Information courtesy of Keith Brown
Mother Teresa, Patroness of Our Time
COMMENTARY: The most famous Christian of the 20th century spoke the truth to the powerful and to the powerless and loved them both.
BY FATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA
SPECIAL TO THE REGISTER Saturday, Sep 03, 2016
The 75th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Maximilian Kolbe on Aug. 14, falling just a fortnight after the visit of Pope Francis to the starvation bunker where he was killed, brought to mind the characterization of the Franciscan founder, missionary and journalist as the “patron of our difficult century” by St. John Paul II. The Polish Pope was speaking of how, amidst the brutalities of totalitarian atheism, St. Maximilian allowed the light of Christ to shine in the darkest moments.
All true enough, but it would seem that when Pope Francis canonizes Mother Teresa of Kolkata tomorrow( Sept. 4), the 20th century will truly have its patron saint, as no other figure manifested a heroic response to the challenges of the Church in our time.
Certainly John Paul had no doubts about her importance. He received her many times in Rome, established a convent of her Missionaries of Charity inside Vatican City to serve the poor and, upon her death in 1997, desired to move quickly and directly to her canonization, according to his priest-secretary, Father Mieczysław Mokrzycki, now archbishop of Lviv of the Latins in Ukraine. He was advised by the cardinals instead to proceed in the normal fashion, though he did waive the five-year waiting period.
She was beatified only six years after her death (only John Paul II himself would be beatified more quickly under the current norms), and he placed her beatification at the center of the events marking the 25th anniversary of his pontificate in October 2003.
Mother Teresa was the most famous Catholic of her time, save for the popes themselves. Her name became shorthand for heroic charitable work.
The Missionaries of Charity are the fastest-growing religious order in the world, starting with 12 sisters in 1950 to reach some 4,500 religious sisters today. That all this was achieved by a woman from Albania who moved to the slums of India is one of the mightiest works of God in our time.
The canonization of Mother Teresa was intended, along with the World Youth Day in Kraków honoring St. John Paul and St. Faustina, to be the highlight of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
Providence however, lifted up a different contribution from the Missionaries of Charity (MC) for the Year of Mercy — the martyrdom of four MC sisters in Yemen in March, killed by Islamic jihadists. The killing of the sisters in Yemen highlighted that Mother Teresa’s sisters serve in the most desperate of situations, caring for the poor and the wretched in places where few others will go.
In canonizing Mother Teresa during the jubilee year, Pope Francis finds a suitable model for a Church that is poor for the poor.
It is integral in her living out of the Church’s social teaching, united in the life of prayer and of service.
She was distinctive in her renewal of religious life, strong in feminine discipleship, authentically Catholic in her encounter with other faiths and heroic in the face of persecution. We might call these the seven particular patronages of Mother Teresa, patron of our time.
Poor for the Poor
Pope Francis, in the earliest days of his pontificate, famously dreamed of a “poor Church for the poor.” Mother Teresa lived that reality, renouncing everything to live in the slums of Kolkata and pledging herself to serve not the poor, but the poorest of the poor.
In the second half of the 20th century, the Church had to contend with atheistic communism and the sexual revolution from without and doctrinal, moral and liturgical turmoil from within. All that meant that the Church’s traditional works of charity became less prominent. In the midst of that, Mother Teresa was able to carry out in a radical way the ancient diakonia — charitable service — of the Church on a scale never before done for the most wretched of the earth, based in a country where Christians make up a tiny percentage of the population. The most famous Catholic personality of the 20th century was the face of a poor Church for the poor.
In the aftermath of the social upheavals of the 1960s, there arose a practical polarization in the life of the Church, with many working for social justice but also embracing aspects of the sexual revolution, in contrast to those who put a priority on pro-life witness, marriage and family.
Often characterized as a division between “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI argued (in 2009) that both are necessary, noting that it was the same pope celebrated for his advocacy of development in Populorum Progressio (The Development of Peoples) who wroteHumanae Vitae, Blessed Paul VI.
The charitable work of the Church cannot be separated from the truth about the human person, wrote Pope Benedict, using the term “integral human development” to describe working for charity in truth. Mother Teresa’s charitable work earned her the admiration of the powerful, allowing her to speak at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo in 1979 and the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington in 1994. At the former, she spoke about abortion as the destroyer of peace, and at the latter, she spoke about contraception. There is no group in the Church more “liberal” in their care for the poor or more “conservative” in their upholding of the Christian tradition on life, marriage and sexuality than the Missionaries of Charity. Last year in India, the religious congregation withdrew from providing adoption services after the Indian government insisted that they place children with single people and unmarried couples.
Prayer and Service
Another great division that arose in Catholic life was between the life of piety — prayer and the sacraments — and the life of charitable service. Some religious orders went over to a certain kind of activism, leaving behind the common life of prayer, while in parishes it was not uncommon to have prayer groups and service groups working separately and involving wholly different parts of the parish.
Visitors to Mother Teresa’s convents are struck by the priority the sisters put on their common life of prayer, especially Eucharistic prayer, which Mother Teresa insisted was the most important part of their day and what made the rest of the day possible. It was in recognizing and receiving Jesus in the Eucharist that she was able to recognize and serve Jesus in the poor.
Renewal of Religious Life
It would be hard to think of anything more damaging to the life of the Church than the collapse of religious life. The principal engine in the Church of both prayer and service has stalled in some sectors. Vast areas of the Church now live a sort of amputated existence, with many religious in nursing homes, although there are hopeful new vocations in vibrant orders.
As other convents were emptying and religious vocations on the decline, Mother Teresa’s order grew rapidly, offering new entrants a life of austerity and great rigor. That the Missionaries of Charity thrived while almost everyone else was dying was a critical factor in the limited renewal of religious life that is now seen in some pockets of North America and Europe. The Church is not whole without religious life, and the Missionaries of Charity were, for many years, the principal light in a very dark time.
The collapse of religious life in many areas meant that the feminine face of discipleship was practically lost for many Catholics. When religious sisters were common, it was often consecrated women who were the face of the Church — in the parish school, at the Catholic hospital and the various forms of charitable service. The disappearance of religious in many areas rendered the Church disproportionately masculine in her day-to-day life.
Mother Teresa breathed life into the great tradition of the mulier fortis (formidable woman), who knew how to lead in a firm and feminine manner. There are hundreds of stories of cardinals and bishops who, finding themselves in the path of a determined Mother Teresa, quickly realized that resistance was futile.
Pope Francis often speaks to priests about making the maternal face of the Church more evident. Priests can do that, but not as well as someone who is simply called “Mother.”
Encounter With Other Faiths
Mother Teresa spent her life in India, where the number of Christians is tiny — less than 2% of the population. She served all who were in need and did not insist on conversion. Indeed, in her orphanages, her sisters would raise Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist children to follow their own faiths and try to find husbands or wives of the same religion for the children when they grew up. Their respect for the identity of others was unquestioned, and their own identity was unambiguous.
In a world where religious identity is often the source of tension, Mother Teresa showed that a strong identity, coupled with authentic service, is a valid path for authentic pluralism.
By the time of her death in 1997, Mother Teresa was so beloved in India that the government honored her with a state funeral. Yet life for her sisters in India, and in other countries where Christians were a tiny minority, was not without difficulties and even persecutions. The killings in Yemen in 2016 were not the first in that country; Missionaries of Charity were killed there, too, in 1998.
In the years since Mother Teresa’s death, anti-Christian violence in India has increased, and her sisters are found in many places in the world where the scourge of Islamic jihad makes life for Christians difficult and dangerous. The gentle sisters are courageous and serene in the face of all this, often providing the only “official” Church presence to Catholics under pressure. It is a lesson that the value of the Church’s charitable service is recognized even by those who would persecute her. There are many in the Church who speak about encounter and dialogue as the remedy for persecution from afar; the Missionaries of Charity live it on the street.
Finally, Mother Teresa is a model for a world saturated by a culture of celebrity. She knew how to use her fame to point to Christ and for the advantage of the poor. It is easy for religious leaders to achieve a measure of popularity by telling the regnant culture what it wants to hear, but that approval is superficial and transitory.
Mother Teresa, the most famous Christian of the 20th century, spoke the truth to the powerful and to the powerless and loved them both. Charity and truth were what she offered, and therefore her witness endures.
Father Raymond J. De Souza
is editor in chief of