The postulator of the cause of Mother Teresa’s canonization remembers the "providential" nature of the sanctification of the Holy Year of mercy. We are all called to be “witnesses of God's infinite love”. The action of the founder of the Missionaries of Charity was "always marked by the awareness of being an instrument, not the engine." Her first companions remember her. She practiced forgiveness in front of scandals and pain. Here is the address delivered at the AsiaNews 2016 International Symposium.
Rome (AsiaNews) – Mother Teresa has been canonized very fittingly – providentially – during this extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy. As Pope Francis said, he wishes that during this Jubilee the Church express its “mission of being a witness to mercy”. The apostolic works of Mother Teresa and the Missionary of Charity are precisely the works of mercy – both corporal and spiritual.
I would like to give some ideas of Mother Teresa and the mercy of Lord in her life and work.
Mercy (literally, to give the heart to the wretched) involves both the interior and the exterior: the heart (understood in the biblical sense as including both thought and feeling) and action. Mother would say this same thing: we need to put our “love into living action”, for love involves our whole being – “hearts to love and hands to serve”. So too does mercy.
The Year of Mercy is first of all a reminder to each one of us that before God we all stand in need of mercy; so in this we are all poor, we are all on the same level. Our “needs” might not be the same on the outside, but before God we stand without the exterior “shell”, so to say; we stand as a beggar in need of his love, of his forgiveness – of his mercy.
To adapt Mother Teresa’s vocabulary, we can call this reality of our interior poverty the “Calcutta of the heart”, and indeed, the “Calcutta of my own heart!”. Mother Teresa used to say: “Calcutta is everywhere”. It is true that we may never do anything really serious or evil, but the simple truth is that I am capable of it, of doing something wicked, dreadful. And that is what places me among the poor!
This is fundamental to our living as Christians. Jean Vanier, the Canadian founder of L’Arche, communities that live and work with mentally handicapped men and women, emphasizes this point: “When we live day after day with people who are severely handicapped, our own limits and darkness become so obvious. But this experience helped me understand that we cannot grow in love and compassion unless, in all truth, we recognize who we are and accept our own radical poverty. The poor person is not just in there, but also within us. That truth is the basis of all human and spiritual growth and the foundation of our Christian life. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:3). The poor, who reveal our poverty to us, thus become a sacrament”.
This implies that our attitude is not from “above downward”, as it were, as if we were somehow superior (which of course we are not), but that we recognize the truth about ourselves as one of the poor, identified in some way with those in need.
Mother Teresa is a wonderful example of this.
“Her heart” said Sr Nirmala, Mother Teresa’s immediate successor as superior general of the Missionaries of Charity, “was big like the Heart of God Himself, filled with love, affection, compassion and mercy. Rich and poor, young and old, strong and weak, learned and ignorant, saints and sinners of all nations, cultures, and religions found a loving welcome in her heart, because in each of them she saw the face of her Beloved – Jesus”.
Mother Teresa was very much at home with her own poverty. Sr Nirmala tells us that “Mother was convinced of he poverty and sinfulness, but trusted in Jesus’ tender love and mercy”. Again, “Mother always felt the need of the mercy of God – how merciful God is to give us all these things that He has given us, and so she was grateful to God”.
Mother herself said: “Jesus, who loves each one of us tenderly with mercy and compassion, works miracles of forgiveness”.
As she was so conscious of her own poverty and misery, she was even more conscious of the reality of the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness. Thus she was consequently always ready to show mercy and forgiveness to others.
She explained it this way: “We need lots of love to forgive and we need lots of humility to forget, because it is not complete forgiveness unless we cannot forget. And not forgetting, very often we say we have forgiven but we cannot forget. And as long as we cannot forget, we really have not forgiven fully. And this is the most beautiful part of the mercy of God. Not only He forgives, but He forgets. And He never brings the subject up again, like the Father who never spoke to the son [in the parable]. He didn’t even say forget about your sins, forget about the wrong you have done… And he himself ran with joy. These are wonderful living examples that we have to share and use the Gospel to put these things into life”.
This doesn’t mean that we can always literally forget the hurt we received, nor that we should not act prudently in response to what the other person said or did, but in our attitude and personal dealing with the other person we do need to forgive and forget. We need to at least act (sincerely!) as if we don’t remember the offense of yesterday.
And what Mother Teresa taught, she put into practice. She was not scandalized at others’ sins; she knew she could fall too. One of her associates experienced her unconditional forgiveness. This person had done something seriously wrong and was having a hard time dealing with this guilt and shame. So this person told Mother Teresa the whole story.
This is how the person recounts the experience: “After hearing the whole story, Mother Teresa first asked if anybody knew about it and I told her only the priest who heard my confession. Mother looked at me with such love and tenderness in her eyes. She said: ‘Jesus forgives you and Mother forgives you. Jesus loves you and Mother loves you. Jesus just wanted to show you your poverty. Now, when someone else comes to you with the same thing, you will have compassion for that person’. I asked Mother Teresa not to tell anyone and she promised she would not in such a tender way. She never asked me: Why did you do that? How could you do that? She never said: Aren’t you ashamed? You caused such a scandal. She never even said: do not do that again”.
As we know, in the sacrament of confession, we meet the mercy of God directly and personally. This attitude that Mother Teresa showed to the person who was wrong, was something of the attitude of God towards us: loving mercy that meets our misery, not with an attitude of superiority, not with an attitude of judgement, not with an attitude of a teacher, but with an attitude of a loving father that receives with longing its prodigal child.
A sister related the following story: “Once I came to Calcutta for a retreat. I was much worried and upset about a sin I had committed. So I went to see Mother Teresa. I wrote all my faults, weakness and especially about my sin which was disturbing me, and gave the Mother to read. She read the whole thing… Then she tore it to pieces and she said to me ‘I am putting all this into the Heart of Jesus and never, never doubt the mercy of God. Once you have confessed your sin, remember God has forgiven you and He ha forgotten everything’. And Mother explained to me about God’s great love, forgiveness and mercy. And that sin of mine instead of taking me away from God, was an instrument in making me humble, drew me closer to Him and increased my devotion to the Merciful Heart of Jesus. Thanks to the Mother”.
Mother Teresa herself approached the sacrament of Reconciliation with fidelity and regularity, even during her frequent journeys. Again Sr Nirmala: “Even while travelling from house to house, Mother would remain faithful to her weekly confession”. For Mother Teresa it was not a matter of habit or routine, but of meeting the mercy and the love of God each time anew.
Mother was well aware that “devil hates God. And that hatred in action is destroying us. Making us commit sin, making us share in that evil… So that we to share in that hatred and [this] cuts off from God. But there is where the wonderful mercy of God comes. You have only to turn back and say sorry. That is the beautiful gift of confession. We go to confession a sinner with sin and we come from confession a sinner without sin. That is the tremendous, tremendous mercy of God. Always forgiving. Not only forgiving but loving. Gently, lovingly, patiently. And this is what the devil hates in God, that tenderness and love of God for the sinner”.
Poverty as a reality more than material poverty developed in Mother Teresa’s mind and heart when her mission expanded into the West.
One time someone asked Mother Teresa a question: “When you say poverty, most people think material poverty…”. To which Mother Teresa replied: “That is why we say, the unwanted, the unloved, the uncared, the forgotten, the lonely – this is much greater poverty, because the material poverty you can always satisfied with material. If we pick up a man hungry for bread, we give him bread and we have already satisfied his hunger. But if we find a man terribly lonely, rejected, thrown away of society, material help will not help him. Cause to remove that loneliness, to remove that terrible hurt needs prayer, sacrifice, tenderness and love. And that is very often more difficult to give than to give… That is why there is hunger not only for bread, but there is hunger for love. Nakedness is not only for a piece of cloth, nakedness for that loss of that human dignity. And homelessness is not only not having a home where to sleep, it’s homeless being rejected and unwanted… Thrown away of society…”.
Note that Mother Teresa says that to get at that interior poverty is not just showing charity, but also needs the other supernatural means of prayer and sacrifice.
The questioner continued: “And we saw you and the Sisters doing such tender tiny little thing for the children. Just in the way of treating them. And it was very inspiring and could you talk about that?”.
Mother Teresa replied: “It is not how much we do, or how big the things are, but how much love we put in the doing. Because we are human beings, for us it looks very small, but once it has been given to God, God is infinite… And that small action picks up, becomes an infinite action. Because God is infinite there is no measure for God, just as there is no time for God. God ‘is’. God can never become ‘was’. So same thing, God’s love is infinite – full of tenderness, full of mercy, full of forgiveness, full of kindness, full of thoughtfulness. [Just think of the] things that God thinks for us beforehand. So that is surprising how He has the whole world, heaven and earth He has to think about, and yet He is so particular about the simple things, smaller things that may bring joy to somebody else. To somebody who needs it. That is God’s action in the world, God’s love in action. And today God loves the world through us. Like He sent Jesus to prove to the world that He loved the world so much. And today Christ is using us, you… He wants to try to prove to the world the He is, and that He loves the world”.
In order for us to love with the mercy and compassion of Jesus, we need to be convinced that He loves us. And we can especially come to this appreciation of Jesus’ love for us in prayer.
Mother Teresa explains: “And that we are very precious to Him. As Isaiah said ‘you are precious to Me, I’ll call you by your name, you are mine… Water will not drown you, fire will not burn you. I will give up nations for you… You are precious to me… I love you’. And that tenderness of God’s love, and compassion and mercy and forgiveness, are so beautifully expressed when He said that ‘even if mother could forget her child, I will not forget you. I have carved you in the palm of my hand’. Just think every time you, we call on God, there we are in His palm and He looks at us so closely, so tenderly so lovingly. This is prayer”.
“The fruit of prayer is love and the fruit of love is service”. Mother Teresa was fond of saying, “love in living action”. In one of her talks she challenged her listeners: “Do you know your next door neighbour? Do you know there is a blind person there? That there is somebody sick, that there is a lonely old person there that has no one – do you know? And if you know, have you done anything? There is the chance to give love, to come tomorrow to do something. See, look and do something and you will see the joy, the love and peace ha twill come from the heart because you have done something for somebody. You have given your love for God in a living action. It is not enough to say, “I love you.” Not enough; do something. And that something should be something that hurts you. Because true love hurts. When you look at the Cross, you know how Jesus loved us. He died on the Cross because He loved you and He loved me. And He wants us to love like that.
In Kalighat, the Home of the Dying in Kolkata, one dying man asked Mother Teresa after receiving her loving care, “Is Jesus like you?” And as another remarked to her in the anecdote she was so fond of recalling, “All my life I have lived like an animal in the streets. But I am dying like an angel, loved and cared for.” There in those dark halls the light of Christ shines, His presence and mercy radiated to all who enter, the sick and the well, the Sisters, the volunteers, those of other faiths and none.
We are to be a reflection of that same [God’s] tender and merciful love to those around us, even “carries of God’s love” (missionaries of charity) especially to the neediest. But at the same time, as we love other we are also loving Jesus directly. This faith that “you did it to me” – as Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25 – helps us when humanly speaking it is very difficult. Here is a story from one of the Sisters form the first years in Calcutta:
On…the very next day after I joined Mother, I accompanied her for the first time into the slums of Motijhil. We passed through the streets saying the Rosary. As Mother had a handbag with something in it, she gave me a bag too. In it I found a piece of soap, a towel, some scissors and some vitamin tablets. As soon as we arrived, the children came around Mother singing and greeting her. I noticed that they were quite dirty. Some were small and some were big. Some were carrying their brothers and sisters. Mother than took me by the hand and directed me to clean the children – their nose, their hands and feet – and to do their hair. She said it was a wonderful chance for me to be like Our Lady, doing what she did for Jesus. In spite of my love for Jesus and Mary and wanting to be with Mother doing the work for the poor, for e it was such a challenge, a repugnance to handle those dirty children. But Mother’s words gave me a new key: “each one of these dirty children id Jesus, waiting for your hands to touch them with love and humility and gratitude.” This was a lesson of faith in practice, what I had learned from my own mother when I made my first Communion (that the same Jesus of Nazareth is really in the piece of Bread we receive at Holy Communion.)
However great Mother Teresa’s faith was, she was always aware that it was the grace of God at work in her life. She considered it a grace to be able to accept the grace pf God and acknowledged His action in her life. She said, “I must know what God has done for me. His great love for me keeps me here. Not my merit. The answer must be the conviction: it is the mercy and grace of God”.
I end with a reflection made by Eileen Egan, a very close friend of Mother Teresa since the 1960’s. According to her, “Mother Teresa took Jesus at his word and accepted him with unconditional love in those with whom he chose to be identified – the hungry, the shelterless, the suffering. She enveloped them in mercy. Mercy after all, in only live under the aspect of need, love going out to meet the needs of the person loved. Could not the life of our time be mightily changed for the better if millions of his followers took Jesus at his word?”
During this Jubilee of Mercy, the Church is presenting to us the person-model of Mother Teresa. Following her teaching and example, we can receive mercy and practice mercy, especially towards those closest to us. “Love begins at home,” Mother Teresa reminded us often. There are people who need our tender and merciful love all around us, if only we “take the trouble to see” as Mother Teresa urged us to do.
I give the last word to Mother Teresa: “Just think for a moment, you and I have been called by our name, because He loved us. Because you and I are somebody special to Him – to be His Heart to love Him in the poor, His Hands to serve Him in the poorest of the poor… beginning with those around us, and even in our own families”. This is how we can be, as Pope Francis calls us to be, witnesses to mercy. Thank you!