Mother Teresa’s Secret China Missions: Full Disclosure

Her Emissary, Father John Worthley, Reveals Saint’s Disappointment and Flourishing Influence

(photo: Courtesy of the Knights of Columbus)

NEW SAINT. Official canonization portrait by artist Chas Fagan, commissioned by the Knights of Columbus. Courtesy of the Knights of Columbus


Editor’s Note: Father John Worthley shared details about his efforts as Mother Teresa’s emissary in China on background with this author over the past year. He publicly revealed aspects of the decades-long work in Rome on Sept. 2 as part of events surrounding St. Teresa of Calcutta’s canonization on Sept. 4.


ROME — Mother Teresa’s “last and only unfulfilled wish” was to bring her work to China, Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, postulator of her cause, told the Register at a canonization-weekend symposium dedicated to the saint’s work in Asia.

This remains “work to do in the future” for the Missionaries of Charity (MC), said Father Kolodiejchuk, a Missionaries of Charity Father, following the panel discussion “Mother Teresa: Mercy for Asia and the World” at the Pontifical Urban University sponsored by

Missionaries of Charity sisters can be found in 139 countries, up from 120 countries when Mother Teresa died in September 1997, according to figures provided by Sister Mary Prema Pierick, the congregation’s superior general. (Over the same period, the number of sisters grew by 32%, from 3,914 to 5,162.)

Sister Prema told the Register her sisters could start charitable work in China “in no time,” adding quietly, “We are ready for the signal.”


Revelations About China

St. Teresa was far more than theoretically prepared for China, according to Father John Worthley, 72, who advised the saint in her relations with the Chinese world and spoke at the symposium.

An authority in public administration who has taught in Chinese universities for 33 years, Father Worthley developed a wide network of contacts — and a national reputation — before quietly being ordained a priest in 1990.

Mother Teresa’s three visits to China were “heartbreaking” experiences, as she was successively denied permission to initiate work, despite well-prepared ground in Beijing (1985), Shanghai (1993) and Hainan (1994). 

“Reconciliation between China and the universal Church was a dream of Mother Teresa’s, and she made sacrifices for it,” said Father Worthley, who described her three disappointments as “holy sacrifices.”

Based on recent statements by the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the border separating China from the Holy See may soon be less impassable — keeping alive Mother Teresa’s unfulfilled dream.


First Family

China in the 1980s was a country undergoing great change and increased openness to the outside world. 

Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, who initiated dramatic economic reforms, many churches that were shuttered after the communist takeover were reopened, and a new constitution protecting “normal religious activities” was approved in 1982.

Meanwhile, Deng’s oldest son, Deng Pufang, was in the process of starting a national association for the disabled, a group ignored during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976.

As a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair — injured when Mao-inspired Red Guards threw him from a Peking University third-story window in 1968 — the leader’s son was especially dedicated to this cause. Deng Pufang wrote to Mother Teresa (having won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she was world-renowned) directly and invited her to Beijing to learn from her. According to Father Worthley, “Mother thought this was an invitation to open a house.”

During her four-day introduction to Beijing in January 1985, the saint visited a home for the elderly and a factory employing the disabled; she attended Mass and met with Liu Bainian, chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the Church’s state-sanctioned governing body.

With Deng Pufang, she gently sparred over God and atheism — later saying she was happy to see God’s name published in Chinese newspapers as a result of her exchanges with communist officials.

When she expressed her wish to bring Missionaries of Charity to China, 41-year-old Deng Pufang suggested she would need government approval. Later, he said the time was not right — although his new federation opened in 1988.


Carrying Boxes

In October 1993, the Church’s newest saint set off on a high-profile trip to Shanghai and Beijing, with a one-month visa, declaring, “I have to go to China; the Holy Father wants me to go.”

Media speculated on the possibility she was advancing a possible visit by St. John Paul II, but her main goal was, once again, to plant tabernacles — Mother’s term for MC houses — highlighting her purpose: making Jesus present everywhere Missionaries of Charity work.

The Chinese ambassador to India had visited an MC home for the dying in New Delhi, promising to help gain access to the Middle Kingdom; discussions were even initiated regarding what missionary sisters would be allowed to wear in China. Mother’s plan was to visit Shanghai first, out of respect for Jesuit Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, a powerful, albeit controversial, Church leader, who was jailed from 1955 to 1973 for refusing to defer to the Communist Party. In 1985, he accepted a government appointment to serve as bishop of Shanghai without Vatican approval, saying it was the only way to rebuild the Church. (Twenty years later, he reconciled with the Holy See.)

When Mother Teresa arrived in Shanghai with Sister Nirmala (the saint’s successor in 1997), her chaplain (an American), Sacred Heart Father Bill Petrie, his sister Jan Petrie (co-producer of the film Mother Teresa) and 13 boxes of items required for a Missionaries of Charity center, no officials were at the airport to meet them — a very bad sign. Mother helped carry the boxes through customs; Father Worthley, who became her “emissary” in China after working with her order in India in the late 1980s, and a representative of the Indian consulate were the party’s only greeters.

“I was later told by officials that protocol required Mother to enter China first through Beijing. Her entry through Shanghai was viewed by hardliners as a subtle undermining of the government,” explained Father Worthley.

Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian (1916-2013) was allowed to take her to the Sheshan basilica the next day, where she spoke to some 250 seminarians, and she went on to Beijing. But the writing was on the wall: Missionaries of Charity are not yet welcome.

“She was, again, heartbroken and embraced a second holy sacrifice for reconciliation between China and the universal Church,” Father Worthley remembered.

All 13 boxes remain at the Shanghai diocesan pastoral center, waiting for Mother’s order to gain approval, said the American priest.

 Eager to help Mother Teresa achieve her intensely felt mission for China, her team focused on Hainan, the country’s southernmost and smallest province in the South China Sea.

Deng Xiaoping had designated the island-based province a free-trade zone, making it a seemingly more flexible place.

After numerous visits and consultation between Hainan’s provincial disabled association and Deng Pufang’s group, the Missionaries of Charity received an official invitation from local officials for its sisters to work with the Haikou Welfare Center, in the provincial capital, caring for orphaned and disabled children.

Mother Teresa arrived in Hong Kong in March 1994, with four sisters who expected to relocate for good to Haikou, but mere hours before their departure to Hainan, the trip was canceled.

Mother was told her entry was barred.

“The Hainan friends and officials were confounded and devastated,” recalled Father Worthley.

“Mother was heartbroken.” 

He continued, “We later learned that, once again, hardliners both in Beijing and the Vatican had prevailed at the last minute. Mother had been so sure that this was the time.”

One of the project’s facilitators, poet and translator Li Qiang, in Rome for the first time to attend the canonization, remembers speaking to the saint that evening by phone with the bad news.

“She was entirely calm,” Li told the Register.

“Mainly, she was concerned that Beijing’s change of heart not hurt anyone in Hainan associated with the effort.” Three years later, at a press conference announcing her successor, Mother described her own main task as, still, setting up a China mission.

Evidence of the unfulfilled commitment remained with her from 1993 until her death: Concealed in a pocket of her sari, Mother Teresa kept a small statue of Our Lady of Sheshan (based on the original in Shanghai’s basilica), a gift from Bishop Jin.

The expressive image of Mary holding Jesus aloft travels between Missionary of Charity houses as a sign of Mother’s dream.


Flourishing Today

A joyous aspect of Father Worthley’s frustrating account was the presence at the AsiaNews symposium of a Chinese Catholic delegation from Hebei province: 12 laypeople and two priests, all members of a Missionaries of Charity “third order.”

Following Mother Teresa’s 2003 beatification, lay Catholic Li Baofu, a successful businesswoman, founded the Evangelic Association of Mother Teresa, growing the group through parishes, one at a time.

By 2010, the group functioned more formally at the diocesan level, centered in the historically Catholic province of Hebei, where many families trace their religious roots back to Jesuits who came to China hundreds of years ago.

Today, the movement has spread to three provinces and has about 16,000 members.

Beautifully attired in a blue-and-white silk headscarf, reminiscent of Missionaries of Charity sisters’ blue-and-white saris, Li Baofu told the Register through a translator, “We came to Rome to pray for the Church and China, but also for the whole world, which needs Jesus Christ.”

She said many of the third order’s followers would like to take vows, but must wait for recognition. Since China forbids international organizations, the group is organized as a diocesan order.

“What is most important is imitating Mother Teresa’s devotion and service,” the dedicated woman said.

Father Worthley calls the lay movement “another manifestation of the Holy Spirit in China.”

He described two other manifestations of Mother Teresa’s work in China: the Jinde Charities Foundation, inspired by Mother Teresa, the first nonprofit organization of the Chinese Catholic Church dedicated to social service, and the ongoing work of the Haikou Welfare Center, which honors the saint despite never partnering with her order.


Why China?

With global activities calling for her attention, why did the saint focus so squarely on China?

“Because she always wanted to go where there was a need,” Cardinal Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Bombay, told the Register.

“And she was so courageous; difficulty alone did not stop her,” he said, based on great familiarity with the saint, who often came to his office when he served as a priest-secretary to the Indian bishops’ conference.

Responding to the same question, Sister Mary Prema said, “Mother was endowed with an invincible faith, so she went forward to places where Jesus was not known.”

Added the German-born religious leader, “Closed borders were challenges Mother eagerly faced.”

Victor Gaetan is an

award-winning international correspondent

and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.