By James Penrice
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta called herself a pencil in the hand of God. The image was characteristically understated. While pencil markings can become faint with time and are easily erased, Mother Teresa's legacy 10 years after her death reads more like the bold, indelible strokes of a fountain pen -- with a world voraciously hungry to read what her life wrote. From the dreariest slums of earth's forgotten corners to the poshest living rooms of the rich and powerful, Mother Teresa's memory continues to draw people closer to God as if she had never left us. The evidence is bountiful.
Susan Conroy is a witness to the multilayered legacy of Mother Teresa, both in her own life and in the lives of others. Once an aspiring economics major at an Ivy League college, with her gaze set solely on the corporate ladder, Conroy's life is now spent spreading the message of the nun who helped change the focus and the course of her own life.
Conroy worked with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity over the course of 11 years, both in India and New York City. She has written two books about her (see related sidebar). She is in steady demand as a speaker, with audiences ranging from church organizations to corporate groups.
"People are passionately interested in Mother Teresa's message of love and holiness," said Conroy. "There is a great hunger and thirst for it. I am always invited to speak; I have never had to go looking for someplace to share her message. I see so much positive, so many people longing for God and longing to be loving."
While Mother Teresa is best known for her work among the poorest of the poor, Conroy sees her legacy thriving in common, everyday people and situations, especially in strengthening family life.
"Mother Teresa's lessons are so simple, they appeal to everyone's life," she said. "People often think that holiness is radically leaving everything, going to other places. Mother Teresa taught that Calcutta is in our own backyards. Families come first; love begins at home." She sees families being radically changed by that message.
Conroy added: "Mother Teresa emphasized, 'One, one, one' -- just begin one at a time. It doesn't matter how many people we help, but rather, how much love we put into helping each one. We should just love as best we can. This message empowers people when they realize they can make a world of difference ... for one human being at a time."
While Mother Teresa's legacy is working to change society at its most basic level -- the family -- her call to serve the poorest of the poor is being heard stronger than ever, and people from across the world still come to follow in this diminutive nun's giant footsteps.
The Ray and Barb Stauble family of Gray, Maine, are a microcosm of Mother Teresa's legacy of loving service to the poor, forgotten and abused. Their experience began shortly after their eldest daughter, Kate, graduated from high school.
"I was looking for a way to give back, as a thank you to God," Kate said. She had heard Conroy speak about Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity, and was drawn to service with the sisters in Calcutta. In October 2001, with the world still reeling from the acts of hatred perpetuated on Sept. 11, Kate Stauble boarded an airplane to commit acts of love for people on the other side of the world whom she had never met.
Kate spent the next four months working with the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, both in their home for the dying as well as their home for mentally and physically handicapped people. For a young girl looking for a way to express thanks to God, there was no better opportunity.
"It is the most pure example of what we are called to do," said Kate. "It comes from a basic, human place. That will live on forever."
Those four months were just the beginning of a life-changing experience for Kate Stauble and her family. While in India, she met Sudeep, a young blind boy in the care of the Missionaries of Charity. Her parents have since adopted him as her brother.
She met Josh Tucker, now her husband, who had been volunteering in India for more than three years.
Kate's sisters, Maria and Susie, later went to Calcutta to volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity. Another sister, Ali, spent five months serving in Peru, and Susie is planning to serve in Ethiopia for eight months.
Kate and Josh are starting a foundation called S.H.I.N.E. (Shared Hope International Nurses Effort) to provide health care in India, especially to prostitutes in Calcutta's notorious red-light district. "Sex slavery is very oppressive and deadly in India," Kate said, "to both the women involved and anyone who tries to rescue them."
Josh has started a mission in the red-light district, building relationships and establishing hope with those who are trapped there. Both Kate and Josh are earning nursing degrees, and plan to return to India to help provide much-needed health care.
To Ray and Barb Stauble, their daughters' involvement with the Missionaries of Charity has brought abundant blessings. "It has taught us about divine providence," said Barb. "God truly puts us where we need to be. We have always considered our children not ours, but God's."
By placing their children in God's hands, both the Staubles and "the least" of God's people have been richly blessed, through the legacy of a pencil in God's hand.
The Missionaries of Charity never ask for material needs or for any kind of assistance. They simply trust in God, who always provides what they need. Conroy told OSV of a special benefactor who regularly contributes to their mission.
"Pope Benedict XVI receives many gifts from his audiences," she said. "People often bring him food -- more than he could possibly eat!" The abundance of food the pope receives from well-wishers is put to good use. Each week he sends it to the Missionaries of Charity house in Rome to be distributed to the poor. Giving the pope a weekly avenue to perform a corporal act of mercy is another legacy of Mother Teresa.
Pope John Paul II also saw the importance of continuing Mother Teresa's legacy of service to the poorest of the poor. Since her beatification in 2003, according to his wishes, a special meal for the poor has been served every year on the anniversary of her death in all the Missionaries of Charity houses, to commemorate her love and devotion. Volunteers from all faiths help to prepare and serve the food.
Sister Nirmala, Mother Teresa's successor as superior general of the Missionaries of Charity, noted on the eighth anniversary of her death in 2005: "Everyone feels the need to love and to feel loved; this is the Mother's legacy."
Key dates in an extraordinary life
James Penrice writes from Michigan.
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