REMEMBERING A SAINT. Sister Mary Prema Pierick says Mother Teresa had such ‘awareness for a person’s need.’ Edward Pentin photo
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. (This is the first of two parts. Read the full interview here.)
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.
Mother Teresa also reminded the faithful that serving God and loving others starts in our own homes. What message would she have for families today?
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.