Former Time Magazine Journalist Remembers His Hard-Sought Interview With Mother Teresa

COMMENTARY: Tiny in stature, steeply bent, wrapped in a white cotton sari with three blue stripes and gripping a rosary — Mother Teresa seemed to do all things at once.

(photo: L’Osservatore Romano)

I did not expect that arranging an interview with Mother Teresa would be difficult. As Time magazine’s bureau chief in New Delhi in the late 1980s and ’90s, I frequently interviewed prime ministers, generals, political leaders and just about anyone in the news in south Asia. But repeated phone calls to the motherhouse of the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) got me nowhere. The sisters were polite but not at all interested.

I sought advice from Church figures and journalists, including my wife, Joan Frawley Desmond, who in those days was occasionally writing for the Register. What I heard was that Mother Teresa disliked journalists who portrayed her as a social worker.

It took a few phone calls from mutual Church friends to get the message through that I could do better. Finally, I received a typed letter from Mother Teresa asking me to be at the motherhouse, 54a A.J.C. Bose Road, on Dec. 16, 1988, for the interview. Her letter switched from the administrative to the evangelical in a few words. “Love to pray,” she wrote at the end of her note, “feel often during the day the need for prayer and take the trouble to pray so that you do the work entrusted to you for his greater glory. Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of himself.” With that, she signed off. 

Kolkata is even more noisy, crowded and chaotic than you might imagine. But it’s also an intensely friendly and warm city, once you get past the shock of arrival. I felt a little guilty staying in the comforts of the Oberoi Hotel, which was an oasis behind huge iron gates on Jawaharlal Nehru Road, a virtual river of life streaming through the city. My first stop was to see Father Edward Le Joly, who was an aged Jesuit from Belgium and longtime Kolkata resident. He had worked with the sisters for many years and had served as Mother Teresa’s confessor. He lived in a simple residence, with no more than a bed, a desk, a mosquito net and fan — to beat back the city’s dripping, relentless heat.

We talked about the interview over lunch. Father Le Joly told me that he had always wanted to ask Mother about her outlook on conversions in India. In her early years, the priest said, Mother Teresa was eager to create converts in large numbers. In the 60 years since she first arrived in India, she had come to be revered by Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike, and her work with the poorest of the poor, orphans and the dying was well known around the world. But conversions had come very quietly, if at all, and only at the margins on Indian society. I told Father Le Joly I would ask.

The next morning, I set out for the motherhouse of the Missionaries of Charity, which is really more of a bustling compound than a single building. I found my way in through the gate and asked for Mother Teresa, but she was easy to find.

Tiny in stature, steeply bent, wrapped in a white cotton sari with three blue stripes and gripping a rosary — Mother Teresa was moving quickly across the courtyard greeting visitors, consulting with sisters and reciting the Rosary. She seemed to do all this at once. I blocked her way to introduce myself, but she changed direction slightly and kept moving. I took a quick step and tried again, blurting out that I hoped there was some quiet place where we could talk. Just then, she turned to greet a Bengali doctor and his wife who volunteered in one of her clinics. 

Mother seemed determined to tack away from me like an ill wind blowing through her establishment. The only answer was to pursue her by holding a microphone under her mouth and half-shout the questions in her veil-covered ear. It seemed like a compromise she was willing to endure. She could hear me, but I could barely make out what she was saying. I could see her small hands working her rosary beads. Was she answering my questions or praying the Rosary? I wasn’t sure.

At every opportunity, she broke away to talk to some new visitor. Finally, after about 15 minutes, she turned and said, “That’s enough; please leave.” I quickly asked if I could come back again. I thought I heard her say, “Tomorrow.” 

I knew Mother would be at 6am Mass in the motherhouse’s sparse, concrete chapel, so I resolved to be there, too, hoping she might be impressed that I was up so early. There was no sign of that. After Mass, she knelt for a very long time saying the Rosary. Finally, she rose and moved quickly out of the chapel.

I caught up and pleaded for a few follow-up questions. She sighed as I pulled out the microphone and started again, once more on the move, but better able to hear her responses. At one point, she put me on the spot and asked me how I used my profession for God’s work, which left me red-faced. I continued without answering, which she did not seem to mind. I did get an answer to Father Le Joly’s question about conversions, however, and far too soon she said, “Enough.” And Mother Teresa was gone.

The interview was a failure, I was sure. I telexed the word to my editors in New York, and when I returned to New Delhi, I tossed the cassette tape in my office drawer. A year later, amid rumors that Mother Teresa’s health was failing, I pulled the tape out of my drawer and asked a colleague to transcribe it. I was looking for quotes that might be useful for her obituary. What I found instead was a huge surprise: The interview was clear, crisp and a bit remarkable. My ears and my frustration had deceived me. Mother Teresa came through beautifully. 

I made some quick edits for clarity, shortened the interview to fit the two-page interview format for Time and telexed the result to my editors in New York. Shortly thereafter, the interview was published in the weekly magazine and read by millions around the world. As for Mother Teresa, I never heard a word about the interview. I doubt she even read it. That stung, I’ll admit, because I really wanted some sign that maybe the interview was not so bad after all. 

I did hear from Mother Teresa again, but it was for a very different reason. I had sent the sisters clippings from The New York Times about the horrific conditions for disabled children in Romania’s orphanages in the wake of the communist regime’s collapse. It was news to Mother Teresa, who immediately went to work getting her sisters into Romania so they could once more bring God’s love to the poorest of the poor.

For that, her sisters did pass along Mother’s thanks. It may be that she finally heard the answer to her one question, the one that left me red-faced. In a very small way, I had done “the work entrusted to me for his greater glory.” 

Edward Desmond is a former Asia bureau chief for Time magazine.

See the interview here.