Fr Gheddo: My meetings with Mother Teresa
The great missionary and journalist remembers his visits to the Mother since 1964. Mother Teresa will be canonised on 4 September. She set up a home for the dying in Kolkata and one for abandoned children. The first missionary Vigil was a procession of faith in a society marked by protests and violence. She proclaimed life as a gift and said abortion was murder. Mother Teresa was moderate and prayed at night. She slept on a mat. The 1977 Andhra Pradesh floods killed 100,000 and caused tens of thousands of refugees. Mother Teresa will be remembered for her work for the Church and around the world.
Milan (AsiaNews) – John Paul II called her "the icon of the mission in the 21st century": a mission that will be played out in Asia. I met this woman several times; she might have been small and unassuming, but she had an extraordinary charisma that earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and the only state funeral for a foreigner in India.
I met the Mother the first time in 1964, when I went to India with Paul VI. I later visited PIME missionaries with Father Augusto Colombo, which took me to meet briefly Mother Teresa of Kolkata (Calcutta).
“God is here”
We came to Nirmal Hriday, the Home of the Pure Heart, where rickshaws and carts brought in human refuse found on Kolkata’s sidewalks. These poor people were dying, men, women, old people. Here they were welcomed in big rooms and lovingly cared for. For the first time they slept indoors, eat three times a day, and received medical care and medicines. Mother said that out of “a hundred marginalised people, on average thirty survived, because they were brought in at the edge of survival.”
She later took us to the nearby ‘Shishu Bhavan’, or ‘Children's Paradise’ with orphans, abandoned children of single mothers. One of the Sisters of Charity told me: "I wanted to have my own family, but now I thank Mother who sent me here. I'm so glad to be the mother of these children." As I left the two facilities I was moved. I thought and prayed, "God is here."
With Father Colombo we went to the nearby temple of the goddess Kali, the goddess of destruction, where worshipers make animal sacrifices. The blood spurted from the throats of sacrificed animals, the faithful burnt incense and prayed fervently. Just a few days before, in Mumbay (Bombay), Paul VI had said that the religions of India are part of God’s plans and the Second Vatican Council was a preparation for the Ark of the Covenant with the God of Abraham, the father of faith, and the proclamation of Christ. I believed, thought and prayed: "God is even here!".
The second meeting with Mother Teresa occurred on Saturday, 10 October 1973, in Milan during the first ‘Missionary Vigil’ on the eve of World Mission Sunday. It was a time of revolution. On that Saturday night, gangs of screaming protesters had blocked the city; they wanted a new world and began to destroy what was already there. That Saturday, 8,000 young people, with the Kolkata nun in the lead, sang and prayed through the streets of Milan’s historic centre, reaching together Piazza Duomo to listen to Mother Teresa and receive the blessing of Card Giovanni Colombo. The first ‘Missionary Vigil’, organised by the PIME Missionary Centre in the diocese of Milan and the Pontifical Missionary Works, led to more across Italy. Two days earlier, Mother had come to Milan from India with a young nun, hosted by the Missionaries of the Immaculate (PIME Sisters). With others, I accompanied Mother to see the archbishop of Milan. Card Colombo received her in his studio. When she came in, he got up and went to welcome her with open arms. Effusive as he was, he told her: "Mother Teresa, thanks for coming. You bring light into my diocese, and your presence will do much good . . ." Mother listened in silence and then said: "Your Eminence, let us pray a lot to be appropriate instruments in God's hands."
The gift of life and the murder of abortion
The most important event Mother attended in Italy was ‘The festival of Life’ on Saturday, 23 April 1977, in the presence of all the bishops of Lombardy in a packed San Siro stadium in Milan, with thousands of others left outside. Ten Lombardy dioceses had mobilised, strongly supported by Card Giovanni Colombo, the greatest show of force by Italian Catholics against the anti-abortion law. The ‘Festival of Life’ was also covered by non-Catholic newspapers. It seemed impossible that Catholics, already humiliated by the referendum against divorce (1974) and the overwhelming rise of a secularist, Marxist and anti-clerical culture, could have the courage to appear in public with such a mass of believers. The old nun, wearing cloth slippers and holding a coarse handbag with wooden handles, had a lot of charisma, and was very effective even when she said, enunciating one word at a time, the most common phrases, such as “Belong to Christ”, “God loves you”, and “Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Saviour”. During the long pause before she talked, one could hear a pin drop in the stadium. Someone had told Mother Teresa that in Italy there was the political problem of the abortion law, and that one had to be careful not to press too much so as not to become politically involved. Mother said only a few words: "I must say two things, which I'll tell you: First, life is the greatest gift that God gives to man, for which we must thank him every day, and that we are required to use this gift well. Second, abortion is murder."
During her stay in Milan, Mother Teresa had some long interviews with the Missionaries of the Immaculate. I was close to her to tape and sometimes translate. From these meetings came ‘Il Popolo della vita – Madre Teresa a Milano’ (The People of Life - Mother Teresa in Milan), edited by Piero Gheddo and Giacomo Girardi" (EMI 1977). PIME sisters said that Mother Teresa ate very little, slept on the floor on a mat and a blanket, and every night prayed for an hour. She was very affable, loved to joke, but had a very strong ideal in mind and heart: the mission to which God had called her. When Mother visited the PIME Missionary Centre in Milan, our institute already knew her well. When she saw the plaque ‘Comunione e liberazione’ (Communion and Liberation) whose offices are in the same building, she asked "Liberation from what?". "From sin", replied the missionary who was accompanying her. "All right then," said the mother, "that is the only liberation that counts."
In November 1977 in India, a terrible tsunami ravaged the state of Andhra Pradesh (where PIME founded seven dioceses): 10-12-metre-high tidal waves swept inland 3-4 kilometers along a 90 km coastline, bringing death and destruction. More than 100,000 people died. I flew from Milan to bring the first aid collected in a fortnight from Avvenire and Eco di Bergamo (US$ 35,000) and I visited the affected region with Father Ennio Premoli PIME, director of Caritas of the Diocese of Vijayawada. I still remember the nightmare: a bus on a top of a big plant, a large pond with dead bodies of men, women, children, along with many buffaloes . . . Prisoners were used to burn the bodies: the army refused to perform this task.
Mother Teresa came with her sisters to bring aid and organise relief. Tens of thousands of refugees had lost everything. In a meeting at the Vijayawada government office, Mother proposed and got everyone to accept refugees in Hindu temples, Christian churches, schools, seminaries and novitiates locations, etc. I thought: "She has tremendous charisma", but also the extraordinary help of the Holy Spirit. I was also surprised by her vitality. I was 20 years younger, but that evening I was dead tired, whilst she still performed her hour of prayer, sitting on the ground in the Indian fashion!
A model of love, even for atheists
When she spoke she said few words, but went straight to the point. "God loves you,” she told an old man sleeping on a bench in Milan’s Castello park. Moved, he told her: “You are right, only God loves me. I have three children who do not care for their father, but God has not abandoned me." She would tell everyone she met "God bless you". Even in informal meetings, Mother always ended by saying: "Be holy". She also said it to me several times.
I went several times to India. Mother Teresa was foreign to the debates about new theologies. She did not praise Indian culture. She did not seek out the media. She was very restrained in answering reporters. She did not speak of interreligious dialogue. It might seem that she lived outside our time. Instead her witness of love for God and man made her welcome to everyone. She inculturated the Gospel in India, established bridges of dialogue with Hindus and Muslims, preached Christ and baptised many poor and children without arousing opposition. She managed to get into Communist countries like Cuba and Cambodia, who persecuted the Church and Christians.
One cannot understand anything about Mother Teresa outside the logic of faith. Her whole life was based on faith and love for God and man. She indissolubly joined together love for God and love for man. The one cannot be without the other. Everyone admires Mother Teresa, but few realise that what drove her life was the love and prayer for Christ, which she saw every day in the lepers, the poor, and the sick. The saint of Kolkata is a model for the rich, democratic, and developed West, where, however, love is missing and money and selfishness rule. We are in practice becoming atheists. One cannot be brothers with the poor who are pressing on our borders, such as migrants these days, if we do not return to God and to Jesus Christ.