Photographs By Shaly Pereira, Oman
(A tribute to Mother Theresa on the occasion of her death anniversary)
Tomb of Mother Theresa
A FIRST MEETING
I remember the day I first met Mother. I was ordained a deacon by the Late Cardinal L.T. Picachy, s.j., for the Archdiocese of Calcutta in a mission station called Kalyanpur, in the present day diocese of Baruipur south of Calcutta. I had come to Calcutta from Mangalore to work as a missionary. My eldest sister Agnes was the only family member who had braved the three nights and two days train trip to be present for my ordination. I was delighted that she was there for such an important event in my life. Only later did I come to know that the main reason she had come to Calcutta was not so much for me but to be able to see Mother Teresa whose story she followed closely and for whom she prayed daily. Though my many years of formation had exposed me to the various works of the Missionaries of charity, I had never made a conscious attempt to meet with Mother Teresa.
So there I was, on the 22nd of December 1976, taking my sister to see Mother. I was aware that she travelled often and it was difficult to see her without knowing her schedule. Yet I had to take a chance, and did so with trepidation in my heart and a prayer on my lips. When we reached the Mother House we were told that Mother Teresa was busy with a television crew from Europe. All the same, a friendly nun informed her of our presence and our desire to see her. To my utter surprise Mother emerged from the parlour to meet us. Once the introductions were over, Mother clasped my sister?s reverently folded hands and I could see the tears of joy flowing down my sister?s cheeks while her eyes glowed as if she had seen a beatific vision. Then Mother Teresa blessed me as a mother would bless her son, and thanked my sister for the gift of her brother to work as a priest in the diocese of Calcutta. The memories of that first meeting have been deeply etched in my mind. I knew I was in the presence of a living saint.
Having known Mother for more than twenty years and having seen her sisters and their work from close quarters I wish to highlight a few elements of their life and mission.
Mother Teresa was born Agnes Bojaxhiu at Skopje, Yugoslavia on August 27, 1910, into a colourful family. The Bojaxhius were in business, among other things they sold paint ? boja means colours. Her father, Kole Bojaxhiu, was a rich man with varied interests in business, politics and culture. He died when Agnes was only 8 years old. Her Mother Drana had to shoulder the responsibilities of running the family. According to Lazzaro, Agnes? elder brother, their mother was a strong, valiant woman. She was also gentle, generous and full of compassion towards the poor. She was very religious and actively involved in the Parish. God was gently nurturing Agnes under the maternal influence for her mother who was always concerned about the poor. The foundation for the great edifice of Agnes was already laid in her deeply religious family.
When Agnes was in high school she felt that the Lord called her to be a religious ? a missionary. The religious fervour of her pastor, the stories of the missionaries from India and in particular Bengal, her involvement in the sodality and the choir, all contributed to igniting the missionary fire in her. A missionary from India had written, “Everyone has his road to follow, and follow it he must.” This thought made a deep impression on her. Agnes responded to the gentle stirring of the Spirit in her heart to become a religious and a missionary. She joined the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Loreto who were already working as missionaries in India. She left Yugoslavia on September 25, 1928, via Ireland and reached Darjeeling, India, for her novitiate in January 1929.
From her childhood days Agnes wanted to become a teacher. This was her dream. And this dream was fulfilled as she was attached to the High school for Bengali girls run by the Loreto nuns in Entally, on Calcutta?s eastern side. There for some twenty years she taught geography and history. This period of her life could be compared to the period that Moses spent in the land of Midian where God met him in the burning bush and sent him on a mission to liberate his people from the land of Egypt. During these years Mother Teresa came in touch with the teeming millions of the city of Calcutta and its thousands of poor people. She developed a deep compassion for the poor and she could hear a gentle voice telling her to do something to alleviate the poverty and pain of the people.
THE INSPIRATION: THE SECOND CALL
On the 10th of September 1946, in the train taking Agnes to Darjeeling, she heard the call of God once again. Mother called this “a call within a call”. In her own words, “the message was quite clear: I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. I knew where I belonged, but I did not know how to get there.” God knew what she did not know: how to get there. The call was to serve Jesus in the poorest of the poor, the abandoned, the neglected, the uncared for, the hungry and the naked. She understood, however, that she could truly serve the poorest of the poor first and foremost by becoming one with them. With due permission from her religious superiors and the necessary approval from Rome she left her convent on November 16, 1948. We are reminded of the call of Abraham to whom the Lord said, “Go” and she went. Similarly, Mother left the security of the convent and the love and affection of her religious sisters to go to an unknown land. Leaving the high walls of the Loreto convent behind her, she found herself on the streets of Calcutta, alone, with only a few rupees in her purse.
Abraham was given the promise of land and progeny but Mother had only the promise of His being with her in the guise of the poor. Like Mary, who said “Yes” to the word of the Lord, Mother said a firm “Yes”. There was no looking back now. She surrendered herself totally to the Lord who had led her all these years. With Mary she could say, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word.” Mother would see this word become flesh in the poor and the dying on the streets of Calcutta.
Statues of Mother (at Shishu Bhavan Right)
TRUST IN GOD?S PROVIDENCE
Like all saints and founders and foundresses of religious groups, the life of Mother Teresa and her sisters is firmly based on their trust in divine providence. In her we see how God who provided the people of old with manna and water in the desert, and led them for forty years through the desert to the Promised Land. A woman deeply rooted in this Biblical faith of Abraham and all those called by the Lord knew well the mysteries of God?s providence. Never once did she doubt His providence. Stories abound how God provided Mother Teresa and the sisters with food for themselves and the poor they served when they did not know what to do for their next meal.
ALL FOR JESUS
Unfortunately the world looks at the work of Mother Teresa only from the secular and the social perspective as alleviation of the sufferings of the poor. As much as it is true, it is not the whole truth. The real motivation behind this phenomenal world wide work of charity is JESUS. What she did was “FOR JESUS”. This and this alone is the key to a proper interpretation of Mother Teresa?s work. She and her sisters are not social workers but first and foremost RELIGIOUS who belong totally to Jesus. Mother was called to serve Jesus in the poor. She says, “Here I am, the handmaid of the lord, prepared to quench your thirst for love, my Jesus, your thirst as you suffer in the poor, your brethren.” As she fed the hungry, nursed the sick, cleansed the lepers, took in her arms the unwanted babies, as she lifted the dying on the streets ? she was in touch with the crucified Jesus in the wounded and the suffering of the world.
American and European volunteers who have worked in her homes have experienced Jesus through their service to the poorest of the poor. They have seen how Jesus continues to be crucified in the marginalized and oppressed of our society. They have come to the realization that reaching out in loving service was to reach out to Jesus.
LIFE OF PRAYER
It was a Thursday. I had dropped in at the Mother House to do some work and met an American volunteer, Natalie. We began to talk. Natalie was a university student. She had come to Calcutta for three months to work at the home of the dying. I asked Natalie what impressed her most about the sisters. I was a bit surprised to hear “their spirit of prayer, Father. And this is what I am going to take back home.” She had come to work but ended up learning to pray.
“Love to pray,” Mother would tell the volunteers. “Take trouble to pray”. The sisters have adopted Mother Teresa?s love of prayer. If you move through the streets of Calcutta in the morning you will certainly come across some women ? mostly young ones clad in white saris with blue borders ? walking to some slum or poor area in groups of two or more with rosary beads in their hands, praying as they walk. Mother would say, “Without prayer no faith, without faith no love, without love no devotion, without devotion no service to those in need.”
The sisters spend on an average 3-4 hours per day in prayer. Thursdays are set aside exclusively for prayer and a little rest. Mother made a sharp distinction between prayer and work. She would say: “Praying is not work and work is not prayer.” Prayer distinguishes the charity and works of the followers of Mother Teresa from all others involved in similar tasks. Discovering God in prayer leads them to find Jesus in the poor. Like Natalie, thousands of volunteers ? even those of other faiths ? have learned to pray after coming in touch with Mother Teresa and her sisters.
Sisters in Prayer
“…Though He was in the form of God…(He) emptied himself, taking the form of a servant..” (Phil. 2, 6-7)
The sisters of Mother Teresa live a life of utter poverty like their Lord and master Jesus. “Though He was rich He chose to be poor.” The Missionaries of Charity earn nothing and own nothing. They live by God?s providence ? living on what they receive. Their radical poverty unites them not only with Jesus but also with the poor of this world. They know what it feels like to be poor, a poverty that helps them to identify themselves with the poor and grow in compassion for them.
In the boiling, humid hot summer of Calcutta the sisters sleep without fans. One morning a young sister who had not slept well the previous night complained to Mother about the unbearable heat. Mother replied, “My child, when it does not burn inside, it burns on the outside.” Poverty for Mother was a sign of a deep burning love for Jesus and the poor.
The lifestyle of the sisters speaks volumes of their life of poverty. Their dress consists of a habit, a girdle, a sari of cheap cotton woven by the lepers they serve and a pair of sandals. They have only two saris, one to wear and the other to wash. They live in dormitories without privacy like the poor, without running water, without refrigerators, no radio or television. On their visits to poor families they do not eat at any house so as not to be a burden.
This total surrender to God and his divine providence prepares them for another important virtue ? Obedience. There was a time I tried to learn the names of the sisters in the community where I would go to say mass for them. Soon I gave up the exercise when I realized that the sisters whose names I had learned had been transferred overnight on a mission. They had nothing to carry and nothing to pack. This helped them in their total availability and quick mobility.
This kind of life of poverty and simplicity makes the sisters trust completely in God?s providence. Total detachment from material possessions leads to a total attachment to Jesus and the poor.
It took place on September 5, 1998 on the first anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Special prayers were being offered for the sick inmates of Navajivan (New Life), the home of the Missionaries of Charity in Patiram in West Bengal, India. Monika Besra, a woman of 30, suffering from a large cystic lesion (ovarian tumour), was in the chapel at 10 a.m. According to her testimony, she felt a ray of light from Mother?s photo coming toward her. In the evening at 5 p.m., Sr. Bartholomea, M.C. and Sr. Ann Sevika, M.C. went to her in the sick ward where she was lying down. They placed a miraculous medal of the Blessed Virgin Mary that had been touched to the body of Mother Teresa on Monika?s stomach and prayed. At 1 o?clock in the morning of the 6th of September 1998, Monika awakened from sleep feeling lighter, with no pain and no abdominal distension. The large cystic ovarian tumour had totally disappeared.
This phenomenon of the sudden cure was thoroughly investigated by the Diocesan Enquiry in Calcutta from November 1999 to January 2001 and was then studied by the Congregation for the causes of Saints (CCS) in Rome in 2002. The Medical Board of CCS on June 19, 2002, unanimously concluded that the cure of Monika Besra was scientifically inexplicable. Both the commission of theologians and the panel of Cardinals and Bishops unanimously affirmed that the healing of Monika Besra was a miracle obtained through the intercession of Mother Teresa. On December 20, 2002, His Holiness Late Pope Paul II approved the findings of the CCS and ordered the “Decree of the Miracle” to be published officially. This miracle is one of the approximately 800 graces and favours attributed to Mother Teresa?s intercession and reported to the office of the Postulator of the cause. (Cf. Postulation for the cause of Beatification and canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta; pp 1-8), thus paving the way for her beatification.
“We do it for Jesus”. These simple words of Mother Teresa characterize her life?s work. Although highly esteemed and awarded many prestigious honours, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Mother Teresa always submitted herself in humble servitude to God. An advocate for the dignity of every human life, Mother reminded us in word and action that we are all called by God to live a life of Christian service to one another.
Simplicity, service, Prayer, Surrender and Obedience are the tools used by Mother to accomplish great deeds for the Lord. The lesson of this holy teacher comes to us who are left to continue the work of Jesus in our daily lives. As we reflect on the death anniversary of Mother Teresa today, let us examine our own lives and reflect on the qualities of sainthood that we each need to nourish.
Eileen Egan, Such a Vision of the Street, Mother Teresa ? The spirit and the Work, Image Books, 1986
Lush Gjergji, Mother Teresa: Her Life, Her Works, New City Press 1991
Edward Le Joly, S.J., Mother Teresa of Calcutta, A biography, Harper & Row, 1983.
(Fr. Franklin Menezes is Rector of Morning Star College (Seminary), Kolkata)
Mother Mary’s devotion
Mass at the tomb
By C.M. Bhandari, Ambassador of India – UAE
Author: Fr. Franklin Menezes- Kolkata