Laura Dittus is a Theology Advisor at EWTN. She holds a Masters in Theology from Ave Maria University and has contributed to study guides for Jesus of Nazareth Volumes I and II (Ignatius Press). She writes from Irondale, Alabama.
On the feast of St. Teresa of Calcutta this year I came across “The Spirituality of Mother Teresa,” written by Fr. John Hardon on the occasion of the first anniversary of her death. In this piece, Fr. Hardon, an American Jesuit and now a Servant of God, highlights a number of characteristics of Mother Teresa’s spirituality and also, in the same reflection, reveals a particular way in which St. John Paul II changed the Missionaries of Charity, the religious community that she founded.
In Fr. Hardon’s reflection, there are seven characteristics of Mother’s spirituality that he points out and then elaborates upon. While the piece is worth reading in its entirety, the seven characteristics themselves bear light on the beauty of Mother Teresa’s spiritual life and include such aspects as “Deep Faith in the Real Presence,” “Deep Apostolic Love for the Poor,” “Spirit of Prayer,” and “Zeal for the True Faith.” In this article, I will focus on the last of the points as named here, “Zeal for the True Faith.”
“Zeal for the True Faith” and Missionaries of Souls
In Fr. Hardon’s description of this characteristic in the life and spirituality of Mother Teresa – “Zeal for the True Faith,” one finds an aspect of the history of the Missionaries of Charity that many are unfamiliar with. This historical moment, however, bears light on how important it is not just to care for the materially poor but also the spiritually poor, a need still very present in modern life, and even in the Church, today. Fr. Hardon begins his description of how St. John Paul II changed the Constitutions of the Missionaries of Charity in this way:
After some thirty-five years of serving the poorest of the poor, Mother Teresa was called to Rome by Pope John Paul II. He told her how deeply he appreciated what she was doing worldwide to relieve the poverty of so many people. But then he told her, “I would like to change your Constitutions. I want the Missionaries of Charity to become missionaries not only of poor bodies but also of poor souls.”
Many are aware of Mother Teresa’s beginning the Missionaries of Charity after receiving an inspiration from the Lord, often referred to as a “call within a call.” But few are aware of this later call, given through St. John Paul II, to deepen their mission.
Fr. Hardon continues his description of this encounter between St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. John Paul II in these words:
The Holy Father then told her to start catechizing and evangelizing. When Mother told the Pope that her Sisters were not trained for this apostolate, he told her, “train them!”
What one finds in this encounter is amazing. Here Pope John Paul II gives Mother Teresa a particular call for her already established religious community, to care for not only the materially impoverished but also the spiritually impoverished, and to provide for the Sisters that they might carry out this work, which Mother Teresa saw that they were not yet equipped to do.
One sees here how the Lord can take the poverty, even in the training of a particular religious community, and use it for his glory. Through providing for the training of the Missionaries of Charity, the work of catechesis and evangelization of the spiritually poor would later be carried out. Hardon, himself a renowned theologian, would, through his own call from the Vatican assist the Sisters in, as he calls it, “training them for their new apostolate.” Fr. Hardon also relates that this moment in the history of the Missionaries of Charity brought a great effect:
Words cannot describe the impact which this had on the Missionaries of Charity. They have been phenomenally zealous and effective in teaching the true faith. Located in over one hundred countries throughout the world, I can honestly say they are now the largest missionary order in the world. But now, the word “missionary” has come to mean teaching the faith which God became man to reveal to the world.
The Missionaries of Charity, who had already been serving Christ in the poorest of the poor, now took on a “new apostolate,” without abandoning their initial work and this response to the new “call within a call” has borne great fruit.
In the above anecdote from the lives of Saint Teresa of Calcutta and Saint John Paul II, one sees how those who are unequipped for the work of evangelization and catechesis can be provided for through study and training. (For the laity, this can take the form of such simple efforts as reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church or some other suitable training in doctrine.) In this way, by being “equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17) the spiritually poor may be provided for and the Word of God “may spread and be glorified” (Prayer for Vocations for the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word; cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:1).