Remembering Blessed Teresa’s Martyrs of Charity

EDITORIAL: As we prepare for Holy Week, the death of the four sisters in Aden reminds us that fellow Christians across Africa and the Middle East face growing persecution for their beliefs.

(photo: Courtesy of Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia; via Catholic News Agency Instagram)

Every day before morning Mass, Missionaries of Charity around the world recite the prayer they received from Blessed Mother Teresa:

“Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as you deserve; to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labor and not to ask for reward.”

On March 4, members of the order in Yemen began their day with that same prayer, and so prepared their souls for death at the hands of assailants, who stormed their home for the elderly and disabled in Aden, the provisional capital of the Arab country. Four sisters and 12 others at the residence were killed by gunmen who tied up their victims before executing them.

The news shocked Pope Francis, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, across the globe. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, wrote March 5 that the Pope “sends the assurance of his prayers for the dead and his spiritual closeness to their families and to all affected from this act of senseless and diabolical violence.”

Bishop Paul Hinder, the apostolic vicar of the Arabian Peninsula, acknowledged the presence of extremist groups in the war-torn region, where the Islamic State group and al-Qaida have recently gained ground. “The Missionaries of Charity died as martyrs: as martyrs of charity, as martyrs because they witnessed Christ and shared the lot of Jesus on the cross,” said Bishop Hinder, who noted that radical groups in the region “simply do not support the presence of Christians who serve the poorest of the poor.”

According to news reports, the sisters who were executed on March 4 were well aware of the grave danger they faced, as the violence escalated between opposing groups. But they remained nonetheless, eager to serve in the Arab world’s poorest nation.

Pope St. John Paul II once called Mother Teresa a “fearless messenger of Love.” Surely, the four sisters who died in Aden — Sister Anselm from India, Sister Marguerite and Sister Reginette, both from Rwanda, and Sister Judith from Kenya — showed that same fearlessness.

News of their executions came just days before the Vatican confirmed that Mother Teresa’s canonization date would soon be announced by Pope Francis. In December, he approved her cause for canonization, after a Brazilian man who sought her intercession was healed of multiple brain abscesses.

Mother Teresa died in 1997, after suffering cardiac arrest in her Kolkata motherhouse. And Catholics inspired by her service were shocked to learn that she had been given a spiritual trial that made it almost impossible for her to experience God’s presence.

“I want to love him as he has not been loved,” she said, in a letter to her spiritual director that is cited in David Scott’s biography, The Love That Made Mother Teresa. “[A]nd yet there is that separation, that terrible emptiness, that feeling of absence of God.”

Pope St. John Paul II, who knew her well, alluded to that trial during the October 2003 Mass that celebrated her beatification.

“‘The Son of Man also came ... to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45). Mother Teresa shared in the passion of the crucified Christ in a special way during long years of ‘inner darkness.’ For her, that was a test, at times an agonizing one, which she accepted as a rare ‘gift and privilege,’” said the Pope, who added that he often felt her presence beside him.

“In the darkest hours, she clung even more tenaciously to prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. This harsh spiritual trial led her to identify herself more and more closely with those whom she served each day, feeling their pain and, at times, even their rejection.”

The Pope expressed gratitude for her stirring legacy of Christian discipleship and missionary zeal. He celebrated the courageous spirit that first led her to the desolate city streets of Kolkata, where she rescued the dying. That same courage prompted her to affirm pro-life Gospel values in her acceptance speech for the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize: “To me, the nations with legalized abortion are the poorest nations. The greatest destroyer of peace today is the crime against the unborn child.”

As we prepare for Holy Week, the death of the four sisters in Aden reminds us that fellow Christians across Africa and the Middle East face growing persecution for their beliefs. They are carrying the cross of Christ to Golgotha for all of us, and we pray that they may experience the presence of Jesus and of Blessed Teresa as they traverse the valley of death.

At the crucifixion of Jesus, his apostles, his Blessed Mother and Mary Magdalene could not know what lay beyond the darkness that settled over the earth.

Mother Teresa experienced that same darkness. Yet she was sustained by the knowledge that Christ had triumphed over evil.

That truth inspired her to find and care for men, women and children who yearned to feel the warmth of a gentle human touch or the joy transmitted by a tender smile meant only for them. Likewise, she perceived the shifting currents of Western culture and urged the faithful to tend to the spiritual poverty of their neighbors who were starved for love amid their worldly treasures.

“Jesus passed through this mortal mesh in order to open a path to the Kingdom of Life. For a moment, Jesus seemed vanquished: Darkness had invaded the land; the silence of God was complete; hope a seemingly empty word,” said then-Pope Benedict XVI during his 2012 Easter homily.

“And lo, on the dawn of the day after the Sabbath, the tomb is found empty,” Pope Benedict continued. “The Risen One does not belong to the past, but is present today, alive. Christ is hope and comfort in a particular way for those Christian communities suffering most for their faith on account of discrimination and persecution.

“And he is present as a force of hope through his Church, which is close to all human situations of suffering.”

Blessed Teresa of Kolkata, pray for us!