Canonization September 4
Feast: September 5
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
On August 16, 1948, Sister Teresa laid aside her beloved habit, put on a simple sari, and stepped out the door. After twenty years she was no longer a teaching sister of Loreto, but she was embarking as God’s servant on a great adventure. Only a heart entirely on fire with love for the Lord would see anything beautiful or any promise in this new calling. In fact, all she knew of it was that God wanted her to go out into the streets of India and serve the poor.
It had all started on a train trip to Darjeeling. She was on her way to make the annual retreat at the Loreto Convent, when she was suddenly seized with an intense awareness of India’s suffering poor. Jesus began to speak to her heart of his particular desire. I thirst for souls. Do not deny me this. Go out and bring my light into the hovels of the poor. Serve me in them. Love me in them.
Teresa had struggled with how to implement this “call within a call.” She was a religious and always would be a religious, but Jesus wanted her to leave what she knew and begin to serve the country’s masses of poor people in a new way. She had confided only in her spiritual advisor, Father Celeste Van Exem, SJ. He then sent her to the archbishop. When she approached His Grace Ferdinand Périer, he listened attentively as she pleaded for permission to begin, “It is the Lord who asks, who commands, that I go to the poorest of the poor, to shine the light of his love on all those in need.”
“But your vocation is to be a Loreto sister,” the archbishop explained. “You are a gifted teacher, and God knows we need them these days. Now I don’t want to hear anything more on this matter until I return from Rome.”
So Sister Teresa put all her desires—and Jesus’s plans—on hold. However, the archbishop had given some hope. He instructed her to spend the coming months formulating answers to some important questions: what exactly do I want to do and how will I go about doing it? who will follow me, and how will I form them? would it be better to join an existing congregation or form a secular group? what success could I hope for? I should also ask myself how the work will be supported, Sister Teresa had thought. And she had prayed as never before. That was the easy part because Jesus was always there for her with his comfort and his encouragement. When the archbishop returned to Calcutta he listened again to her plans and this time gave Sister Teresa permission to set out to serve the poor.
But now, months later on the street, she must be the comforter. She had all the necessary permissions and had taken a basic nursing course; she was eager to begin. Realizing that she too was now poor, with no position, no home, no money, she quickly sought a place to stay. She was able to rent a little room that lacked everything, where she gathered a few children for reading lessons. These children would help her gain the trust of the neighborhood. My neighborhood, she reflected. Here I am teaching children of the slum right in the streets behind our Loreto school, but I must expand out from here to find more of God’s needy children.
As she walked the streets, Sister Teresa came upon a women lying in the trash. She was feverish and badly bitten by rodents and ants. “I have brought this poor woman to you for care,” she announced to the local hospital staff.
“Sorry,” they replied. “We cannot accommodate her.”
“And why not?” Sister Teresa asked. “She is dying and needs to be cared for.” The hospital attendants tried to make the little nun and the poor woman leave. Finally Sister Teresa sat down next to her charge and said, “I will not leave here until you admit her.” Reluctantly they took in the woman. Sister Teresa later learned that the woman was restored to health. In her mind, however, she kept repeating what the woman had told her, “Imagine, Mother, it was my own son who tossed me there.”
Who will take care of all these people? As Sister Teresa asked herself this question over and over she heard the voice of Jesus again insisting, I thirst for souls. Serve me in them. Love me in them. It became clear that what she must do is to seek out each needy individual. And, one by one, to show them the love of God, the face of Christ in her own smile and by her gentle touch. After all, she reflected, hadn’t Jesus assured us that what we do to others in reality is done to him?
And so, Sister Teresa sought out the poor, the sick, the dying wherever she found them. She petitioned the local municipality for a place to shelter her charges. “They gave me a large building that had once been a hostel for pilgrims to the shrine of a Hindu goddess,” she noted. Sister Teresa promptly turned this house over to Mary Immaculate, naming it Nirmal Hriday, “pure heart.” This gesture of the government did not sit well with some of the local people. They wanted these Christians expelled from the property of the shrine. One day a politician who had promised action on the matter asked for a tour of the facility.
When he emerged outside to face the disgruntled crowd, he announced, “It is true I promised you that these nuns would leave, but that can happen only when you send your mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters to take their place. At the shrine there is a wooden goddess; here there are living goddesses.”
With her work underway, Teresa’s next big concern was how to do all this by herself. Lord, send me helpers. You see how much need surrounds me, she prayed. On a day in early 1949 Sister Teresa turned from the person she was serving to see a familiar face. It was one of the young women she had taught at the Loreto School.
Shubashini Das was an intelligent young woman from a well-to-do Indian family. “Mother, I am here to help with your work,” she declared. Sister Teresa wanted to welcome her with a grateful embrace, but instead she sent the young woman away, telling her to think about it carefully. If she was still interested she could come back in a couple of months. Reluctantly her would-be companion walked away.
However, after two months had passed Shubashini Das was back. “Okay, Mother. Two months have passed and now I am here to stay.” She became Sister Agnes, the first of many. Soon three more former students arrived to join their beloved teacher in her new work.
When a few more anxious new disciples arrived, Sister Teresa applied for canonical permission to form a new religious congregation “to serve the poorest of the poor.” She explained, “We are to be called the Missionaries of Charity. In addition to the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, we will also take a vow of charity.”
The constitutions she prepared in the evenings after caring for the sick were approved on the feast of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in 1950. This allowed Teresa, now Mother Teresa, to begin her foundation within the Archdiocese of Calcutta. By 1965 the Missionaries of Charity had received approval from Pope Paul VI and had begun their worldwide expansion with the first house outside of India, in Venezuela. With God’s blessing, the community and its works grew and prospered.
Often people are amazed at the poor living conditions of the Missionaries of Charity themselves. Mother Teresa was always ready to explain the sacrifices being made by her daughters:
We must suffer with Christ if we are to share in the sufferings of the poor. Our Congregation would die out if we did not embrace the poverty of the poor Christ. This strict poverty is a safeguard. Otherwise, we might end up as did other congregations in the history of the Church who began by serving the poor, but ended up sharing the life of the wealthy. Living poorly helps us to understand the poor. The radical difference is this: those we serve are poor against their will; we, however, are poor by choice.
Mother Teresa had become well known throughout India and the world for her selfless charity to the poorest of the poor. Equally well known was her beautiful countenance, that serene and smiling face, which graced countless magazine and book covers. Almost no one knew, however, what lay behind that smile. Mother Teresa admitted that she “smiled at Jesus in order to hide, if possible, my soul’s pain and darkness even from him.” In her correspondence with her spiritual director and the archbishop, she revealed that although prayer used to be easy for her, she had been living in spiritual darkness since she started “the work.”
Despite having many sisters and collaborators Mother Teresa lived with deep loneliness as her “traveling companion.” And although she continued to encourage her coworkers to offer themselves as “cheerful victims” to God, God remained hidden from her.
Mother Teresa had often noted that the greatest poverty in the world is loneliness. Did it ever occur to her that this gift of darkness that dwelt in her soul was given to help her truly identify with the desperate state of “the poorest of the poor”—those whose material and spiritual lives were shrouded in darkness? Her darkness was her share in the lot of the poor. It was her mysticism, her offering of love to her Beloved Jesus Crucified who had died without the consoling vision of his Father.
Archbishop Périer tried to reassure her that she must not worry too much. “God’s blessing is on your work; thank him for it.” He added that she should “tell the Lord, ‘Do with me as you see fit,’ and then refuse him nothing.” Somehow, despite her own struggles, Jesus was making her a source of enlightenment to millions as he had promised to do when he first invited her to “come be my light.”
When her own strength finally failed and death was near at hand, Mother Teresa must have relived her many struggles and victories. Perhaps she recalled all the people who had been rescued from the streets and nursed back to good health; the dying accompanied lovingly to the gates of heaven; the unwanted children who found a home; the lonely and abandoned she had befriended; the many religious who shared her calling to cast the light of the Lord wherever they went; and the many coworkers who labored with such love along with her sisters. They had all done so much good. Did she regret this “call within a call,” which had taken her around the world in search of the poorest of the poor? No, it was all done at the request of God himself. She often repeated these words to Jesus, “I have never refused you anything.” How much light her spirit continues to bring to the world today in the wonderful work that began with her heroic “yes.”
From Saints Alive! The Gospel Witnessed by Pauline Books and Media.
Prayer to Saint Teresa of Calcutta for children:
Blessed Teresa, God called you to serve the poorest of the poor and you courageously began by helping a man you found dying in the city streets. You knew that by helping just one person, you were serving God and making a difference in the world. You saw the face of Jesus in those people who seemed forgotten by others and who were in desperate need of food, clothing, shelter, and love. Pray for me that I might be grateful for the blessings in my life and that I might be moved by the suffering of others. May I, too, see Jesus present in everyone I meet. May my heart be filled with compassion and may I treat others with love, respect, and the dignity of children of God. Amen.