This October 19th Pope John Paul II will celebrate the 25th anniversary of his pontificate by beatifying Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The new saint spent a lifetime loving Jesus, whom she recognized in distressing disguise living in the world's darkest slums. Millions mourned when she passed away on September 5, 1997.
But few are aware that Mother Teresa (MT) had already visited death's door fourteen years before she actually died. Debilitated by a failing heart, she lay in bed expecting that a soon-breath would be her last breath. In the midst of this scene, a Missionary of Charity sister leaned towards the saint and whispered, "It's the Holy Father,"(JPII) gently placing a phone to Mother's ear. The brief conversation that followed concluded with an exchange that went something like this:
JPII: "Mother, please don't die. I need a witness."
MT: "Yes, Holy Father."
JPII: "Thank you. Good-bye, Mother."
MT: "Good-bye Holy Father. I love you Holy Father".
I'm told by a Missionary of Charity sister that those parting words, "Good-bye Holy Father. I love you Holy Father" were spoken with the abandonment and simplicity of a devoted toddler daughter.
The thing that gripped my conscience, though, was that the Pope found it necessary to ask a dying women to continue living, evidently because true witnesses to the Gospel were in such short supply. What did that say about my life? Is there such a lack of faith, hope and love in the world that the passing of this one person would actually make it harder for people to find Christ and experience God's love?
Pope Paul VI said, "the modern person looks for witnesses, not teachers". Accordingly, Mother Teresa was not a person of words. But by choosing love, preferring silence, and personifying radical mercy she became the most radiant communicator of the Gospel the world has known in recent memory. All kinds of people-young, old, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, nonbeliever, agnostic and atheist-responded to her compelling personal witness. I thank God I'm numbered among the many who encountered this remarkable woman during her lifetime...
A Witness to the Young
It was the summer of 1976, and I was just twenty-two years old when a Jewish friend said to me, "Mother Teresa, the missionary who works in the slums of Calcutta, is speaking to a group of people in Baltimore tonight. Let's check it out." A quick "Okay" slipped from my mouth. And a few hours later we found ourselves sitting among a buzzing crowd of mostly affluent women in the auditorium of a local Catholic college.
Suddenly the noise dropped to silence as a tiny nun wearing a white and blue cotton sari entered the back of the room. I turned and watched intently as she made her way up the aisle to the podium at center stage. I must admit, I was immediately disturbed by her presence. Her hands were folded. Her head was bowed. Her small body was bent and nearly twisted from overuse. But she exuded the most Christ-like countenance I'd ever seen.
Almost whispering, she calmly told several beautiful stories about the work of the Missionaries of Charity in slums around the world. But I paid particular attention to the fact that she quickly turned her focus to the audience, challenging everyone in the room to live for God and others. I remember her saying, "If you've never been hungry then you cannot understand the poor. Do not send money to us. The greatest poverty is loneliness. And you have great loneliness here in your country. Any nation that kills its own children is the poorest of nations. If there is a lonely person in your home or family, you will be judged. If there is spouse or an elderly parent who is lonely, you will be judged. If there is someone who lives on your street who is without care and human affection, you will be judged. Our calling as Missionaries of Charity is not a special calling. God calls everyone to be holy. Holiness is a simple duty for you and for me."
"Wow!", I thought. "I can't believe what she's saying." Right here in a room full of wealthy people, she's challenging everybody to live a life that's not comfortable. She kept saying, "Love must cost you something or it's not love. If you're not giving until it hurts, you're not giving". No wonder young people follow her. No wonder she has thousands of young women, many from the upper class, who leave everything to live lives of poverty, chastity, obedience and wholehearted service to the poorest of the poor. She challenges people to go for it. All the way. Right where they live. Best yet, she's proof it can be done. Anyway, I stood in line to shake her hand that night, left the auditorium, and didn't eat anything for three days.
A Witness to Catholics
At this point in my life, I've visited Missionary of Charity "houses" located in Europe, the Caribbean, and North America. And I've enjoyed the great privilege of working with the "MC" sisters as they served dying AIDS patients, addicted prostitutes, confused prisoners, children in slums that look like abandoned war-zones, and elderly shut-ins who fear the violence of drug lords controlling their streets.
But in direct proportion to the work among the poor, there's been a concurrent connection to the MCs profoundly "orthodox" Catholic devotional and sacramental life. You see, I've also been with them for innumerable daily masses, funerals, holy hours, morning prayer, Rosaries, and even for the biannual event that seems to be the high point of their year -- profession of final vows by those young sisters who've freely chosen to permanently bond themselves to Christ as Missionaries of Charity.
Having watched from close range, I can tell you this: The MCs are deeply Eucharistic. They exemplify with crystalline clarity the Church's teaching that the Eucharist is the "source and summit of our faith". Mother often said, "the Missionaries of Charity are not social workers; we are contemplatives in the midst of the world. Our lives are consecrated to the Eucharist through contact with Christ under the appearance of bread and under the distressing disguise of the poor". I can personally attest to the fact that they are always the first to stand when a priest enters the room. And, at the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament, they don't just bow. They prostrate themselves until their foreheads touch the floor in adoration.
The MCs also spend an hour in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament prior to daily Mass. And throughout the day - at noon, at three, and in the evening there's more prayer, more silence, more time in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Even the "active" periods of the day are peppered with prayer. There's always a Rosary in hand. And constant requests for intercession are tenderly directed to the Holy Mother of God.
I'll go so far as to say that it was Mother Teresa's total faith in Christ and all that his Church teaches that caused her to get up from her death bed and continue her apostolate for fourteen years after that phone call. Recognizing the Pope as the Vicar of Christ, she heard Jesus speaking to her through John Paul II. When he said, "please don't die", she had no choice but to lovingly obey, trusting that Christ himself would animate her obedience.
Needless to say, witnessing a Catholic life so faithfully, mysteriously and completely expressed helped revolutionize my own life. No preaching. Just the power of undeniable witness. With deepest gratitude to Mother and her thousands of Missionaries of Charity, I can say that my wife and children have experienced the revolution, too. We've found an unshakable family home in the arms of the Church.
A Witness to Ecumenism
As mentioned, the saint of Calcutta is definitely counted among the most orthodox Catholics I've ever encountered. Yet her total self donation to the poor unleashed a power of attraction that reached across every conceivable barrier, adding an ecumenical dimension to her apostolate that was astonishing.
Just visit one of her homes around the world. You'll find volunteers of every religious belief, and many who've lived without any religious conviction at all. Yet there they are. Giving themselves away to the poor. Truth is, they're looking for God. And they're finding Him. Mother said, "to help us deserve heaven, Christ set a condition: that at the moment of our death you and I, whoever we might have been and wherever we have lived, Christian and non-Christian alike, every human being who has been created by the loving hand of God in His own image shall stand in His presence and be judged according to what we have been for the poor."
But it wasn't a formal strategy that produced this ecumenical charism in the Missionaries of Charity. It was the witness of love. It naturally emerged in the congregation's earliest days. Recalling those times, Mother spoke of getting a facility for the sick from the government of Calcutta: "They allotted me two halls of the temple of the goddess, Kali, which up to that point had been designated as sleeping places for pilgrims. I gladly accepted the facility, as it was a center of Hindu devotion and worship. We immediately moved the ill people there. The priests of the goddess Kali didn't think favorably of our meddling. But one of them came down with a contagious illness. We took such good care of him that the priests stopped spying on us and even became our collaborators and friends."
Her ecumenism was perhaps the most perplexing aspect of Mother Teresa's apostolate for many Christians. But it was not the kind of phony ecumenism that sought to drain Catholicism of its unique claims and authority. Nor did it fail to proclaim Jesus Christ as, "Redeemer of man, center of the universe and of history".¹ Mother Teresa simply recognized that all human beings come from God, are brothers and sisters, are made in the image and likeness of God, and share one ultimate destiny. In fact, she laid down her life, "making up in her own body that which was lacking in the sufferings of Christ"², so that others might encounter Christ, know His love, and journey with Him to their destinies.
"We do not intend to impose our faith on others", she told us, "We only expect Christ to reach out with His light and His life in and through us to the world of misery. We expect the poor, no matter what their beliefs, to feel drawn toward Christ as they see us and to invite us to get closer to them, to enter their lives."
This perfectly mirrors the ecumenism that's been a hallmark of the papacy of John Paul II. It's rooted in the respect for human dignity and freedom that's central to the drama of creation and redemption. Yet it fully recognizes that, "the Church proclaims, and is bound to proclaim that Christ is 'the way and the truth and the life'³ in whom men must find the fullness of religious life and in whom God has reconciled everything to Himself"(4).
Aware of the historical, religious and cultural barriers that can hinder a people's present capacity for explicit faith in Christ, and "rejecting nothing that is true and holy in these religions"(5), the Holy Father, like Mother Teresa, has tirelessly labored for unity, reconciliation and cooperation among faiths -- particularly through works of compassion, justice, development and peace.
As to the nitty-gritty of all this, I can only tell you that I've seen a lot of men move into Mother Teresa's AIDS hospice in the slums of Baltimore. They come from a myriad of religious, non-religious and anti-religious backgrounds. Their wills are never violated and they are never coerced in any way. But an astonishing number of them come into the Catholic Church. They are simply attracted to the light and love emanating from the hearts of the sisters. Because of this I've helped bury some of these men. They die poor, silent, holy deaths. Last Rites. Peace with God. Beautiful.
A Witness to Holy Death
Speaking of death brings us full circle to the phone call where the Pope asked Mother Teresa not to die, because he needed a witness. So it's also the perfect time to tell you about the night Mother actually did die.
It was September 5, 1997. Mother had been suffering terribly for a long time. Her heart -- and her worn out body -- were utterly failing. Once again, she was in bed approaching death. And, once again, she was surrounded by others.
But there was a wrinkle. Electronic medical equipment had been placed in Mother's room. Her beloved Sisters knew she longed to be with Jesus. Nevertheless, they were bound to provide medical care and to revive her if possible.
At 9:30 PM her eyes opened. Touching a crown of thorns next to her bed, she prayed, "Jesus I trust in you, Jesus I love you, Jesus ... " and she died. During that same period of time, Calcutta fell into the grip of a total electrical power failure. And the medical equipment was useless.
On this particular night, instead of asking her to stay, Jesus bid her, "Come!" Nothing could stop her now. That's how it happened. I got it straight from a witness.
Notes: 1. Redemptoris Hominus, John Paul II, March 4, 1979 ; 2. St Paul, Colossians 1:24 ; 3. John 14:6 ; 4. Nostra Aetate 2, Vatican II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II, pages 80 & 81 ; 5. Nostra Aetate 2