There Are Many Mother Teresas
Archbishop Emeritus, Nagpur , India
I have said to the Missionaries of Charity more times than they have probably wanted to hear, “There are many Mother Teresas.” I believe that firmly. In fact, I want to suggest today that the reason for her beatification (or canonization) is precisely that not only can she be imitated, but that she has been. She offers us a model of what we can do, and perhaps what we ought to do and today’s event is a reminder that our God is pleased with this kind of life.
When I say that there are many persons whose lives are like Mother’s, I think for example of the sister who has worked for fifty years with the children who are rag-pickers in Cairo, one of the most difficult cities in the world in which to live. This sister has actually finally found others to work with her who are operating a Montessori school for the youngest of these babies when they have finished their work for the day.
I, think, too, of the earliest Sisters of St. Joseph who came to India and to Nagpur to care for the orphaned children of plague victims, and this in our own Thana more than 150 years ago. I think of Mother Gertrude of the Salesian Missionaries of Mary Immaculate who opened their home for the most indigent of our peoples in the camel stable of the then Rajah of Nagpur. There are so many more that I risk dishonouring some of them by mentioning only these few. And I have not even mentioned the men who came here to India and to Nagpur itself and lived in horrendous situations to bring the Good News to this part of the world. But I want to make a point.
I think we must face the fact that if there were no Malcolm Muggeridge the world would not know of Mother Teresa of Calcutta . It was his film, “Something Beautiful for God”, which Mother herself named, which brought her to the world’s attention. Surely most of us are delighted that that happened. Knowing of her work has brought incredible sums of money and supplies to our country alone and to the others in which the Missionaries of Charity work because donors feel secure that their contributions will go for that which they intended. The poorest of our poor have benefited in many ways from these contributions and our priests and religious have been invited to look at what they are doing in light of Mother’s successes. Her inspiration has been a boon not only to the developing nations but also to those on the economic, social, and political margins in First World Nations.
You probably know that this pope has beatified and canonized more persons than any of his predecessors. Some would say too many but a recent article in The Tablet from London , England , suggested in fact that we are not canonizing enough saints! The article was trying to make the point that I am that this church process leaves out many who should be celebrated when singling out just one of a group or kind for their heroic lives. This is precisely why we celebrate All Saints’ Day, a reminder that there are many with God whose lives deserve emulation. I can believe that many of us would say that members of our own families lived heroically and in our minds are saints, canonized or not.
I knew Mother Teresa personally. I was in Calcutta in 1947 when word began to go around that there was a crazy woman, a former sister, who was using a wheelbarrow to take sick people to the hospital and insisting that they be treated. My Sodality associates and I began to work with her and from our efforts and those of others, Nirmal Hriday, her first home for the dying emerged. It was a special privilege for someone like myself raised in an Anglo-Indian environment from the age of eight, to learn about the rest of the people in my country. Indeed, I expected that my own priesthood would go in the direction Mother’s life had taken but Fate or Providence , along with my consent to opportunities offered, determined otherwise.
At Mother’s death several years ago, I was indisposed and was unable to be with you at the celebration of her life. But I did send my thoughts which were kindly read to you by another. At that time I asked you to rejoice in Mother’s gifts to us, indeed to the whole world, but also to remember, by her own admission, that she was doing one-half of the work that needs to be done. She named her congregation the Missionaries of Charity deliberately. She knew that Christian life calls to us justice and mercy but determined that her efforts were to be confined to charity. The rehabilitative dimensions of mission she chose deliberately to leave to others. She was quoted as saying, “You go to your meetings while I will sit by the beds of the poor.” Saint or not, it is surely too harsh a judgment on those who give their lives to social justice issues and concerns.
What Mother has determined her sisters are to do, and what Sister Nirmala after her continues to make happen, is good, and valuable, and much needed. And when push comes to shove, charity probably must take precedence over everything else. But justice issues must also be important to those of us who truly make an option for the poor. That option is to end their poverty of body, mind, and spirit, by helping them to help themselves, by accessing their wisdom, by finding out what their needs and wants are and meeting them. We need to learn to come not with our package plans and pre-conceived ideas about what people need who are being dealt with unjustly. We need to come to them to access their wisdom, enhance their skills, and to learn from and with them. This is justice, this is animation, this is the empowerment of peoples. When we have “missionaries of justice” as well as Missionaries of Charity, we will be working on the justice and compassion to which our God calls us. Our God’s own nature is loving-kindness. Our God’s call to us is to change structures that oppress and demean human beings while helping those who are the victims of oppression and injustice. We need to be doing both if we are living in the authentic spirit of Jesus, the human face of God.
So, while we celebrate today the official proclamation that Mother is with God and that her life and efforts are truly in the spirit of Jesus, and deserve our attention and imitation, let us also celebrate all of those whom we know who also live such lives, official saints or not. Let us commit ourselves to the works of charity and of justice, determined to wipe away every tear and also to end the reasons for the tears in the first place.