Mother Teresa at 100
From Skopje to Calcutta to the World
Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Agnes Bojaxhiu, better known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
She was born to an Albanian family in Skopje, a city at the crossroads of the Balkans, and went off to Ireland at the age of 18 to become a missionary with the Sisters of Loreto. She received the name Sister Mary Teresa, after St. Therése of Lisieux. The diminutive nun arrived in Calcutta, India, in 1929 and taught in a girls school.
In 1946, on the way to her annual retreat, she received what she termed a “call within a call” to serve the poorest of the poor with a new community, the Missionaries of Charity.
As the community began to spread beyond India, Mother Teresa and her work became well known. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. By the time of her death in 1997, the congregation had nearly 4,000 sisters in 610 foundations in 123 countries. Less than two years after her death, Pope John Paul II permitted the opening of her cause of canonization. She was beatified in 2003.
Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the postulator of her cause, first came to know Mother Teresa when his sister became a Missionary of Charity. Father Kolodiejchuk, who is from Winnipeg, was praying over a priestly vocation at the time and eventually joined Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity Fathers.
Now based in Tijuana, Mexico as superior of the Missionaries of Charity Fathers, Father Kolodiejchuk sat down with Register news editor John Burger recently to discuss Blessed Teresa’s life and legacy. Part 1 of the interview appeared here yesterday. Part 2 follows.
You’ve been studying Mother Teresa’s life. Are you coming to find new insights?
The book Come Be My Light 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 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, that contain that material, 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.
But, thankfully, the Jesuits kept that material. Mother herself was trying to get it destroyed, because as she was going through it, she didn’t have a sense that this was important. But the Jesuits had the good sense to realize this is not just Mother’s personal experience but it is, as it turned out it is, a very central aspect of the charism of the Missionaries of Charity.
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.” — it didn’t jibe between one and the other. But once they have a certain understanding of it, they realize there was a real depth to Mother, that other Catholics who admired Mother and the work she was doing … 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. We used to say, “We are resurrection people, and Alleluia is our song.” True, but not forgetting that the way to get there is through 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. If you disagree with the Church or its positions, you’re going to disagree with Mother Teresa. There was nothing there that was really against her virtues or holiness.
You could look at her life and say she really was a Catholic media celebrity. How did she get that way? You might even think she had a team of PR people 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.
Tomorrow: Mother Teresa up close.