Today is the anniversary of the foundation of the Missionaries of Charity. After he met Mother Teresa, Fr Cedric Prakash SJ found the courage to admit what he dared not confess, namely that he wanted to become a priest and join the Jesuit order. This calls for courage to challenge the mighty and timeliness in responding to crisis situations.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – As “we celebrate this great legend, let us try to live the rich legacy she has left us: of being open and caring; of reaching out to those who need us the most; and above all, of being courageous enough to speak truth to power,” said Fr Cedric Prakash, an Indian Jesuit and a well-known activist who is currently working in Lebanon with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) for the Middle East.
Speaking to AsiaNews, he said that “today, the day that marks the feast day of the Holy Rosary, is a special occasion for the Missionaries of Charity because it is the day in which their order was founded.”
On 7 October 1950, Fr Prakash said, Pope Pius XII authorised the saint of Calcutta to found a congregation, which was recognised at the pontifical level in 1965 by Pope Paul VI. This gave Mother Teresa and her sisters an opportunity to have an impact “on the world, in a way which few other non-political groups have done. They have not only reached out to the unwanted, unloved, uncared ones in the far corners of the world, but they have inspired thousands of others to do likewise.”
October 7th (the Feast of the Holy Rosary), is a very special day for the Missionaries of Charity (the sisters of Mother Teresa). They call it their ‘Foundation Day’. On that day in 1950, Mother Teresa and a small group of twelve companions were given the approval from the Vatican to be a religious congregation. In the words of Mother Teresa, the primary mission of the Congregation, “was to care for the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.” It took full four years, from September 10th 1946, when on a train journey to Darjeeling, Mother Teresa first received the inspiration, “the call” to get out of the Congregation to which she belonged and to do something more tangible for Jesus- in serving the poorest of the poor.
From that ‘Inspiration Day’ till today, seventy years later, Mother Teresa and her sisters have impacted on the world, in a way which few other non-political groups have done. They have not only reached out to the unwanted, unloved, uncared ones in the far corners of the world, but they have inspired thousands of others to do likewise. This was blatantly evident when Mother Teresa was canonized a Saint, on September 4th 2016; people across the globe, irrespective of their religious or national identity, celebrated not only a SAINT, but also the rich legacy which she has left us: the courage to live it in the small, simple, ordinary dimensions of our daily lives.
So how do I try to live this legacy which this legend has bequeathed to me? I do so, by reliving the personal encounters, I had with the Saint, spanning almost twenty-five years. Those deeply profound experiences, which touches the core of ones being; those precious encounters which will forever be etched in one’s memory, one’s heart!
My first meeting with Mother Teresa was a chance meeting. In 1972, as a youth, I was working with the All India Catholic University Federation (AICUF) based in Madras. I had to go to Calcutta in October- November that year for a meeting. The AICUF Chaplain of Calcutta, Fr Babu Beckers, a Jesuit, took me with him one morning, to the Missionaries of Charity (Mother House). I knew practically nothing about Mother Teresa or the MC Sisters at that time. When I was introduced to Mother Teresa – there were the usual questions, where do you come from, what do you do etc. Suddenly she asked me “Young man, what do you want to do in life?” I was a bit shell-shocked. I really did not know what to say! I muttered, “maybe a lawyer!” She smiled and responded, “young man, you must follow Jesus! You must follow Jesus!” I really felt embarrassed. I did not dare tell her that I had always nurtured the desire of becoming a Priest. In fact, I wanted to join the Jesuits on graduation in June 1972; but I kind of opted out. The AICUF involvement made me question, very much- including if the Church was true to Christ and his message. Somehow, at that time, I was no longer enthusiastic of becoming a priest; that desire had waned. In fact, though I did my best not to miss my daily mass – I was not sure if I believed or not. Mother Teresa was direct: her challenge left me thinking profoundly.
The next day, I was visiting a ‘basti’ (a slum in which poor people live) teeming with Bangladeshi refugees. In the height of the war between West and East Pakistan, more than ten million refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan (now known as Bangla Desh) had entered Bengal and especially in areas in and around Calcutta. Though the war was over a year earlier (December 1971), there were still thousands of them living in pathetic conditions in several of the slums of the city. Whilst walking through that ‘basti’, suddenly there was a kind of a stampede. Hundreds of them were rushing towards a vehicle (I think it was a kind of a taxi) which had just arrived. Mother Teresa and a couple of her sisters had come. It was unimaginable to see how these poor people fell at her feet calling her “MA” (Mother). She and her sisters seemed to be their lifeline- bringing food, clothes and medicine- a loving, healing touch. I saw them tending to the sick. That scene in that dirty, stinking part of the City- left a deep and lasting impression on me! Something which I will never forget! Mother Teresa cared unconditionally; the poor, the refugees found a refuge in her.
On October 31st 1984, Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India was assassinated! Delhi and other parts of North India were reeling in violence, with the brutalisation, the killing of Sikhs! (one of her body-guards who was a Sikh, had gunned her down) Some cities like Delhi were on fire. Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minister, who succeeded his dead mother, requested Mother Teresa to come in. She did so immediately and contributed a great deal to help bringing peace back to the city. We were theology students of Vidya Jyoti Delhi at that time. We organised a Peace Rally and Mother was there for it. Being one of the coordinators of the Jesuit response for relief, rehabilitation and reconciliation, I had to spend a lot of time with Mother Teresa. She told the Lt Governor of Delhi at that time that I (Cedric Prakash) would be in charge of the Ludlow Castle Relief Camp where hundreds of Sikhs had taken shelter. The Governor had no choice but to listen to her. She wrote an ‘Identity Card’ for me, naming me a “Missionary of Charity”. Mother Teresa responded immediately in situations of crisis; she did what she thought best.
In March 1996, I had the privilege of inviting Mother Teresa to Ahmedabad and organizing her programme there! The then Municipal Commissioner of the city Mr. Keshav Varma helped in making her visit a very memorable one. He also wrote a letter requesting the then Mayor of Ahmedabad, a woman, Bhavna Dave to accord a civic reception to Mother. Dave, who belonged to the right-wing Hindu political party the BJP flatly denied his request. Not to be outdone, Varma then hosted a tea party in his official bungalow for Mother inviting several eminent citizens of the city to interact with her. Mayor Dave also dropped in. Her husband who accompanied her tried to needle Mother, in full glare of the media, with a question, “why do you convert other people to Christianity?” Very humbly and gently, Mother replied, “I have no power to convert anybody; but if you wish to be converted, I will certainly pray to Jesus for you and he will touch your life.” Of course, the man was simply dumb-founded! Mother Teresa certainly did not lack the courage to take a stand on sensitive issues.
So as we celebrate this great legend, let us try to live the rich legacy she has left us: of being open and caring; of reaching out to those who need us the most; and above all, of being courageous enough to speak truth to power!