FATHER BRIAN KOLODIEJCHUK served as principal advocate for Mother Teresa’s cause of beatification. His new book collects Mother Teresa’s previously unpublished writings. Called Come Be My Light, its content has been the topic of much media speculation about Mother Teresa’s faith.
He is also the co-founder of the priestly branch of her Missionaries of Charity. He was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He met Mother Teresa in 1977 and was associated with her until her death in 1997. He joined the Missionaries of Charity Fathers at the time of their foundation in 1984.
Father Kolodiejchuk is postulator of the Cause of Beatification and Canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and director of the Mother Teresa Center.
Register correspondent Edward Pentin interviewed him recently in Rome.
The recent article in Time magazine, which focused on passages in your new book where Mother Teresa reveals her spiritual difficulties in letters, was widely publicized. What was your reaction to the article? Was it a major misinterpretation of her letters?
The article itself wasn’t so bad; it was all right, it was pretty good. The only thing I didn’t like was the picture, or the title, which I guess is the work of the editor. But it’s wrong to say it was a crisis of faith. “A crisis of faith” is one thing and a “trial of faith” is another.
So it’s not whether Mother Teresa doubted God existed — only the second half is about the documents. The first half kind of sets up the context of the commentary between the letters so the reader does not misinterpret what’s going on. If you take a sentence out of its real context, you can read, “I have no faith, no love, heaven means nothing,” and you will say, “Oh wow!”
But it has to be taken in context.
What is the context?
There are three main parts to the book, and the documents are in the third. The first is about Mother Teresa’s private vow in 1942 never to refuse Jesus anything under pain of mortal sin. Then four years later, Sept. 10, again Jesus gave her the inspiration to begin the Missionaries of Charity. Jesus spoke clearly by interior locution, and there are two letters in the book in which Mother Teresa writes to the archbishop what went on. She had notes, she used notes for both her letters.
But in the second letter she presented the dialogue between Jesus and her. It’s actually beautiful to see the interplay between her and Jesus and her response.
Jesus says, “No, I want this.” So she says: “Maybe you should go and find someone else more worthy than I,” and he replies: “Don’t worry. I know you’re the most incapable one.” So there’s one context.
And in those years, in 1946 and 1947, Mother Teresa experienced real intimate union, real contemplative union with God. Her confessor, Father Van Exem, spoke of her being very close to the state of ecstasy.
She then wrote, years later, letters to Father Neuner, about this inspiration of Jesus speaking to her. She was moved from Calcutta to a place called Asansol in January 1947 and she says: “There it was, as if Our Lord gave himself to me in the full. The sweetness and consolation of those past six months passed but too soon.”
After that came the darkness.
When the work started in 1949 or 1950, there was this terrible sense of loss, this untold darkness, this loneliness, this continual longing for God.
So the union she had was gone, and even more painful was this infinite longing. For example, Father Thomas Dubay, in his book The Fire Within, speaks of three characteristics of contemplative prayer.
One of them is the consolation of this union, another is dryness and a third is this deep longing. Mother Teresa’s language would be “thirst.”
In her contemplative prayer, she had more than dryness and longing, and not the consolation except in one month in 1958, as far as the record goes. But in one of the letters, she says she knows this is just feelings “because in my mind and my will there is this unbroken union.”
Then in another letter she says she can’t be distracted because “my mind and heart are continually with him.”
So that’s why it’s not a crisis of God not existing; it seems to her, “Where did he go?” He was there, and now, desolation.
She’s feeling rejected and unwanted by the one she loves. So you have to see everything in the context of a love relationship between Jesus and her. She often describes herself as the spouse of Jesus, and even for the sisters, she speaks of them being the spouse of Jesus crucified. So the trial as she’s perceiving it is: What happened? Do I have any faith?
It’s not that she really doubts, but it seems to her, where did the faith go? The love I had and love I was feeling is all gone.
She didn’t really understanding the meaning of it at the time, but because it’s connected to her vocation, she accepts it because it’s his will. In 1961, Father Neuner helped her to understand that it’s the spiritual side of her work, and that helped.
By the spiritual side of her work, it relates to when she used to say the greatest poverty in the world today is to be unloved, unwanted, uncared for. Now we discover that was her relationship.
Is this the first time these letters have been revealed in their entirety?
Yes, there were some Zenit articles a few years ago, and the Jesuits wrote some articles that weren’t widely distributed — but it was mentioned. And in the little biography we made for the beatification it was there. The Holy Father mentioned it in his homily. The darkness was not something new. What’s new and made a splash is that it’s there in its entirety and the 10th year since her death.
Is it a concern of yours that these letters have been manipulated by atheists to make it seem as though she had no faith?
Most people who really want to know what happened will first of all actually read it, and then they’ll understand it.
Then there’s Father Cantalamessa’s article that was printed in the Register.
At the beginning, people were confused, and headlines I saw in Canada that said, “Mother Teresa’s Secret Was She Had No Faith.” Well that’s a complete misrepresentation of what really was, so from the title at least, you can say some people didn’t get it, couldn’t get it, didn’t want to get it.
One of her main adversaries is the writer and atheist Christopher Hitchens. Would you say that his opposition to Mother Teresa and religion in general has more to his past family history than anything else?
Yes, and she’s probably praying for him. For someone with such anger, such animus against her, it’s more than just an intellectual thing, probably.
And his arguments don’t stand up anyway, do they?
No, in Time and in his article in Newsweek afterwards, he was quoted as saying that Mother just kept up the show for 50 years. She couldn’t have lived and done all that she did without great faith and great love.
It was humanly impossible to go around with her. We would be with her for a week and we’d want to rest a bit because we were exhausted. Humanly speaking, she couldn’t have done it and she knew too that it was grace. I remember one sister — sisters have rest for half an hour — and she would say to Mother, “Well you’re not going to have a rest.” Mother Teresa would say, “Yes, but you’re not Mother.”
She was always on. Until the last years, when she physically couldn’t, she’d be up until the early hours and then be up again at 4:40, day in day out.
Ten years after her death, what, to you, is her greatest legacy? What has she given the world?
I put a quote from her in the front of the book: “If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of darkness. I will continue to be absent from heaven to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”
So that’s why the title of the book was chosen because those are Jesus’ words to her in 1947 — “Come be my light.”
And then, in the midst of this darkness, she’ll say, kind of like a mission statement, at the beginning of the book, her mission from heaven is to those in darkness, the darkness of unbelief, darkness of being unloved, unwanted, rejected. In another letter she says, “If my darkness is a light to others ...”
It’s a kind of paradox: that through darkness she is the light.
Now, especially for people such as Father Cantalamessa, she has become the patron saint of sincere atheists. A saint for people who are in the darkness of unbelief, or are at least open to receiving faith, and those who are in the darkness of love.
That is also part of her work.
Not only was she living and serving those in material poverty but was also identified with and in solidarity with those who were spiritually poor.
writes from Rome.