Sister Mary Prema Pierick is the current superior general of the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa in 1950. The German religious sister sat down with the Register at their motherhouse in Rome Aug. 24 to share her memories of St. Teresa. (Read Part 1 here.)
How was Mother Teresa 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 was 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 brothers and sisters and also gives us responsibility to care for each other.
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 a few critics who say 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 the 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 here, 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 fever. 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.
What is the 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 comments 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 photo