The Eucharistic Life of St. Teresa of Calcutta

Recognizing, adoring, loving and receiving Jesus in the Holy Eucharist propelled her to recognize, love, welcome and care for him under even the most distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.

Missionaries of Charity pray at the tomb of St. Teresa of Calcutta at the Mother House in Kolkata on Aug. 26 to mark the 112th anniversary of her birth.
Missionaries of Charity pray at the tomb of St. Teresa of Calcutta at the Mother House in Kolkata on Aug. 26 to mark the 112th anniversary of her birth. (photo: Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP via Getty Images)

On Monday, Sept. 5, the Church celebrates the 25th anniversary of the death and birth into eternal life of St. Teresa of Calcutta, foundress of the Missionaries of Charity, and without doubt one of the greatest and most compelling saints of modern times.

A 1979 Nobel Peace Prize winner for her care for the poor (since poverty often leads to class conflict that can erupt in violence), this petite Albanian became one of the world’s great peacemakers, courageously intervening to bring a cease-fire during the 1982 siege of Beirut to rescue 37 trapped children, as well as regularly visiting war zones and sites of natural or man-made disasters to bring what soldiers and diplomats seldom can: love. 

She also boldly identified before the U.N. General Assembly, President Bill Clinton, graduating Harvard students and many other audiences what the greatest destroyer of peace in the world is: the intentional, often legal, frequently industrial, killing of human beings in the womb through abortion.  

In 1999, in an extensive Gallup poll, she was voted the most widely admired person of the 20th century, far outdistancing Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, St. John Paul II, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill and scores of other famous leaders. 

To a world afflicted by the separation of faith from life, to a Church plagued by a fissure between those who prioritize true worship and doctrine and those who give precedence to community and social justice, she prophetically incarnated the intrinsic unity between love of God and love of neighbor. 

She was clear where that synthesis came from: living a truly Eucharistic life. Recognizing, adoring, loving and receiving Jesus under the appearances of bread and wine in the Holy Eucharist propelled her to recognize, love, welcome and care for him under even the most distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor. 

In the Last Supper, Jesus not only gave us his Body and Blood and told us to “do this in memory of me,” but he also washed the feet of his apostles as an example so that just as he had done, they so should do. To live a Eucharistic life means to be transformed within by Jesus in such a way that we begin to offer our body, blood, sweat, tears, callouses, energy, time, all we have and are for those for whom Jesus died. 

As the Catholic Church in the United States enters more deeply into the Eucharistic Revival, the silver jubilee of St. Teresa of Calcutta’s transitus to eternity provides a great opportunity to focus on this connection between adoring and receiving the Eucharistic Lord and loving others as he has loved us. 

Mother Teresa’s entire life shows how the Eucharist is meant to make every believer a missionary of charity. 

“The Eucharist and the poor are inseparable,” she said. “This is not anything new for the Church, for we can clearly see it in the Gospels. The One who said, ‘This is my body’ is the same one who said, ‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat’” (cf. Matthew 26:26; 25:35). The same purity of heart that enabled her to see and adore Jesus in the Eucharist helped her to perceive him in others. 

She compared the work of the Missionaries of Charity to that of our Lady, who after conceiving Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit in the Annunciation went with haste to serve her elderly cousin Elizabeth, whom the Archangel Gabriel had told her was pregnant. 

“Every Holy Communion fills us with Jesus,” St. Teresa of Calcutta said to her spiritual daughters, “and we must, with Our Lady, go in haste to give him to others. For her, it was on her first Holy Communion day that Jesus came into her life, and so for all of us, also. He made himself the Bread of Life so that we, too, like Mary, become full of Jesus. We too, like her, should be in haste to give him to others. We too, like her, serve others.” 

She told her archbishop in Calcutta that from the time she made her first Holy Communion at age 5, she sensed within a great love for souls, one that led her to religious life and to become a missionary to bring Jesus to young people in India. Rather than abate, that Eucharistic desire for souls just grew. She told her spiritual sisters, “These desires to satiate the longings of Our Lord for souls of the poor — for pure victims of his love — go on increasing with every Mass and Holy Communion.”

In order to carry out the arduous work of caring for the poorest in often miserable circumstances, she knew she needed the Eucharistic Jesus as her “one thing necessary.” She begged the archbishop, “One thing I request of you, Your Grace, is to give us all the spiritual help we need. If we have Our Lord in the midst of us, with daily Mass and Holy Communion, I fear nothing for the sisters nor myself. He will look after us. But without him I cannot be. I am helpless.” 

The Eucharist is what perpetually gave her and her fellow missionaries strength. 

“People ask,” she confessed, “Where do the sisters get the joy and the energy to do what they are doing?” She replied, “The Eucharist.” At the 1976 Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia, she elaborated on that source of power: “To be able to live this life … we need our life to be woven with the Eucharist. That’s why we begin our day with Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. With him, we go forward.”

That self-giving vigor flows from authentic Eucharistic spirituality. 

“To make our lives a true sacrifice of love,” she wrote to her fellow sisters, “we will consciously and actively enter into the spirit of the Eucharistic sacrifice and offer ourselves with Christ to be broken and given to the poorest of the poor, … so that they may have life and may have it in abundance.”

St. Teresa of Calcutta’s life, work and missionary travels were not just to try to provoke a revolution of charity in one person at a time, but to foster the genuine Eucharistic revival that would lead to an overflow of love. 

She spoke often of the transformative power of the Mass, but, especially among faithful Catholics, she tried to get them to upgrade their Eucharistic spirituality through Eucharistic adoration. 

In a talk in Los Angeles, she encouraged Catholics in the United States to spend more time praying before Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, saying, “People ask me: ‘What will convert America and save the world?’ My answer is prayer. What we need is for every parish to come before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament in holy hours of prayer.” 

She spoke of the benefits: “Nowhere on earth are we more welcomed or loved than by Jesus in Eucharist. When you look at the crucifix, you understand how much Jesus loved you. When you look at the Sacred Host you understand how much Jesus loves you now. This is why we need Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration in every Parish throughout the entire World.” 

She expanded: “Perpetual adoration is the most beautiful thing you could ever think of doing. … Imagine for a moment that we are living in Jesus’ time and He has invited us to visit with Him and spend some quiet time getting to know Him better. Being aware who He was, we would be humbled and honored by such an invitation. The good news is that Jesus is here with us today — body, blood, soul and divinity — in the Holy Eucharist. Although Jesus comes to us under the appearance of bread and wine, his presence is as real to us now as He was flesh-and-blood-real to his disciples when he walked this earth. He can perform miracles, heal us, teach us and love us. We can talk to him and he can speak to us.”

She summarized, “The time you spend with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the best time that you will spend on earth.”

As we mark her 25th anniversary, a short span of time during which we’ve already celebrated her beatification and sanctification, we grasp that at the root of her holiness was her reception and adoration of him who is holy, holy, holy. Through her intercession, we ask the God who sanctified her to fill us with similar Eucharistic amazement and piety, so that like her we might live a truly Eucharist life by which the burning love of God in us overflows into ardent love of neighbor.