His Holiness Pope Francis will declare Mother Teresa of Kolkata a saint on September 4 at St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City, in Rome. The canonisation of Mother Teresa gives us an opportunity to reflect on her life and mission for the poorest of the poor. Mother has long been a saint. For us in Kolkata, she is the song of celebration and hymn of compassion.
Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born to a well-off middle-class family in Macedonia in 1910. At the age of 18, she joined the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known as Loreto Sisters in Ireland, in September 1928. She moved to India in 1929. Upon taking her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, she received the name Mary Teresa, by which she has been popularly known.
Mother Teresa received her “inspiration,” a “call within a call”, during the train ride from Calcutta to Darjeeling on September 10, 1946. On August 17, 1948, she dressed in a white, blue-bordered sari for the first time and passed through the gates of her beloved Loreto Convent to enter the world of the poor. On October 7, 1950, Mother founded the new congregation of the Missionaries of Charity Calcutta. Within a decade, she began to send her sisters to other parts of India. Pope Paul VI granted the Decree of Praise to the congregation in February 1965 and encouraged Mother to open a house in Venezuela. She opened houses in Rome and Tanzania in 1965 and, eventually, in every continent. Mother also opened houses in almost all the Communist countries, including the former Soviet Union, Albania and Cuba, where religion was seen as the opium of the people.
Her religious order, which began as a small community with 12 members, has grown to over 4,500 sisters. It runs orphanages, AIDS hospices and charity centres worldwide. It cares for refugees, the blind, disabled, aged, alcoholics, the poor and homeless and victims of floods, epidemics, famine and other natural calamities. She was honoured with numerous awards, including the Padma Shri in 1962 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. She received both prizes — as well as media attention — for “the glory of God and in the name of the poor.”
On October 19, 2003, she was beatified as “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta”. Pope Francis credited a second miracle to her intercession in December 2015, paving the way for her to be canonised as a saint.
Mother believed that God is specially revealed in the mystery of the human person who is “created in the image and likeness of God”. She probed the meaning of human life, touched the goodness that resides in every individual and connected herself with everyone with a sense of affability. She has inspired thousands of followers in several nations as well as individuals around the globe. World leaders have recognised her as an inspiration. She identified with the poor, the dying and the destitute.
Her message is universal. Her mantra was, “We are all God’s children — we have been created for greater things, to love and be loved. God loves each one of us — we are precious to Him. Therefore nothing should separate us. Religion is a gift of God and is meant to help us to be one heart full of love. God is our father and we are all his children — we are all brothers and sisters. Let there be no distinction of race or colour or creed.”
Mother Teresa was misunderstood — critics blamed her for working for conversion. Didn’t Judas, one of the apostles, betray Jesus Christ? In her epic years as a missionary, Mother did not convert a single person to a particular religious faith. She converted many to the communion of humanity, beyond considerations of parochial religious culture. She had an inclusive attitude towards all faiths. She used to say, “Some call Him Ishwar, some call Him Allah, some simply God, but we have to acknowledge that it is He who made us for greater things, to love and to be loved. What matters is that we love. We cannot love without prayer, and so whatever religion we are, we must pray together.”
I had a close association with Mother. Whenever I invited her to St. Xavier’s College to address the staff and students, she was there with her characteristic smile, humility and a presence that created an atmosphere of prayer and inspired veneration.
She never declined any of my invitations to address the youth.
I met her for the first time 30 years ago. I had just been ordained a priest. She stretched out her hand and touched my feet. When I withdrew hastily, she said, “You are a new priest and I want your blessing”. I said, “Who am I in front of you?” She responded in her humble way, “as a priest you are the image of Christ to me. So it is you who must bless me”. When I asked for her blessings she gave me a rosary and said, “Pray for me and for my work for the destitute and dying”.
We would have preferred our Holy Father to canonise Mother in the city she lived in and served. It would have been a momentous gift from the Pope to the people of this country. We express our gratitude to Pope Francis for his extraordinary gesture of approving the canonisation of Mother Teresa. The following words of Mother have always inspired me and millions of his admirers: “The fruit of silence is prayer. The fruit of prayer is faith. The fruit of faith is love. The fruit of love is service. The fruit of service is peace”.
Mother Teresa was aware that she was called to devote her entire energy and the energy of her followers to serve the rejects of society. This is apparent in her answer to a journalist who asked her why she did not give a fishing line to the people to enable them to fish for themselves instead of giving them fish all the time. Her answer was that she was called to serve those who cannot stand; they would not be able to use a fishing line. Once they could stand, the journalist should help them to fend for themselves — that was not her work.
The image I have of her is that of the universal mother like the goddess Durga. She performed the mission of destroying the evil of poverty and inhumanity that does away with life and propagated peace of thought and purity of act. Indeed, she healed our race.