‘Do ordinary things with extraordinary love’

The Things That Made Mother Teresa Tick

Mother Teresa of Calcutta wrote on the back of this undated image, "The first child I picked up. He died a saintly boy."
Mother Teresa of Calcutta wrote on the back of this undated image, "The first child I picked up. He died a saintly boy." (photo: CNS photo by Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

Father Brian Kolodiejchuk never expected to become a priest in Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity Fathers.

Now he is superior of the congregation — as well as postulator of the cause of canonization of Mother Teresa.

He first met her when his sister entered the Missionaries of Charity. Along the way, he had ample time and opportunity to get to know the “saint of the gutters.”

In this third and last part of Register news editor John Burger’s interview with him, Father Kolodiejchuk discusses what he discovered.

What led you to the Missionaries of Charity and how did you come to know Mother Teresa?

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.

Do you still celebrate Divine Liturgy in the Eastern rite?

Recently, not so much, but I do occasionally, and earlier, I did much more often, even with the seminarians, and they learned how to sing, in English, the Divine Liturgy from beginning to end. It was very nice, actually.

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 waiting 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. Then the question was: “Who’s going to be the postulator?” Initially, we were kind of wondering, well maybe other people, and then we went to the Jesuits — Father Molinari was the Jesuit postulator general, and Father [Peter] Gumpel — and they said, “No, we won’t take it. It actually should be one of you, because if you’re presenting a person and a charism, it’s like a Dominican being a postulator for a Jesuit, which of course would never happen.”

So, they said, “We’ll help you,” and as a matter of fact, they were very generous in helping if I had a question.

We had Msgr. Sarno in the Congregation for Saints, who’s an American, who was also very helpful.

So, even though I was a greenhorn, we proceeded, and as it turned out without any major mistakes.

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. It can be more a prayer than really a prayer, a devotion, 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.