If you were to ask someone today to name the five great Catholics of their lifetime, Mother Teresa of Calcutta is sure to be on just about everyone’s list. The founder of the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order that continues her work of serving the poorest and most forgotten people in cities all over the world, will be canonized a saint by Pope Francis on Sept. 4. This issue of OSV Newsweekly (In Focus online Sept. 4) reflects on Mother Teresa’s life, her work and her legacy, and when looked at in their entirety, some lessons emerge for us today.
First, Mother Teresa was the epitome of holy authenticity, someone who applied the Gospel in an unflinching way. While she is known for her care of the poor and forgotten in India, her 1982 address at Harvard tackled other issues — abortion in particular — head on.
“It is something unbelievable that today a mother, herself, murders her own child, afraid of having to feed one more child, afraid to educate one more child,” she said. “This is one of the greatest poverties. A nation, people, family that allows that, that accepts that, they are the poorest of the poor.”
In the same way that Mother Teresa could see poverty in the midst of the wealthiest nation in the world, she could also see need even in someone like Princess Diana, with whom she carried on a friendship. Her authenticity also was reflected in her intense prayer life. A sign can be found in every Missionaries of Charity sacristy: “Priest of God, pray this Mass as if it were your first Mass, your last Mass, your only Mass.” The lesson for us is that we, too, should strive to emulate Mother Teresa by treasuring each Mass, operating free of blind spots, and being full of prayer when living out the Gospel call — whether it’s through social activism, championing life or simply caring for our neighbor in need.
Second, Mother Teresa had an unwavering faith. Such an example is helpful as we find ourselves in a world where events, cultural shifts and even political campaigns make us concerned about the future and wonder how God will help us. Mother Teresa faced her own lengthy, painful times of interior darkness and feelings of being unloved and abandoned by God. In some cases, she spent years waiting for her prayers to be answered, such as when she requested to start her own religious order. And yet, even faced with these dark periods, she persevered, faithfully carrying out her service. Such an example reminds us that God is always at work in the world — despite how it might feel during moments of anxiety. We must, like she did, keep the faith.
But we also are called to do more. Which brings us to our third lesson. Instead of beginning her own community and serving the poorest of the poor on the streets of India, Mother Teresa could have continued to live out her religious vocation with the Sisters of Loreto. As a religious woman, working and praying, no one would have thought any less of her. But instead she trusted God and followed his call for her into undesirable, challenging places. This answer to her call continues to find an echo in the Missionaries of Charity who, whether in Kolkata, Port au Prince or elsewhere, don’t wait for the poor to come to them but go out and find those who are at times literally dying in the streets. It’s a final challenge we can all learn from: To dare to listen to God’s call to set out into the deep, to go to the margins, and to discover the depths of the vocation God has envisioned for us.
Editorial Board: Scot Landry, chief mission officer; Greg Willits, editorial director; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor-in-chief; Don Clemmer, managing editor