From the Archives: Mother Teresa, in Her Own Words

Interview with a saint

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in the April 7, 1996, issue of the Register.

 

Eighteen-year-old Agnes Bojaxhiu left Albania in 1928, arriving in India a year later as a Sister of Loreto — Sister Mary Teresa — better known today as Mother Teresa of Kolkata. Two years later, after taking her final vows, Sister Teresa started teaching at Kolkata’s Loreto St. Mary’s School, until she set off in 1950 for what was to be her life’s work, a unique vocation among the world’s poorest of the poor. For India’s destitute and abandoned, her blue-striped white-cotton sari, the habit of the Missionaries of Charity Congregation she founded on Oct. 7, 1950, is a beacon of hope.

The Missionaries of Charity now work in 126 countries. [The number is currently 139.] The world community has recognized her work with a host of awards, including the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1973, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1980, in addition to India’s premier Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India) award in 1980.

In an exclusive interview, Mother Teresa spoke with Register correspondent Anto Akkara at the Missionaries of Charity home in New Delhi.

 

What is the motive behind all of your work?

Jesus very clearly said in the Gospel, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me.” That’s clear, isn’t it? That was the work of Jesus. Again, Jesus has said, “Come, blessed of my Father, take the seat in the kingdom prepared for you, because I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was naked, and you clothed me; I was homeless, and you gave me shelter; and I was sick, and you visited me.” And we are just doing that. Brothers, fathers and sisters — all of us in the Missionaries of Charity — are doing the same work. Each and every human being has been created by God to love and to be loved. We are involved in this work. When you do that, there is joy, unity and love.

 

Recently the Sankaracharya (Hindu supreme leader) has charged that the ultimate aim of your manav seva (service to mankind) is converting others to Christianity. How do you answer that?

My answer is: God forgive them all, for they know not what they are saying. I have told everybody that what we are doing is for the love of God, and works of love are always about accepting and respecting others. Works of love are always works of peace. In our home (for the dying) in Kolkata, there is great peace, unity and love. Many Hindu families bring food and clothing nonstop to our home for the dying. This is an act of love. I didn’t ask them to come. They have heard about what I am doing, and they all come. People have to see the beautiful work that’s being done. So many have found peace, joy and unity in their families by helping the poor. Anybody who helps the poor is delighted.

 

What about the charge of proselytizing?

Nobody can convert someone except God. Even if I wanted, I could not make them [turn] to God. Even less can I make someone Catholic. Nobody can change your religion unless you want to and God gives you the grace. It’s between you and God alone. Nobody can force you. We pick up people from the streets who are dying, who are full of worms. We have picked up more than 40,000 of them. If I lift up such a person, clean him, love him and serve him, is this proselytizing? He has been lying in the street like an animal, but I am giving him love, and he dies peacefully. That peace comes from his heart. That’s between him and God. Nobody can interfere with that. When the people we care for die, we always send for their co-religionists. Muslims bury Muslims, Christians bury Christians, and Hindus come and take away their dead to be cremated. I do make conversions, though, if conversion means really turning to God — to have a clean heart and to love God. That’s the real conversion.

 

Critics allege that you perform secret baptisms (on dying non-Catholics) in your homes. Is that true?

No, we do nothing like that. For all those who make up such stories, I only ask that God forgive them. I feel sorry for these people, because they are doing so much harm to themselves. If a Hindu wants to find the way to God, he has the right to go to any priest, nun or any other person. If you are Catholic, and some other person comes to you seeking guidance, naturally you take him straight away to someone who can show him God’s love. Conversion is not only a matter of changing religions.

Conversion means changing the heart, and that work is due to the grace of God. Nobody can force you to do that, not even the holy prophets.

 

Have you ever faced any harassment or discouragement from the Indian government?

Never. The government has great love for us and respect for the work we do. Our work takes place in the open. Everybody knows what we are doing. We have nothing to hide. I tell everyone, “Come and see.” Just now you went to see our nursery, with more than 100 orphan infants in cradles. See, it’s full of visitors.

 

Are you exploring some new fields for your congregation?

I am trying to open a house for AIDS victims here in Delhi. People are dying because of it.

 

I heard you in September telling Catholic clergy in prison ministry that “to care for men and women in jail is to do something beautiful for God.” Are you planning to enter the prison ministry yourself?

We are already taking care of people [recently released from] jail. More than 100 former women inmates are already with us in Shantidhan (Abode of Peace), and, soon, 22 boys will come to us from jail. Our [Missionary of Charity] brothers will take care of them. The West Bengal state government has asked us to take care of them. They should live in an atmosphere of love. They need to be loved.

 

You have been based in Kolkata, which has been under Marxist rule for almost two decades. Have you had any trouble from the government of West Bengal headed by Chief Minister Jyoti Basu?

We have never had any problem from them. Jyoti Basu has been very kind to us. He was the one who told me, “Mother, please do something for these [prison] girls.” Basu has been helpful and always accessible to us over the phone. We’ve never had any problem whenever we wanted to meet him.

 

Is it true that you want to open a house in Beijing?

Yes, I went to Beijing, and we are going to open a house there by Easter. [Editor’s note: The Missionaries of Charity have a house in Hong Kong.]

 

What was the response of the Chinese government?

Very, very courteous and positive. We have already opened a house in Vietnam. No difficulty. They all know what work we are doing — that we are in the service of the poor and sick. So, China, as well as other countries, welcomes us.

 

What are you doing to combat abortion?

I always say, “If you are afraid of the unborn, give them to me. Please, don’t kill them.” Here in India, we are fighting abortion through adoption. In Kolkata alone, we have given more than 1,000 children up for adoption. I cannot calculate how many babies we get a year. But we never refuse anybody. Everybody is most welcome.

 

Activists say you are perpetrating poverty instead of trying to rectify unjust structures. What about challenging the systems that foster poverty?

How can I act in an impersonal manner? When a man dies in the street for want of food, how can I ignore him? When I find a starving or naked man in the street, I cannot walk past him. I think no human being can do that. There are others who take up that role [of fighting unjust social structures]. I have no time for that. I am busy with my work. My path is clear: I see somebody dying, I pick him up. I find somebody hungry, I give him food. He can love and be loved. I don’t look at his color; I don’t look at his religion. I don’t look at anything. Every person — whether he is Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist — is my brother, my sister. I think we all must act in this way.

Anto Akkara is based in 

Bangalore, India.

L'Osservatore Romano image of Mother Teresa and John Paul II on May 31,1986.