ROME — Mother Teresa didn’t try to solve all of the world’s problems: She simply lived her life in radical service and love of her neighbor, expecting God to take care of the rest, said her spiritual adviser.
“Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike saw in her a role model. She was popular because she was authentic, and she loved people genuinely,” Msgr. Leo Maasburg told CNA.
CNA interviewed Msgr. Maasburg in anticipation of Mother Teresa’s canonization, which takes place in Rome Sept. 4. The priest talked about her spiritual philosophy, how she helped society in India, her under-recognized political interest and her “darkness of the soul,” among other things.
Msgr. Maasburg, a priest of the Archdiocese of Vienna who was ordained in 1982, met Mother Teresa a few years into his priesthood, remaining her good friend until her death in 1997. Over the years, Msgr. Maasburg joined Mother Teresa and her religious sisters on various travels, including to Rome, India and Armenia. He also acted as her spiritual adviser, translator and confessor, and he is the author of Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait.
The full text of the interview follows:
You spent much time with Mother Teresa. Is there something about her that has remained untold?
There are probably many stories and details that remain yet to be told. Mother Teresa was someone who tried rather to act than to talk. At the same time, she was deeply rooted in prayer. I think this is what made her so effective. Everything she did, she tried to do for and with “the first and only love of her life”: Jesus. And this is probably related to something that we still have to discover and seek to understand more clearly: the spirituality of Mother Teresa. With her canonization, the Church invites us to advance further into the relationship that she entertained with the divine. There is a whole spiritual philosophy to be discovered when we contemplate her life, deeds and words. I also believe that her political views on society and her messages to the world’s elite when receiving the Nobel Peace Prize or addressing the U.N. General Assembly have not had the attention they would deserve. Mother Teresa was more than just a Catholic nun with a big heart for the poor. She was a missionary and an ambassador for the sanctity of life, never growing weary of advocating for the dignity of the unborn, the sick and the dying.
Critics of Mother Teresa often address the way she pushed people to accept suffering. Are these critics preposterous? How did she address the various problems of the Indian society?
Mother Teresa once was confronted with a famous metaphor: Someone asked her if it would not be better to teach the poor how to fish instead of simply feeding them the fish. She agreed, but also answered: “My poor are too weak to hold the fishing rod. When they recover in my homes, I send them to you so that you can teach them how to fish.” Although she was always interested in politics, she never tried to be a politician. She attempted to radically love her neighbor — and expected Jesus to take care of the rest. She addressed the problems of Indian society by living the Gospel among the poor. And misery rooted in unimaginable poverty is, and was, certainly one of the subcontinent’s gravest problems. But the cure that she wanted to give the people was not a medical, but a spiritual, one: unconditional and tender love and care.
How has India changed thanks to Mother Teresa’s work? And how can it still change?
People called Mother Teresa the “Queen of India.” This shows how much they loved her. Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike saw in her a role model. She was popular because she was authentic, and she loved people genuinely. Her example certainly helped to nurture the understanding in the country that every human being, regardless of their social status, deserves to be treated with respect and has an innate dignity. She was also famous for being a Missionary of Charity and for living her faith openly. Today, some states in India show a tendency to curb religious freedom through anti-conversion laws. Some radical groups try to ignite violence against Christians and Muslims. India can and should be a country where people of different religions respect and live peacefully next to each other.
Mother Teresa also experienced the “darkness of the soul,” as many saints before and after her. How can this darkness be explained? And how can Mother Teresa’s experience teach us to get out of such darkness?
It is not easy to explain the “darkness of the soul,” since it is a mystical experience. Sometimes saintly people receive it as a particular gift from God. It allows them to share in the redemption of mankind, which has distanced itself from God through sin. Mother Teresa’s experience will not teach us how “to get out” of this darkness; it can help us to bear it if we are granted the honor to experience it. However, it is certainly not an easy experience. In her letters, Mother Teresa described it as experiencing the absence of God. Remaining faithful in this suffering has a deeply spiritual effect on souls.