Mother Teresa at 100

The postulator of the cause of canonization of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, speaks to the Register on the centenary of Mother Teresa’s birth.

Father Brian Kolodiejchuk is the postulator of the cause of canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

He first met Mother Teresa when his sister entered the Missionaries of Charity. A few years later, Father Kolodiejchuk, responding to an invitation from Mother Teresa, became a Missionary of Charity brother and later priest.

Now superior general of the Missionaries of Charity Fathers, Father Kolodiejchuk spoke to Register news editor John Burger at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn., where he spoke at the launch of an exhibit honoring Mother Teresa’s 100th birth anniversary.

We’re here because of Mother Teresa’s centennial, which is Aug. 26. Something tells me she wouldn’t want the attention.

She would approach this the same way she approached receiving an award, which is that it gave her an occasion to speak about God, speak about the poor and try to inspire people to also look and see, even around them, who Jesus in the poor is, beginning in their own family. These kinds of occasions are just means. With Mother in heaven and especially since the beatification, there’s another kind of role Mother Teresa has.

Even in these things, the focus is on her, but just like when she was alive, she would turn the focus to Jesus.

So, hopefully, people who say they are believers — Catholics — would, through Mother, again focus on Jesus, and then on the message of seeing Jesus in the poor and seeing Jesus in those around them and doing ordinary things with extraordinary love.

What do you mean when you say there’s another kind of role Mother has since her beatification?

That’s the role of the saints. We look to their life to be an example, and then in the communion of saints we also have them as intercessors. In some ways, it’s better for us than when Mother was living because we would have to wait until she came to where we were, or maybe we could write a letter, and Mother didn’t like the telephone. But now, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we have direct contact.

She didn’t like the telephone?

No, she was very practical and didn’t want to just sit around and be on the telephone. And she would be concerned about the long-distance charges. That’s part of poverty.

As postulator, what exactly do you do?

Since 2008, I’m also the superior general of the Missionaries of Charity Fathers. Thankfully, we have sisters who do a lot of the day-to-day things (with the cause) in Tijuana. There are four sisters in Tijuana, two in Rome and two in Calcutta. The postulation and the Mother Teresa Center [] are the same people; there are two aspects of the work. With any cause, there’s always two aspects: the formal process and the “promotion” of the person, promoting knowledge of the person and veneration of that person.

When the cause started in 1999, we were mostly focused on the formal process as such. Mother Teresa already had such a solid and widespread reputation for holiness that we didn’t need to do so much of that stuff. But now it’s already 13 years since Mother died. So people who were maybe children or early teens may have known, and anyone else may have known something about Mother Teresa — they know the name or some general idea. Maybe they’re not quite as familiar because she’s not in the media as much as when she was living. So, part of the Mother Teresa Center, which is part of the work of the postulation … will continue after the canonization, whenever that is.

Basically, the MCs had a choice of doing nothing, so to speak, and let Mother Teresa blow in the wind, and whatever happens, or to say No, we have a certain responsibility to Mother Teresa herself and to the Church and say We want to preserve that legacy and present “This is Mother Teresa.” So one of the key words in the center is “authentic.” Or even just information, the facts, and Mother Teresa in her fullness, let’s say. It’s sort of the other side of the work, of the knowledge and the veneration of Blessed Teresa.

Do you continue to study her life in any way?

Yes. Come Be My Light [the 2007 collection of her letters, which revealed her years of spiritual struggle] was the first work of the center, and then this fall, coming again with Doubleday, [there will be a book of] mostly quotes of Mother Teresa. And then after that, we’ll start on the biography, because we have lots of information and data and there’s no one book, especially for biographical kinds of information. I mean, some of them are quite good, based on the information they had, but since we were able to gather all this information for the cause — that was a formal process — there’s lots of data to make, hopefully, a decent biography. We can’t use everything, because, normally, full access to the archives is 50 to 70 years after a person dies. Now, not so much for Mother’s sake but for the people involved, the other people who are still alive or recently deceased.

But there’s still a lot of stuff we can use, hopefully going deeper. Now that Come Be My Light really revealed the profundity of Mother’s holiness — everyone had a sense she radiated holiness without really knowing much of the actual characteristics of that holiness. Those letters really revealed a real depth of that holiness that was kind of hidden by Mother’s simplicity, action and words. Some of the things she would say, for example: “Give whatever he takes, take whatever he gives, with a big smile,” meaning we’re suppose to accept God’s will, surrender, and with a smile, cheerfully. But when you realize that that resolution, that prayer was made in the midst of this extreme suffering of the darkness, then you say, “Oh, well, now it’s something a little deeper.”

Are you coming to find new insights into her life?

The book has those three aspects that were unknown even to the closest sisters: the private vow of 1942, to give to Jesus whatever he may ask, not to refuse him anything — a vow Mother made for herself with the permission of her confessor, as a Loreto sister still; then four years later was the inspiration, Sept. 10, 1946. We knew there was Sept. 10 — the call, or as Mother would say, “the call within a call,” but though we knew it was that day, exactly what happened, she would never say.

But now we know it was by locution — interior, imaginative locution. So she heard very clearly and distinctly Jesus’ voice, and it continued in all the next months, well into 1947. So, for example, she would say, “In all my prayer and holy Communion, Jesus continually asking ‘Wilt thou refuse?’”

In ’42 she made a vow not to refuse him anything, and now he’s asking, “I want you to do this. Are you going to refuse?”

So, during those weeks and months, in those locutions that she wrote down in two letters that remain, Jesus will say, “Your vocation is to love and suffer and save souls” or “You and your sisters have to be victims of my love” or “If you are my own little spouse, you will have to bear these torments on your heart.”

Now, in ’46, ’47, Mother didn’t have any way of knowing what that would mean for the next 50-odd years. And so that’s kind of the connection between those three things that very few people had any idea of.

Would you explain?

In July 1961, she made a general letter after one of the Jesuits, Father [Josef] Neuner, gave her a key insight, saying, “This is a spiritual side of your work.” She made a general letter, basically without revealing where it was coming from, but talked about “I want you to go deeper into the mystery of the redemption” and “Our work is not just social work” and “Jesus shared our experience. He was one with us, and we need to do the same, so the spiritual desolation of the poor people we also have to carry ourselves,” and that’s what she was doing.

Usually the dark night of the soul and all the purifications are very painful, and to get to that contemplative prayer, that real union. So she went to that during Loreto. And during the time from the inspiration, especially 1947, she experienced real, deep union with God, and after that the darkness came back.

So like others — for example, St. Therése of Lisieux in the last 18 months of her life had a similar kind of experience — it’s not so much for purification anymore, but it’s kind of what Dominican Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange called “reparatory darkness” or maybe we can call it “apostolic darkness.” So that Mother Teresa and the sisters try to live simply, we live poorly, so we can identify with and understand the material poverty we serve. And now also we realize that when Mother was going out in the West more she was saying the greatest poverty in the world today is to be unloved, unwanted and uncared for. So she was experiencing that as well. So: identity with and solidarity with those who were lonely, all the suffering involved in being unloved, unwanted and uncared for. And in our Catholic understanding, Jesus on the cross is there in our place, or he’s there for us, and so, in union with Jesus, also our cross, our sufferings can be for the sake of others; and so in Mother Teresa’s case, it was also her way, a very important, essential way of living the charism of being a religious, consecrated, while she understood herself to be the spouse of Jesus crucified. So, it was her way of being united to Jesus in his most extreme suffering. And at the same time being united to Jesus was also for the sake of the poorest of the poor, especially that spiritual poverty; that is so much what John Paul would call the new forms of poverty.

Since the news of that dark night of the soul came out, what kind of effect has that had on people who follow Mother Teresa, who are devoted to her, and on Catholics in general?

I think the unfortunate part of it maybe was initially a certain confusion, because if they were to have read just the headlines or something — for example, there was one that said “Mother Teresa’s Secret: I Have No Faith.” So people were like, “How can this be? Holy Mother Teresa, and now all of a sudden she lost her faith.”

But once they have a certain understanding of it, they realize there was a real depth to Mother, … in many ways, her stock went up for many people.

For other Catholics, the dark night was new. It’s not in your everyday catechism. In that sense, it was a good teaching moment: what is suffering, the positive role of suffering, the cross and the resurrection, not to lose either of them; not suffering for the sake of suffering or the glorification of suffering, or not just the resurrection. We kind of forget the cross.

There had been a lot of criticism of Mother Teresa coming from people like Christopher Hitchens. Does any of that linger today, and how would you respond to some of it?

Probably. For example, what started the criticism, even before that book by Christopher Hitchens, The Missionary Position, was a film called Hell’s Angel or something.

I asked Hitchens to be a witness for the cause, and he was one of the official witnesses in Washington, D.C.

What was his testimony?

That I couldn’t say. … There was nothing there that was really against her virtues or holiness.

Mother Teresa really was a celebrity. How did she get that way? You might think she had a PR team behind her or that she cultivated publicity.

On the contrary. She said, “I’ll have less purgatory because I’ve already been purified by the media.” The first time they asked her to speak in public, she didn’t want to. She asked one of her co-workers to speak. She was naturally very shy. By her own tendency, she would not have wanted anything to do with the media, but she also understood it was a way of bringing people’s attention to the poor. So, just like everything else, she didn’t want any personal attention. She would deflect and concentrate on the work. She realized it was a means of making the faith known and bringing attention to the poorest of the poor, that they’re there. All the awards, she would go there and say, “I accept this in the name of the poor.” So, again: that purpose of recognition of the poorest of the poor, a means of helping the poor and also, in some way, a chance to speak of God.

Who is Brian Kolodiejchuk?

I was born in Winnipeg in Canada. I was raised in the Ukrainian Catholic Church. My parents were first-generation (Canadians). Each of my parents had one parent born in Canada, the other born in Europe. I have one sister, who is an MC also. Right now she happens to be in Bridgeport (Connecticut), in charge of the house of prayer they have there.

She joined the MCs first, in 1976. My parents and I went to Rome the next year to visit her. So that year, ’77, Mother Teresa was beginning the first group of contemplative brothers, and at the opening, Mother Teresa, who knew I was the brother of one of her sisters, said, “Oh, I would like to pin a cross on you,” because that was the ceremony, beginning with one priest and five Italian lay people. The MCs wear a cross on their shoulder.

My first reaction was to say nothing. Only the next day, she was in the convent, and she was alone, so I just went up and asked her, and she invited me to come and join the brothers, which I did in the fall. I was there two years, and I still wanted to be a priest, so I went home to continue philosophy for two years.

You had already been thinking of the priesthood.

I was with the Ukrainian-rite Redemptorists, in the minor seminary and three years in Toronto in their pre-novitiate program.

So then I came back and went back to the brothers. They had opened to having priest candidates, but after a couple years more, it still wasn’t my place. So then I left, and a few weeks later, Mother said Yes to having MC fathers, or the group of priests, so then we started in ’83, but as a secular institute the first year; then in ’84 we became MC fathers. I was ordained in ’85 in Newark, in the Ukrainian church there, in the Eastern rite. I have permission to serve and minister in the Latin rite, without giving up the rite, because they don’t allow you to change rites now, especially going from Eastern rite to Latin rite. Depending on the circumstances, you may serve in the Latin rite, but they don’t want you to change rites. I wouldn’t want to anyway.

So then I happened to be the superior of the formation house in Rome at the time, in ’97, when Mother died. And I was already working on my Ph.D., near finishing, so I had a certain academic background. Mother died Sept. 5, 1997, and in October, the archbishop of Calcutta went to the Congregation for Saints and asked, “What about beginning the cause?” Because the law is to wait for five years. They didn’t give an answer until the following year, Dec. 12, 1998. But they said, “In the meantime you can do some preliminary work and start to get things in order.”

So, the archbishop appointed two sisters and myself as a little committee for gathering documentation and things so they wouldn’t be lost, especially people who could be witnesses, and if we had to wait for five years, as it turned out, we wouldn’t have had their testimony.

I took the four-month course the congregation offers every year for people involved in causes, and during that course, we were told they were going to make an exception to the five-year rule.

You had some experiences getting to know Mother Teresa, working with her.

Since 1977 until 1997, I had personal contact for 20 years, and, thankfully, I was always in a place where she would come quite often because she would be traveling two or three times a year through Rome, initially, then in New York she would come; later on, when we moved to Tijuana, she also came. So I had a chance: Being one of the first members, you had more contact [with her]; just being in a position of responsibility also.

What were some of the things that surprised you about her?

One of the impressive things was — before learning anything from the documentation afterwards — that she really was motherly, that personal attention and care. She was very observant: you couldn’t pull the wool over her eyes if you wanted to. Some people think saints are in the clouds, but normally saints are very down-to-earth, and Mother was very down-to-earth and very practical.

The second thing was how very ordinary she was in the way she acted. Sometimes, for example, if you didn’t know what she looked like, and you went to the convent and saw a bunch of nuns, you might not pick her out in the beginning. But if you paid attention and watched closely, you would start picking up little things that were very ordinary but done specially. For example, how she would make a genuflection or, say, taking the holy water when entering the chapel.

How was it?

You can genuflect almost automatically, … just because it’s routine. But those little simple things, she would do them attentively. I remember, along those lines, just in the last months she was in Rome, in May and July, one of the sisters remarked to me how edified she was — by that time Mother needed help getting dressed, and she was in the wheelchair — and yet, first thing in the morning, when they were helping her get dressed, she would put in the sari the little safety pins, and she was impressed just how attentively or devotedly she would put in those pins. How many hundreds or maybe thousands of times did she do that over 50 years? And even though she was old, sick, forgetful at times, and yet those things, completely routine in one sense, that she would do that with that devotion. In the MC prayer book, they have little prayers for when you’re putting on the habit, each part of the habit. They’re little things in themselves, but that’s what makes the difference between, say, a regular religious and a holy religious. You don’t have to do extraordinary things. Before, one of the criteria for holiness was extraordinary deeds, and Pope Benedict XV changed it. What did he do? And the answer was, roughly, if you do what you have to do when you have to do it — God’s will according to your state in life — out of love, with fidelity and constancy, that’s canonizable already. It sounds easy, but it’s not so easy. For religious, priests, laypeople, it’s the same thing, same principle.

And that may be one of the things that comes out of her canonization that will help people live a Christian life.

Yes, because sometimes they made a distinction between saints who are admirable and others who are admirable and imitable. So, say, Simeon the Stylite you wouldn’t imitate … being on a pole. But other saints — St. Thérèse, Mother Teresa and others — we can imitate them. I know Mother Teresa often would say — a good disciple of St. Thérèse — “Do ordinary things with extraordinary love.” Or she would say, “For God nothing is small; for us they’re small.” But what gives them value is the love with which you do them. And that’s for anybody and everybody. The most simple, ordinary thing: in the house, at work, wherever you go.

The Register’s news editor John Burger filed this interview from the Knights of Columbus Museum.