“She did ordinary things with extraordinary love.”
Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, a Missionaries of Charity priest, is talking about his longtime mentor, Mother Teresa. “If you entered a room where Mother was with her sisters, but you didn’t know exactly what she looked like, you’d nonetheless be drawn to the woman who was so devoutly genuflecting, so fervently dipping her hand into the holy water, then making the Sign of the Cross.”
Father Kolodiejchuk knows firsthand how Mother Teresa shared the mercy of Christ with each person she met. He first met her in 1977, and, eventually, he joined the order she founded as a Missionaries of Charity priest. For 20 years, he worked alongside her — watching her serve the “poorest of the poor” on the streets of Kolkata. After her death, he assumed a new role: postulator of her canonization cause.
Father Kolodiejchuk talked with the Register recently about the life and faith of the diminutive nun who will be canonized Sept. 4, the canonization process and a new book that includes never-before-published writings by Mother Teresa herself (see review on page 7).
Mother Teresa provided a strong example of God’s mercy. Was that a factor in Pope Francis’ decision to canonize her during this Jubilee Year of Mercy?
It seems fitting, since Mother Teresa’s life was centered on mercy, that she should be canonized during this Year of Mercy. She had two levels of operation: On the one hand, she felt a human connection, and she recognized the human dignity of each person she met. But at the same time, each person was Jesus — although sometimes under a distressing disguise. Whether she was with a president or prime minister or queen, or with the poor person on the street or at the soup kitchen, Mother Teresa saw Jesus in front of her.
Could you share an example of Mother Teresa’s mercy in her interactions with others?
She was always asking herself, “What can I do now?” Her love for Christ was evident in the care she gave to everyone she met.
In my book, I included an entry in her diary from Dec. 21, 1948 — the first day she went into the slums of Kolkata to begin her mission to the poorest — which reads:
“At Agamuddin Street I had a number of children with bad sores. There, an old woman came very close to me [and said]: ‘You Mother, you big Mother, has become one of us — for us — how wonderful, what sacrifice.’ I told her that I was very happy to be one of them — and I really am. To see the sad, suffering faces of some of them lit up with joy — because Mother has come — well, it is worth [it] after all.”
Mother Teresa’s “Five-Finger Gospel” was her simple way to illustrate the works of mercy found in Matthew 25. Reciting one word as she held up each of her five fingers, Mother Teresa would say, “You Did It for Me.” Cleaning wounds, feeding the hungry, comforting the afflicted: Through these tangible actions, she explained, we could show our love for Christ.
Was her canonization “fast-tracked” because she was so well known and loved and her holiness widely recognized?
Well, Yes and No. As I said, it was Pope Francis’ hope that Mother Teresa could be canonized during the Year of Mercy. In June 2015, Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella, prefect of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, held a news conference expressing his hope that the canonization might take place during the Year of Mercy. The weekend of Sept. 2-4 had been planned as the Jubilee for Workers of Mercy and Volunteers; so it was hoped that the canonization could be held on Sept. 4. On the following day, Sept. 5, there would customarily be a Mass of thanksgiving. The date is also the anniversary of Mother Teresa's death in 1997, and it would be the new saint’s feast day.
So her canonization process could have been “fast-tracked.” That was not the case, though; while the process was accelerated in terms of time to achieve completion during the Year of Mercy, the research was thorough. In the canonization process, there will typically be 50 witnesses interviewed during the investigative phase; but in Mother Teresa’s case, there were 130 witnesses whose testimony was included in the positio super virtutibus, the collection of documents by which a person is declared “Venerable.” As postulator for the cause, I delivered to Rome 81 volumes of material, each 450 pages in length — in all, 35,000 pages of testimony. The positio which summarized this testimony was 5,000 pages in length.
Your hard work as postulator will end with the canonization. What are your plans after Sept. 4?
Well, after Mother’s beatification in October 2003, I met with the superior general in Kolkata. We had a choice: We could let Mother Teresa’s story “go to the wind,” as it were, or we could take responsibility to keep her memory alive, to preserve her words and her legacy. We chose the latter. After the canonization, that work must continue. So I became the director of the Mother Teresa Center (MotherTeresa.org).
What is the mission of the Mother Teresa Center?
As director of the center, I will work to keep her memory alive and to further her mission of mercy. One problem is that things have been attributed to her that she didn’t really say. We want to protect against that. There is one section of our website that lists sayings which have been mistakenly attributed to Mother Teresa but which did not originate with her. The key word is “authenticity” — and if you see “Mother Teresa Center” on a publication, you’ll know it’s authentic.
There is also the challenge of preserving her memory for the younger generation. Among Catholics over 40, everyone knows of her great generosity and spirit; but younger people don’t remember her story. She was always, during her lifetime, in the news and included on lists of “Most-Admired Women.” But 20 years later, many don’t really remember her missionary service to the poor.
You’ve just published a new book, A Call to Mercy, which includes many quotes directly from Mother Teresa. What was your intent in publishing yet another book on the saint?
Mother would want to say, “You can do the same. I can’t do what you can do, and you can’t do what I can do; but together we can do something beautiful for God.” She would want people to look around in their own lives, in their own families and communities and find a way to bring God’s mercy. Often, she would say, “You can find Kolkata anywhere. Who needs a smile? In your own family, for your husband, your child, your neighbor.”
And what, in your estimation, will be her legacy?
Well, I hope people will learn about her and accept the challenge to make a difference in the world.
Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity continue their work today, with more than 5,000 sisters around the world living lives of active service to the poorest of the poor and in contemplation and prayer. There are also Missionaries of Charity Priests and Brothers, who have heeded the call to continue her work, as well as the Corpus Christi Movement for Priests, an organization founded by Mother Teresa for diocesan priests who want to share in the charism and spirit of the Missionaries of Charity, while remaining in their local dioceses. The Missionaries of Charity, with the aid of more than a million volunteers, continue to serve countless poor and needy persons around the world.
(This is a longer version of the print story.)
Kathy Schiffer writes from Southfield, Michigan.
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