in every part of the world.

It has awarded the prize to champions of human rights, of the individual man’s and woman’s claim to the protection of his or her integrity, body and soul, against the power of the State that is so often abused.

There are many paths we can and must pursue to reach our goals – brotherhood and peace.

In awarding Nobel’s Peace Prize for 1979 to Mother Teresa the Committee has posed a focal question that we encounter along all these paths: Can any political, social, or intellectual feat of engineering, on the international or on the national plane, however effective and rational, however idealistic and principled its protagonists may be, give us anything but a house built on a foundation of sand, unless the spirit of Mother Teresa inspires the builders and takes its dwelling in their building?

Mother Teresa was born into an Albanian Roman Catholic family in the Yugoslavian town of Skopje. She relates that at the age of twelve she felt a vocation to help the poor. A few years later she listened to accounts of conditions in Bengal, as related by missionaries, and decided there and then that she would work as a missionary in India. At the age of eighteen she joined the Irish Loreto order, whose sisters ran a mission station in Calcutta. From 1929 to 1946 she taught at the girls’ school run by the order in that city.

It was in 1946 that she applied for permission to go out and work among the poor in the slums of the city. She felt this to be a fresh vocation, a vocation within a vocation, as she herself has expressed it.

She had a glimpse of the poverty and squalor of the slums, of sick people who remained untended, of lonely men and women lying down to die on the pavement, of the thousands of orphaned children wandering around with no one to care for them.

It was among these people that she felt a call to work, and to spend the rest of her life, in daily contact with them. She left the sheltered world of the convent and the fashionable girls’ school behind her. Her plea to be allowed to go out into the slums and work there was granted. In 1948 she received permission to change from the uniform of the Loreto order to the customary cheap Indian sari. She started her work after an intensive course in nursing.

She was joined by a number of former pupils and other young women. In 1948 this little local community was recognised as a new, separate order, the Missionaries of Charity. In addition to the customary convent vows, a fourth promise, “to give wholehearted, free service to the very poorest”, was added.

Fifteen years later, in 1965, Mother Teresa’s order was recognised as a papal congregation under the protection of the Vatican. In the years that had elapsed the Missionaries of Charity had witnessed a growth that no one could have foreseen, and which was to continue. In time, more and more women, Indian as well as foreign, volunteered for this service, and were recruited into the order. It also received the support of an auxiliary organisation consisting of male lay helpers. Its activities include slum schools, homes for orphaned children, mobile clinics, leprosy centres, hostels for the dying, food kitchens, vocational training, and much else besides.

In recent years the order has extended its activities to cover twenty new countries, although the main emphasis is still on India and the neighbouring state of Bangladesh. To date, several million people have benefited from the social welfare and rescue work of the order.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee is delighted to note this impressive and steadily growing scope of the work undertaken by the order. It has not, however, attached decisive importance to statistical information: it has not compared such statistics with figures attributable to other organisations and institutions. Many of these have carried out work that merits the greatest respect. Nor has the Committee considered the relationship between private and public activity in the work of redressing and overcoming the physical privation and distress in the world.

The Committee has attached decisive importance to the spirit that has permeated this work. This has been Mother Teresa’s fundamental contribution to the order she has created and run. This it is that explains both why so many people should flock to join the order, and the interest and respect she has encountered throughout the world. This springs from Mother Teresa’s own fundamental attitude to life and her very special personality.

This is clearly and firmly rooted in her Christian faith. She received the first announcement of the award of the Peace Prize with these words: “I accept the prize in the name of the poor. The prize is the recognition of the poor World. Jesus said, ‘I am hungry, I am naked, I am homeless’. By serving the poor, I am serving Him”.

She is merely repeating what she has so often said before: “Actually we are touching Christ’s body in the poor. In the poor it is the hungry Christ that we are feeding, it is the naked Christ that we are clothing, it is the homeless Christ that we are giving shelter”. Or again: “When I wash that leper’s wounds, I feel I am nursing the Lord himself”. She sees Christ in every human being, and this in her eyes makes man sacred.

The hallmark of her work has been respect for the individual and the individual’s worth and dignity. The loneliest and the most wretched, the dying destitute, the abandoned lepers, have been received by her and her Sisters with warm compassion devoid of condescension, based on this reverence for Christ in Man.

Better than anyone else she has managed to put into practice the recognised fact that gifts given de haut en bas, where the recipient has a feeling of one-sided and humiliating dependence on the giver, may prove so hurtful to the recipient’s dignity as a human being, that it may well breed bitterness and animosity instead of harmony and peace.

She has arrived at an attitude to the relationship between donor and recipient which eliminates the generally accepted conceptual distinction. In her eyes the person who, in the accepted sense, is the recipient, is also the giver, and the one who gives most. Giving – giving something of oneself – is what confers real joy, and the person who is allowed to give is the one who receives the most precious gift. Where others see clients or customers, she sees fellow-workers, a relationship based not on the expectation of gratitude on the one part, but on mutual understanding and respect, and a warm human and enriching contact.

She and her Sisters regard their work as a cherished duty, and not as a burden. Many visitors have described their first impression of her homes for dying people brought in from the streets, or of the reception centres for outcast lepers. Their first impression is likely to be a harrowing one. But in next to no time they are carried away by the atmosphere of serenity and joy that the Sisters create around them. This is the life of Mother Teresa and her Sisters – a life of strict poverty and long days and nights of toil, a life that affords little room for other joys but the most precious.

A Norwegian poet, who did not share the religious creed of Mother Teresa, has written a poem containing an idea she would have no difficulty in recognising:

Life can offer one happiness,
That cannot be turned into grief:
Giving joy to another
Is a joy beyond belief.

There’s a sorrow that haunts the world,
And never a tear can abate,
But when you’ve realised the truth of this
It’s already, my friend, too late.

Who can stand all his life by a grave,
Weeping a bitter tear,
With so many hours in the day,
And so many days in the year?

No hour, no day, is lost for Mother Teresa’s Sisters in Calcutta; for them, these are all hours and days of joy.

Mother Teresa’s work is grounded in the Christian faith. She has worked among and for people who are not adherents of her religion; she has been a European among Indians, but this has proved no obstacle, and perhaps it would be more correct to say that the work carried out in her spirit has overcome all obstacles.

In 1972 the President of the Republic of India had these words to say about her:

“Mother Teresa is one of those liberated souls who have transcended all barriers presented by race, religion, and nationality. In our present- day troubled world, incessantly plagued by conflict and hatred, the life that is lived and the work that is carried out by people like Mother Teresa bring new hope for the future of mankind”.

An Indian journalist wrote recently that “the Sisters with their serene ways, their saris, their knowledge of local languages… have come to symbolise not only the best in Christian charity, but also the best in Indian culture and civilisation, from Buddah to Gandhi, the great saints, the seers, the great lovers of humanity with boundless compassion and consideration for the underprivileged: what Shakespeare called the quality of mercy”.

Mother Teresa has personally succeeded in bridging the gulf that exists between the rich nations and the poor nations. Her view of the dignity of man has built a bridge. Unencumbered and naturally she has crossed the gulf by means of this bridge. In India encounters of this kind between people have proved possible: they have been welcomed with open arms, and for this India, too, deserves our appreciation.

Her message has found an echo among people of a different faith: in their tradition, too, we find a groping for the same answers to questions that form part of our human existence.

With her message she is able to reach through to something innate in every humankind – if for no other purpose than to create a potential, a seed for good. If this were not the case, the world would be deprived of hope, and work for peace would have little meaning. It would, furthermore, be incompatible with Mother Teresa’s own view of human beings, the men and women she serves because she wishes to serve Christ and approach more closely to Him.

Mother Teresa once said: “In these twenty years of work among the people, I have come more and more to realise that it is being unwanted that is the worst disease that any human being can ever experience”. She believes that the worst disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody.

It was precisely people in this plight, the poorest of the poor, who were the very first to find warmth and shelter with Mother Teresa. Her intention was to ensure that they enjoyed the feeling of being received and recognised as people with their own human dignity and the right to respect.

Mother Teresa works in the world as she finds it, in the slums of Calcutta and other towns and cities. But she makes no distinction between poor and rich persons, between poor and rich countries. Politics have never been her concern, but economic, social, and political work with these same aims are in complete harmony with her own life’s work.

In our endeavours, on the national as on the international level, we have a lesson to learn from her work for individuals in distress. On the international level our efforts can only serve the cause of peace if they do not offend the self-respect of the poor nations. All aid given by the rich countries must be given in the spirit of Mother Teresa.

There would be no better way of describing the intentions that have motivated the decision of the Norwegian Nobel Committee than the comment of the President of the World Bank, Robert MacNamara, when he declared: “Mother Teresa deserves Nobel’s Peace Prize because she promotes peace in the most fundamental manner, by her confirmation of the inviolability of human dignity”.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1971-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Irwin Abrams, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1997

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1979

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