Sister Mary Prema Pierick is the current superior general of the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa in 1950. On the eve of Blessed Teresa’s canonization, the German religious sister sat down with the Register at their motherhouse in Rome Aug. 24 to share her memories of the “angel of the slums” and to explain the untiring work of the congregation to help the poor and the outcast around the world.
Sister Prema also discussed how the Missionaries of Charity’s charism of personal holiness and bringing Christ to the poorest of the poor has developed since Mother Teresa’s death, how Jesus remains constantly at the center of all they do and how the soon-to-be St. Teresa’s example could help families face the challenges of today.
Since Mother Teresa’s death in 1997, the number of religious sisters has risen from more than 1,000 to well over 5,000, and the number of houses has grown from 594 to 758. The congregation is now present in 139 countries.
Sister Prema, how has the charism of the Missionaries of Charity changed since Blessed Teresa’s passing?
It hasn’t changed, but it has developed. I especially see the need, which is constant, to more profoundly enter into the understanding, and to the living out, of the charism, which is definitely not concluded with the death of Mother and neither with the canonization. We have to continue developing it.
And, of course, the focus always remains on the poor.
Yes, the two aspects of the charism is the spirituality, which quenches the thirst of Jesus for the sanctification of everyone, but especially the poorest of the poor. The apostolate concerns service to the poorest of the poor, and the needs are so different in different countries, but that is the focus.
How well did you know Mother Teresa personally? Do you have any notable anecdotes you can share?
I first met Mother Teresa in 1980. I already had decided to join the congregation, and I met her at the Catholic Day in Berlin in June 1980. She was addressing the young people, and I had a chance to meet her near the stage, saying that two of us [myself and another woman] were going to join. She was so happy and gave us an appointment in the afternoon to come and see her. So we went to her residence. She was staying with some sisters who had a guesthouse, and we met her there. And she was so gracious to us. We fixed the date for entering, and she said we would go to London as aspirants. Then she took us to the chapel, and I really experienced there that the centrality was all about Jesus, the Eucharist. She then bade us farewell. I experienced a deep peace and joy, as if I had arrived at a place I was supposed to have arrived at.
The centrality of Jesus is crucial, isn’t it, because many think that helping the poor and the destitute is the center of your work, and yet, actually, it’s Christ.
Everything is about him; and in Mother’s life, you see that very clearly. It was Jesus in the Eucharist and Jesus in the poor. It was Jesus in the president and Jesus in the journalist. This was Jesus very clearly. She could perceive the thirst that the soul has for God; as St. Augustine said, we are restless till we rest in God. That thirst, that need — Mother could perceive it and agonize for it, also if that person was unaware of it and going along ways which were damaging to him or herself.
The cross in the chapel here has the words “I Thirst” next to it. That’s a crucial element to your mission.
Absolutely. From the first chapel that had been set up by Mother, because that was her experience, her charism was to quench the thirst of Jesus for souls, for love and for souls.
What memorable sayings and wise aphorisms of Mother Teresa do you hold close to your heart? Which ones encourage you in your work?
Yes, for myself, Mother was always nourishing her union with God with a prayer; and she used to teach us: “Jesus in my heart, I believe in your faithful love for me, and I love you.” She would teach us to repeat it, to come into the heart and focus on that need for love.
Another one which helps me in dealing with the sisters and people: “If I judge you, I have no time to love you” — and to, rather, spend my time listening and trying to understand what advice [I’m hearing]. Judgment is preventing me from forgiving and loving, and Mother had that wisdom of really being able to meet a person at a deep level, even in a very short time.
A union of hearts with a person.
Right. Another saying was “Do small things with great love.” Mother was never out to do big things, but she had that little awareness for a person’s need, and she was so attentive to a particular sister’s need. One sister, she had a great love for fresh tea, and when there was some tension [Mother would say], “Go and get a cup of tea for sister.” Or in the home for the dying, she would be aware they wouldn’t have the cigarettes they were used to, and so she used to be attentive to that. She would go and see that need and would satisfy it. A dying person, whatever he asks for — food — she would say: “Please, spend the money; get it for them and give it to them.” So they might ask for grapes in Kolkata, and Mother would go to the trouble to get them for that person.
It’s said that you became interested in joining the congregation after reading Malcolm Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful for God. What was it in that book that attracted you to the saint and the congregation’s work?
That is right. Personally, at that time, I was not ready to become a nun. It took a few years … and the Lord took care of that. But when I met Mother the first time, I already had decided to join. But then what attracted me in that book was that photo of the washing place, where the sisters are bending over buckets using a hand pump. It was a black-and-white picture. That stuck in my mind and in my heart. And when I’m in the motherhouse now and see myself there, I say: “God, but you brought me here.” Then, of course, being young, one wants a radical way of love, and one wants adventure. I knew I was called to be a missionary; but then I found that radical way of life, and everything just seemed to be available, so I went forward.
Mother Teresa helped the poorest of the poor and encouraged this work of mercy throughout the world, yet she also reminded the faithful that serving God and loving others starts in our own homes. What message of mercy and love would she have for the even greater challenges to families today, almost 20 years after her death?
The challenges for the family have increased in a very broad way. Mother was very attentive to the families. It would give her great joy to see them united in love, and it would give her great pain when she would see them distancing themselves from one another and not talking to one another. If she had occasion, she would take the trouble to be close to them and advise them to forgive and pray for them and make them pray together. Personally, she would take great trouble. It’s the very first apostolate, the family apostolate, and Mother would say that broken homes are the poverty of a country. She went into the slums to help the families to pray and remain together, to forgive each other, to respect each other, to accept each other, just as they are — also to address sinful behaviors which are addictive, [so they were able] to come out of the addiction for the family to be supported.
How was she a prophet for the modern world?
I would say very simply that Mother was a prophet because of the joy she had and she passed to other people; not because she had things, but because she had God and the priority of God in every person’s life. Real freedom and peace come from doing the will of God and searching for what God wants from me and doing what he wants from me. She’s also a prophet for the unity of a person. She used to tell us that to love oneself is to keep the balance, and then unity in the family, between the different religions, different cultures, nationalities, within the castes. Because of her understanding that each soul is unique and very precious to God, she treated all the same. Also, [she respected] the dignity of the person, their dignity as a child of God, and that dignity makes us all brother and sisters and also gives us responsibility to care for each other.
The recognition that we’re all born in the image and likeness of God.
Right, and that we have to return to God. Mother was very much aware of that.
To see Jesus in everyone is a grace of faith, which we have to pray for and to pray for also for each other, to have that faith.
She wasn’t afraid to speak the truth in love about the dignity of life to even the most powerful world leaders. How does her witness still inspire modern people amid an increasing culture of death? She was very strong on abortion, wasn’t she?
She was very strong on abortion. At that time, euthanasia was just beginning, and she was very strong on that. She was also strong on civil conflicts that would end up in war and violence. As a light in the darkness in confusion and negativity, what you call the culture of death, she was like a light, and that light has not been extinguished. We see many people are preparing to come to the canonization because Mother had gone out to give them that light. Now, at the funeral, at the canonization, we see people come back to her because we see her light is shining; the light is in our hearts. The younger generations get it through the media and also hopefully through the sisters and religious all over the world.
What do you say to the criticism of a few critics that Mother Teresa’s missions were not about relieving suffering because she believed strongly that suffering brought one closer to God and that the poor continued to live in deplorable conditions with poor medical treatment?
Her mission is not about relieving suffering? That is a contradiction; it is not correct. Acts of mercy are there for relieving suffering. But there are sufferings that are not so easily relieved. … I’m living in Kolkata, and I see a reality that is different from Europe or the U.S. Still, now, many people are rejected and living in the street, and many NGOs [non-governmental organizations] are coming forward to help; but still there are many people who are rejected, sick and dying in the street.
Mother never had hospitals; we have homes for those not accepted in the hospital. We take them into our homes. Homes for the dying are a reality now. Now, the medical care is very important, and we have been improving on it a lot and still are. The attention of the sisters and volunteers is a lot on the feeding and bandaging of the person because so many patients come with wounds. Now, sisters have taken interest also in finding where they come from to bring them back to their families. It is important to have them diagnosed well and to admit them to hospitals for treatment.
There was the reality of psychiatrically ill women for whom we have two homes. One has about 300 women, and the other has 250; and over the last years, with help of doctors and social workers, sisters are taking so much trouble to find a home [for these women]. Over the few years, a few hundred have returned to their families; and still, daily, new patients are coming, because it’s quite common that women especially who have psychiatric problems are not understood by the family. And with the railway system in India, which facilitates moving around there and everywhere, they end up in places where they don’t know the language, really abandoned and in a very pitiful state, with mental sickness and often abuse. So we’re happy to give them that new start again.
Some of them remain with us because there’s nobody else who can take care of them.
What other suffering did Mother Teresa help relieve?
Physical sickness we can often do something about, about the pain. But then there are the sufferings which are because of rejection. Mother used to help a lot in helping the person to forgive. Only forgiveness takes away the burden of that suffering. There’s this story Mother recalled in this new book, A Call to Mercy:
“I remember an old woman in a dustbin burning with fe,ver. She was much bigger than me, and so I had trouble getting her out of the bin, but with Jesus’ help I managed to do it. As I was taking her to our home, she couldn’t say a single word, that she was having a fever, was in great pain or that she was dying. No, the only thing she kept saying was: ‘My son did this to me. It was my own son who did this to me.’ She was so bitterly hurt by the fact that her own son had thrown her away that I had to work very hard, and it took me a long time for her to say finally that ‘I forgive him.’ She said it just before she died, and if I could love and console one person like this, it would be a wonderful thing because that person is Jesus in his painful disguise.”
That was a much deeper aspect of Mother’s life: to bring reconciliation with God, with ourselves and with our families. I’ve seen that with AIDS patients in Madrid, and the greatest joy is when that person says: ‘I forgive. I want to see my father. I want to receive the sacraments.’ That won’t take away the physical suffering; they’ll still have to die, but they die with hope and a smile of contentment on their faces. Now, over the years, when Mother was working, palliative treatment wasn’t known, especially in poor areas where we were working.
Mother never wanted a person to suffer for suffering’s sake. On the contrary, Mother would do everything to alleviate their suffering. That statement [of not wishing to alleviate suffering] comes — and I can understand it — from an understanding of a different hospital care, and we don’t have hospitals; we have homes. But if they need hospital care, then we have to take them to the hospital, and we do that.
How present are the Missionaries of Charity in your native country of Germany?
We have seven communities. As early as 1979, the first community was opened in Essen, where I joined. And we have communities in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Berlin, Mannheim, Munich and Chemnitz. We are planning soup kitchens, family visiting if they allow us to go to the homes, because you need permission to go anywhere. We also do a street apostolate, go to the people on the street, speak to those we find there.
Do you think the missions there could help renew the Church in the country that is suffering from a deep crisis in vocations and Church attendance?
It’s suffering a lot, and, systematically, faith has been taken away from people’s hearts. … I have hope, but I can’t give results. It’s always an individual person who is taken back to the Church and given the sacraments. But in terms of numbers, definitely, there’s nothing happening.
Is it because the centrality of Christ has been lost?
Yes. We experience this when we go for family visiting or when we go to places and we are rejected. It [the rejection] is not because of us; it’s because of Jesus. In one place, the sisters were bringing a statue of Our Lady, and they told them: “In this place you can come, but she can’t.” They were not allowed to bring the statue, and so they said: “We won’t go in without her.”
And yet, with its great wealth, Germany — and the the Church in Germany in particular — offers a lot of material assistance to the poor.
They do a lot for the poor; they want to do it for humanitarian love, but also love of God. I believe that. It’s strange and difficult to understand. I love Jesus so much I don’t know how they live without him. I need to go to Mass every day and confession every week, and I don’t know how they live without him. I just can’t make it out. Indifference is the greatest poverty, Mother used to say. She’d say the opposite of love isn’t hate. It is indifference.
What is significance of the canonization in the Year of Mercy?
Mercy had become second nature for Mother, and her whole attitude was putting herself into the shoes of other people, loving them and accepting them as they are — trying to bring them to a knowledge and love of God and recognizing themselves as being precious to God. If they were on a negative journey, to bring them to appreciate themselves as a gift of God and awakening everything in them to receive love and to love others.
She had a great gift for that: to invite people to come and help us, to come and see. I can see all around us, those volunteers who come to us: They come with a pain in their hearts, and they need the poor. And the poor give them more than they give.
In Kolkata, so many come for volunteer work, searching, and they come with a desire to change Kolkata because they are strong and [want to] change it. But after some time, they realize that Kolkata changes them. It’s a great gift, an opening of their minds and hearts to a greater reality, which is not just I, myself and me.
And this is done especially by helping the poor, the anawim?
The anawim. There’s the story of a volunteer who was sent to a railway station to pick up a dying person; and while waiting for him, one of his slippers broke. So he was standing there, a white man, with one slipper and one bare foot. People coming out of the train smiled at him and made their own comment about it. But a poor man came forward, took off his own slippers, put them near him and walked away. Mother used to say: “Poor people are great people”; they know how to share and know the suffering of others.
Suffering, experience, makes us compassionate to the sufferings of others. Suffering by itself, if we try to avoid it at all costs and try to get rid of it at all costs, then you have to get rid of people. That is not what Mother meant, with regard to suffering. Mother did not get rid of people. On the contrary, to those who hurt her most, the more she loved them; she gave them more and gave them more attention.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.