Friday, October 5, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Mother Teresa at the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast

In the yearly Gallup poll of most admired men and women, Mother Teresa has no competition. The Roman Catholic nun was named to the top 10 list of most admired women 18 times, and Americans called her their most admired person of the 20th century.

She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, nearly 30 years after she established The Missionaries of Charity, a new religious order devoted to the care of the poor and sick. Mother Teresa was not without her critics, however, some of whom thought she lent respectability to dictators by accepting their donations, and who accused her of offering substandard medical care in her missions.

As she traveled around the world to speak on behalf of the order, her advantages as a spokeswoman included fluency in five languages. And as her Nobel Prize speech and many other talks demonstrate, she insisted on the relevancy of scripture in her speeches. She didn't use biblical verse and prayer as an adornment or an afterthought, but rather as specific and direct instructions to her listeners.

With a background like this, Mother Teresa was a natural choice for the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast, an annual gathering that has become a "must-do" event for the president and members of Congress. But her appearance at the 1994 Prayer Breakfast startled more than a few people. In a setting usually known for its nondenominational and inclusive feel, the nun didn't shy away from offering definite--and divisive--opinions on topics like abortion and wealthy citizens' responsibilities toward the poor.

Let's take a look at what made this speech memorable:
  • Seize your moment if you can. Remember as you watch this speech that it's 1994, and Mother Teresa is speaking in front of a staunchly pro-choice President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. That might not seem like the best time to call abortion "murder by the mother herself" and to say that "any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use violence to get what they want." But she doesn't pull her punches here. Instead of agreeing with her hosts, she takes advantage of the opportunity to speak her truth to the people she thinks need convincing the most.
  • Make sure you're a sight to see. This one's more of a "don't" than a "do," but it's a great example of why it's important to check out your speaking area ahead of time. Mother Teresa is mostly hidden behind the bank of microphones at the lectern. It's impossible to read her facial expressions, it's impossible for her to reach out to her audience with eye contact and of course it's just bad tv. Another "don't" in this situation: The microphones are at the same level as her text, and the loud rustling of the papers emphasizes her pauses. This has the effect of making her seem like a speaker who has lost her train of thought.
  • Carefully consider your jokes. Not every speech benefits from humor--that was my thought after listening to this speech for the first time. It seemed at the very least jarring that Mother Teresa would tell the story of how she compared a woman's cancer pain to kisses from Jesus. But it's her deadpan delivery of the woman's request--"Mother, please tell Jesus to stop kissing me"--that changed my mind. Most of the humor in this speech is self-deprecating, and it underscores how she also finds it difficult to do what is needed, even as she asks everyone else to try harder.
How do you feel about this famous speech? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

(Photo courtesy of the Vatican)