ST TERESA OF KOLKATA (CALCUTTA) (1910-1997)
Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhjiu later to become known to the world as Mother Teresa, was born in 1910 in Macedonia of Albanian parents and had one brother and one sister. Her father died while she was still young and the mother struggled to bring up the family on her own. Yet she was able to give food to the poor and her example had a big influence on her daughter. At the age of twelve, Agnes left home to go to Ireland to join the Loreto Sisters. She never forgot the parting advice of her dear mother, “Put your hand in His (Jesus) hand, and walk along with Him. Walk ahead, because if you look back you will go back”.
After some months, she headed for India to continue her religious formation and become a teacher. She chose the name Teresa because of her love and admiration for St. Therese of the Child Jesus. After many happy years as a teacher and principal in Catholic schools, she felt a very strong call from the Lord to leave her Congregation which she loved very much, and found the Missionaries of Charity to love and serve the poorest of the poor.
Many people can still recall pictures in the media of this tiny, smiling nun, gently picking up abandoned children and poor, dying adults from the streets of city slums. She would bring then them to her simple, rudimentary shelters to wash, clothe and feed them and to lavish love upon them. She saw this work as doing “something beautiful for God” and enabling people who had “lived like animals to die like angels”. She recognized their God-given human dignity and their right to be loved and cared for, even if they did not have so-called quality of life. She said, “The poor honour us by allowing us to serve them”.
St. Teresa of Kolkata who is still more familiarly known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, like so many people around the world, was greatly influenced by St. John Paul 11. She met him on a number of occasions and he was always happy to give her his blessing and support. She always felt encouraged and strengthened by his teaching on the central role of love in human life, and the great need in today’s world to defend and protect the life of every human being from conception until natural death.
Created to Love and Be Loved
Mother Teresa just like St. John Paul II, saw love as the true vocation of every person, the secret of a good, happy and contented life. In her vocation to love she was also deeply influenced by her patron, St. Therese of the Child Jesus, who became a great saint by living out God’s call to love, in her ordinary everyday life as a Carmelite nun. She tells us that she saw love as her vocation, “In the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be love”.
Mother Teresa never tired of speaking about love and of living out the great commandment of love in all her activities. Here are some of her sayings: “Every human being is a child of God, created to love and to be loved”. “All people are the same, all are hungry for love; being unwanted is the worst disease of all”. “There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread, but there are many more dying for a little love”. “Don’t look for big things, just do small things with great love”. “Each of us has a mission to fulfil, a mission of love”.
She spoke of the lack of love in the rich countries, “In the developed countries there is a poverty of intimacy, loneliness, lack of love. There is no greater sickness in the world today than these”. She stressed especially the need for love in the family “I think today the world is upside down because there is so little love in the home and in family life. We have no time for our children. We have no time for each other”. “We must love those who are nearest to us in our own family. From there love spreads towards whoever may need us”.
She echoes the language of St. John Paul II when she says “What matters is the gift of yourself, the degree of love you put into each one of your actions.” But how do we put all this into practice? Mother Teresa answers by pointing us towards God’s love for us. That is where it all begins. God loves us with an infinite love, having created us out of pure love so that we might love him and love one another in return. All people want to know and to feel deep in their hearts, that they are loved by God, that he is actually in love with them, and that with his help they can then turn their lives around. Mother Teresa writes “God loves us; let us love him in return by loving the poor”. “God is in love with us and keeps using you and me to light the light of love in the world”. “When you know how much God is in love with you, then you can only live your life radiating that love”.
Love and Protect Human Life
Mother Teresa had great compassion for people who were unwanted, whether it was the poor and abandoned on the streets, or the innocent baby in its mother’s womb. She was never afraid to speak out publicly and fearlessly on the burning issue of abortion. She saw it as the greatest single enemy of peace in the world and as undermining civilization. On receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 in Oslo, Norway, she addressed the distinguished audience of eight hundred people and pulled no punches, saying “I feel one thing I want to share with you all, the greatest destroyer of peace today is the cry of the innocent unborn child. For if a mother can murder her own child what is left for me and you to kill each other”. No doubt while condemning abortion she felt great compassion for mothers who made this choice. She was very much aware that when a mother chooses to have an abortion, she is frequently under tremendous pressure to do so, from the father of the baby or even from her own family.
Throughout her long life Mother Teresa continued to be an outspoken and passionate defender of the right of the baby in the womb to be allowed to live. She abhorred the very thought of such a totally innocent young life being killed in such a brutal, and often very painful manner. She was just as concerned about the widespread indifference and apathy in society in general including religious circles, that allow abortion to take place. She reminded her audience about this in her Nobel Peace Prize speech. She exclaimed, “Today millions of unborn children are being killed and we say nothing”. On another occasion, she said quite sensibly and logically that “If a mother can kill a child, there is no point in punishing murderers”.
These two great modern saints, St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Kolkata, are challenging the world and especially the church, to stand up and be counted, in the struggle to respect and protect all human lives and particularly those of innocent, helpless unborn children. It is time to abandon the specious argument often put forward for inaction, that abortion is only one of many great problems facing the world such as poverty, disease, environmental degradation and terrorism. But the issue of abortion is on a different level to all of these, since it concerns the most basic and precious reality of all which is life itself.
The right to life could be seen as the trunk of a tree, with the branches representing the other human rights. The branches all depend on the trunk, and if the trunk is destroyed so are the branches. Any initiative or structure aimed at promoting justice in the world and improving the lives of the people, must begin by ensuring that the lives of all people including the unborn, are respected and protected. This is the first obligation of any nation that wishes to be regarded as civilized and progressive. Otherwise as St. John Paul II has warned, the world will revert to barbarism.
A Woman of Prayer
Looking at the extraordinary impact of this simple, ordinary religious Sister on a rather materialistic world, the obvious question that comes to mind is: “What was her secret”? When this question was put to her directly her response was: “My secret is infinitely simple – I PRAY. Through prayer I become one with the love of Christ. I understand deeply that to pray is to love him”.
For Mother Teresa prayer was a deep, loving, moving encounter with the Lord as Someone totally real, living and present to her. She writes, “Never abandon the intimate daily contact with Jesus as a real, living person, instead of just a pure idea”. She reminds people that at times words are not necessary. She says, “Often a profound and fervent gaze at Christ makes up the best prayer: I look at Him and He looks at me”. She challenged her Missionaries of Charity by asking, “Have you really come to know the living Jesus not from books but by offering Him shelter in your hearts”? She gave the advice that, “In order to be fruitful our prayer must come from the heart and be able to touch the heart of God”.
Prayer, love and work were all blended together in Mother Teresa’s life. She was loving and serving Jesus in her work among the poor. She writes, “In our work for the salvation and sanctification of the poorest of the poor, our call is to quench the thirst of Jesus, His thirst of love for souls”. How to quench the Lord’s thirst for love will vary for different people. The family should always be the first school of love. Parents are called to respond to Jesus’ love for them by loving Him in return, and by their love for each other and for their children. Mother Teresa would tell them to love Jesus in each other and in their children.
Despite all her activities Mother Teresa set aside a lot of time every day to be with the Lord, attending Holy Mass, saying the ordinary common prayers and the rosary, praying the bible and spending long periods in the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. During her long travels she kept praying the rosary, through which Our Lady as well as Jesus became more and more real, living persons for her. She had a special love for the rosary and for Our Lady, and founded her Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity on the Feast of the Holy Rosary.
The other great devotion in her life was Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. She loved to spend long hours of quiet time, in deep, silent prayer and totally present to the great Love of her life, the Lord Himself. She believed that the fruitfulness of the work of the Missionaries of Charity came especially from these hours of silent adoration. Through praying the rosary and taking part in Eucharistic Adoration, many families and parishes are also experiencing the joy of the Gospel and the renewal of their faith.
The Legacy of Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa will long be remembered as a very simple, holy and humble religious Sister, who brought not only material help to the poor and destitute, but in her own words also brought “Jesus to the poor and the poor to Jesus”. She will also go down in history as a woman of great moral courage, who was never afraid to speak the truth to the powerful, especially when it concerned the greatness and dignity of every human person particularly the unborn. But following the advice of St. Paul she always spoke “the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15), just as she lived her whole life as one long act of love of God and love of neighbour.
The new religious families which she has given to the church are a very important part of her great legacy, as they continue her mission of love in the world. On 7th October 1950, the feast of the Holy Rosary, Mother Teresa founded the Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, with the specific aim of caring for the poorest of the poor. She saw this also as fulfilling her great desire to become a saint, and for her Sisters to become saints. She writes, “I want to become a saint by satiating the thirst of Jesus for souls. And there is another big desire – to give Mother Church many a saint from our Society”. By the time of her death in 1997 their membership had grown to almost 4 000 Sisters and 620 convents in 123 countries around the world. But that wasn’t enough for Mother Teresa!
She went on to form other branches of her congregation: the Missionaries of Charity Brothers in 1963; the Contemplative Sisters of Charity in 1976; the Contemplative Brothers of Charity in 1979 and the Missionaries of Charity Fathers in 1984. At the time of her death there were 550 Missionaries of Charity priests and brothers. Her spirit and charism also live on the Corpus Christi Movement for Priests which she started in 1981 as well as in some movements she started to reach out to many lay people around the world.