Lessons My Mother (Teresa) Taught Me

Father Leo Maasburg, a close companion of St. Teresa of Calcutta for many years, recounts how her holiness affected him and so many others.

Father Leo Maasburg speaks with Mother Teresa in an undated photo taken at Vienna's international airport.
Father Leo Maasburg speaks with Mother Teresa in an undated photo taken at Vienna's international airport. (photo: Maasburg/Missio)

VATICAN CITY — Father Leo Maasburg was a close companion of St. Teresa of Calcutta for many years, accompanying her on her travels and gaining valuable insight into the holiness of the newly canonized saint.

In this Sept. 3 interview with the Register in Rome, the Austrian priest recounts how the “Angel of the Poor” dealt with the constant adulation she received, how she discerned God’s will for her mission and what the Missionaries of Charity founder would probably think of Pope Francis.


Father Maasburg, what was your association with St. Teresa? How close were you to her?

I worked with her and accompanied her on her trips. When we went to the Soviet Union, she needed a priest. She wanted daily Mass; she wanted to be able to confess; she wanted, also, someone who carried her luggage and organized her trips.


What are the most profound memories you have of her?

That she was such a normal person, like my grandmother — very good, very tender, loving, but at the same time, she was the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met. So how to reconcile these two? She was normal and at the same time extraordinary. And in that extraordinary normality I always felt that she presented Christ, what he really wanted to tell us. She was a very good spokesperson [for Jesus].


She personifies the definition of a saint, an ordinary person who lived an extraordinary life?

Yes; and that life was, in really many ways, very extraordinary: the depth of her spirituality, the beauty of her heart, the goodness of her heart and the joy. The book I originally wanted to write was only on her humor. She had such a sense of humor, very, very quiet, deep and very witty. So that’s what I wanted to write, because it was so extraordinary; but then it got a little larger because she was a witness to Christ. … You see some analogy, some similarity with Jesus, passing through his way, full of joy, strength, clarity and great authority. She had a very strong authority, and I believe she was a precursor somehow to Pope Francis. Of course, she was a [kind of] Jesuit: She had a Jesuit education; her parish priest was a Jesuit; her spiritual director was a Jesuit; her first bishop was a Jesuit. Really, she had a Jesuit focus. And Pope Francis is a Jesuit, so they have the same roots. I’ve been thinking in recent days that they have a real similarity: to strive to build at hotspots [in need]. If there was any catastrophe, any problem, they want to be there: Mother Teresa, in Ethiopia, during the famine — she immediately went there; in Armenia, the earthquake — she immediately went. Pope Francis, the refugees in Lampedusa — he immediately went. In Lesbos, he wanted to be there. Maybe this is also a way of God being present in the hotspots of the world, and they are his arms and hearts. He incarnates that ability or that quality of God to be in the most difficult spots.


We try to know Jesus as best we can, but she truly and deeply knew him, didn’t she?

Yes. In her humorous way, on her way to her 30th honoris causa (honorary doctorate), she said: “You know, Father, I don’t know anything about law. I’ve never studied it. I’ve no diploma. I know a little bit about Jesus, and, immediately, they want to give me all these diplomas!”


She was always very modest.

She was always very modest, and I believe that her humility was real, even in those moments when traveling for hours and hours and the streets were lined with people cheering whenever she passed. [One time] there was the bishop sitting next to the driver in front, and people were cheering and shouting, and she said: “Bishop, bless them! Don’t you see how they cheer you?” In Vienna, we have a big saint in the town, St. Clement Maria Hofbauer, and she was driving down to the monastery of Heilegenkreuz, which is quite famous there. A monk was driving her, and when they reached Heiligenkreuz, thousands of young people were waiting for her, and the monk had just told her about that saint of Vienna. He said: “You know, it’s his feast day today.” And she said: “Oh, that’s why there are so many people here!”


How did she deal internally with the adulation?

A journalist once asked her: “Mother Teresa, aren’t you getting a little proud when you hear so much praise?” And she said: “It enters the right ear, it leaves the left ear, and there’s nothing in between.” I don’t think she was ever fishing for compliments; she was serious about that. She was completely empty. She had emptied herself for Christ, so that he could live in her. She was not herself, so in this sense, I think it was very true.


How did she do that? Through constant prayer and adoration?

Yes, she prayed constantly. If she had her hands free, she would pray the Rosary. She’d pray it very fast. I observed her very closely, and she prayed quickly, one bead after another. I thought, “That’s not a Hail Mary, but maybe she did it like the Fatima children did — just said Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, and Our Lady had to pray the rest.” But I think it’s an ejaculatory prayer, like “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me,” that kind of thing. But her mind was constantly set on Jesus.


Can you give another example of that?

I was driving from Madras state in India, which had invited her, and for the first time, she accepted an official invitation that meant she was received by the ministers, by the governor. The chief minister came; there was the red carpet and [honorific] things. I had a friend, a journalist, and chatted with him and thought I’d sit in his car; and when the column moves on, then he would move on. So we chatted for half an hour; and at that moment, a big man comes and shouts: “Father Leo, Father Leo!” and I think he can’t mean me. Then he came to the car and said, “Are you Father Leo?” I said, “Yes.” And he said: “Oh, please come Father Leo. Mother Teresa wouldn’t allow us to leave until you were in her car.” She kept the police cars, the military cars and the politicians’ cars — she kept everybody waiting till I arrived. She asked, “Where was Father Leo?” And so she waited. And then you can imagine how I felt? I could have crawled easily under a carpet, but then I was sitting next to her, and on the other side was the archbishop of Madras. She didn’t say anything, she didn’t say a single word of reproach or anything, so then she turned to me and said: “Father, look,” and pointed to a sign on the window and asked, “Father, what does it mean?” I said, “Well, it says ‘VVIP.’” And she said, “Do you know what it means?” “Yes, Mother, I do.” After a while, she said: “Father, what does it mean?” I said it means “very, very important person.” After a while, she said: “Father, whom do they mean?” I said, “Mother, you and the archbishop.” After a while, she said, “Why do they say that?” I said, “Mother, because of you and because of the archbishop.” “Oh no, Father, they say that because we bring them Christ.” So everything was centered on Christ.


There’s that famous quote of hers, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” But she must have reproached some people.

There’s a difference between judging and reproaching because, when she was 82, I remember very well, and I also remember the day, when she said there’s one sin I would never have to confess: that I judged anybody. Can you imagine that?


And yet she could be very strong and clear in her judgment.

She could be very clear, but she’d say, “Father, if you continue that way, you go to hell.” But she was not judging him. She’d say, “I don’t know why you are doing this, but if you continue to do it, then you will go to hell.”


So she’d judge the behavior but not the person?

Exactly, and that was very clear. It was also so comforting because you felt that at ease [in her presence]. You’d immediately feel she’s not judging you. She still loves you fully; and out of love, she says, “Be careful.” So that is very important to keep in mind.

She was also very strong. When we went to Russia, she asked if I was ready to come to Russia, and I said, “Yes, of course,” after Christmas, because they left on Dec. 19, 1986, I believe. She left for Moscow, and I was scheduled to already have my visa and everything. I was not supposed to come immediately, but later, when the house was settled. In the evening of the 19th, a fax arrived saying, “Father Leo, come immediately; bring everything. God bless you, Mother Teresa.” I’d promised my sister I’d come for Christmas. I hadn’t seen her for a long time, so I phoned my sister to say don’t worry; I’d be back for the 24th for sure. My brother had given me as a Christmas gift — a new laptop, one of those extremely modern first laptops where you could copy from one disk to another and incredible things. So I thought I would take it to Russia and impress them with this technology. But, partly, I was not allowed to take it, and, secondly, I would have lost everything because all of our luggage was lost. But Mother Teresa said, “You know, better to be humble, in love and service.” It cost me a lot, it really cost me a lot, but I didn’t take it, so it was saved. I didn’t lose it.

Then, a few months later, she phoned from Kolkata to say, “Happy Easter,” and she asked if I still wanted the computer. I said, “Yes, if you agree,” and she said, “Yes, Father! Now you can bring it,” because the witness had not been destroyed through the wrong attitude. The witness was to humble love and service, not on myself, but by the humble love and service of the sisters. And it was not disturbed by a priest running around with a hi-tech instrument. But after six months, she remembered. That’s the point, the delicacy.


The little things she remembered.

The little things: That’s the attentiveness she had; that’s the first step to God.


She used to pray the “Flying Novena,” and she’d pray a 10th one for receiving what she was praying for. Was that very much her attitude, that if she asked God for something, she lived in expectation that it would be done?

She would put it through a very thorough examination of spirits, spiritual discernment. I remember at Porto Santo Stefano, not far from Rome, a man was completely taken by a talk, and she had come for a short visit. Spontaneously, he presented her with the key of his beautiful villa at the beach and said, “This is for you, for the poor,” because she’d just explained she wanted a home for AIDS patients. And she said, “Well, where is the villa? How big is it? How many rooms has it got?” She had it all described to her; and after some time, she said, “I believe it’s better not to take it.” And he said, “But, Mother, why don’t you want it?” She said, “If we put AIDS people there, your neighbors would be offended. They will not like it, they will protest, and we don’t want to put them under strain. It’s also a bit too pompous for us.” And he said, “But, Mother you can have it; you can sell it.” But she said, “You know, what I don’t need right now only burdens me.” Then he said, “But you can use it for later on.” She said, “If I need something later on, God will give it to me.” She thought, “I belong totally to him, so he has to finance everything.” She was very clear about that.


What do you think of such an attitude?

It’s a very wise and also very mature attitude. If it’s really God’s plan, she believed, he’s not going to drop me. He’ll be dropping his own plan, otherwise. She had a very great way of discerning. She had had tremendous experience already; she knew spiritual situations; she knew people by intuition. She could read people. She was very intelligent, but she would always ask for advice. Everything she did was in two steps: The first step was decision-making, asking everybody. The second step was decision-taking, which was only her responsibility. If you gave her advice, which she followed but didn’t work out, she would never blame you. It was her decision. She took responsibility for what she decided, but she would be very open and asked, “Bishop, what do you think about this?” She went to see the Pope before she went to Russia. She said, “Holy Father, do you want me to go? If you say No, I will never try it.” The Holy Father said, “You go where I cannot go.”

It was a very clear process, and she would hardly ever say, “No” but “better to,” as with little children. She was a teacher from A to Z. “Father, better no, but better to do it this way.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.