By OSV Staff
In 1984, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and an American priest, Father Joe Langford, co-founded a priestly order for the Missionaries of Charity to work alongside the sisters of the original community begun by Mother Teresa in 1948. This clerical order has since grown to more than 30 priests who serve in the same mission areas as the sisters do, immersing themselves in the culture and witnessing the Gospel to the poor and needy.
Father Langford's new book explaining the depth of her vocation, Mother Teresa's "Secret Fire," will be published by Our Sunday Visitor next fall. In a recent interview with OSV, he spoke of his experiences with Mother Teresa and the importance of her work and message.
Our Sunday Visitor: How did you happen to co-found a religious order with Blessed Mother Teresa?
Father Langford: I belonged to another community, the Oblates of the Virgin Mary. I studied in Rome and worked in Rome for a while after my ordination. Just before my ordination, I asked Mother Teresa if I could spiritually adopt one of her homes.... She accepted and gave me one of the homes in Calcutta. I went to Boston and did some work in the seminary, and it was such a boost to my priesthood. I felt that there's got to be a way to allow more priests that kind of relationship with the gift that is Mother Teresa.
I wrote her 11 pages on this idea and never heard back. In the meantime, I was transferred to another house in St. Louis. One day, I got a phone call saying that Mother Teresa is on her way from Haiti and New York and that she wants me to meet her in the airport when she arrives. She got off the plane in front of her nuns, and she told them, "Sisters, Mother did not come for you. I'm only here because the last three nights in Haiti, Jesus wouldn't allow me to sleep until I agreed to do something for a priest."
Then she said to me, "OK, Father, here we are." We spent four days coming up with statutes.
I was sent back to Rome and I began to feel OK, but it wasn't enough. ... I was feeling that what she was doing was my vocation, not just to live her spirit. I got up the courage to start asking Mother Teresa about starting a religious order for priests, and of course she said "No, I'm not worthy to start an order for priests." This went on for some years.
But the day came when the Lord made her aware that he wanted her to found such an order in a special way, with a little push from Our Lady that she wanted this done, too. And the order has slowly grown since then. We're now in Mexico, Guatemala, India, Africa and a few other places.
OSV: You refer to her "anointing." Can you describe this?
Father Langford: There are many saints in the Church, but for some reason, at that time, God put a special anointing on her that touched people everywhere. People were in tears when she spoke. I used to translate for her in Rome, at parishes and universities or wherever she would go, and these big Roman churches would be packed to overflowing, out the front door. So often I remember watching the congregation and listening to Mother Teresa so that I could translate, and although the people were not understanding what she was saying, they were already crying. There's an anointing even on her voice.
OSV: Why did she have this effect on so many people?
Father Langford: That kind of thing always made me ask, "What is it about her?" ... How did she get to be Mother Teresa?
Because the more you read about her, the more you realize that she had this experience on a train in 1946 when she was 36 years old, She had been teaching in a wealthy girls' school in Calcutta, and she was the headmistress for the Bengali language section.
She wasn't winning any awards. She wasn't turning the world upside-down. She was just one other nun teaching in a mission land. ... And here she was going to take on the poverty of the world.
OSV: Well, how did she get to be Mother Teresa?
Father Langford: In her chapels you always see this crucifix, and you see underneath it the words, "I thirst." ... I remember asking a member of her community back in the late 1970s when I was in Rome, "What's the key to Mother Teresa?" This was someone who had known Mother for 30 years. Her answer, without missing a beat, was, "The thirst of Jesus." That's what mother usually would talk about. She'd say with her five fingers, "You-did-it-to-me." Whatever you're doing to the least of my brethren, you're actually, physically, directly touching Jesus Christ. It's the sacrament of all of our brothers and sisters, but especially those who are sharing the mystery of the cross, the special presence of the crucified. But I hadn't paid much attention to that.
What became clear was that this was about a God that somehow Mother Teresa had some experience that changed her, a Damascus moment like St. Paul had, where she had come to realize, to experience, that God not only forgives us, puts up with us, is patient and accepts us when we come back, that not only is he good and kind and loving, but that he yearns for us, that he thirsts for us the way a thirsty man in the desert thinks only and searches after water.
OSV: Mother Teresa indicated that the inspiration for what would become her life's work began with a "call within a call" she experienced while aboard that train in 1946, but she never wanted to elaborate on that experience. Why was that?
Father Langford: What she always told everyone is that's all it was. But what happened on Sept. 10, 1946, on the train into Darjeeling, a little station up north from Calcutta, on her way to her annual retreat, couldn't have been just God saying, "Mother Teresa, change of address." ...
So I asked Mother Teresa, "I know we're not supposed to ask you this, but there is a reason I need to know, for our constitution. Was your experience on the train your own experience of the thirst of Jesus?"
She lowered her head and sighed for a moment, and then she looked at me and she just said, "Yes, and one day I want you to make it known." That was back in 1985.
OSV: A part of her message was that we don't have to go to Calcutta to do good work, that there's plenty of pain and suffering in our own families, our own communities...
Father Langford: People would come up and say, "Mother Teresa, I want to help you. I'll take three months off. I'll take a semester off. Here's a check." People would be shocked. They think she'd be there trying to recruit as many people as she could, and collecting as much support as she could. come one come all, give me your money so I could give it to them. But she would say, "No. Go love your wife. Go hug your child. Go read for the blind man down the road. Write a letter to apologize to someone you've hurt."
That's why she would say, "You don't need to come here. You don't need to go to Calcutta to love. Start with the people that God gave you." That's your school of love.
The physically poor were iconic. They represent visibly the reality that is invisible in the universe, that Calcutta of the heart.
OSV: What do you hope people, especially in the United States, will get out of this book?
Father Langford: Without this message, we never really know the heart of God. That's Mother Teresa's great contribution -- that with her life and with the message she spoke and lived, she's opened a new window for us on the heart of God. That's her contribution to this generation and to all those that follow.