The story of Blessed Teresa of Kolkata

Photo: Blessed Teresa of Kolkata cares for a sick man in an undated photo. In the eyes of the 20th-century global Catholic community, a woman known everywhere simply as “Mother Teresa” was a living saint. (CNS photo/KNA)

By David Gibson

Catholic News Service

In the eyes of the 20th-century global Catholic community, a woman known everywhere simply as “Mother Teresa” was a living saint. Millions were certain that this tiny wo­man, hard at work in India’s slums, had proven unforgettable — a certainty confirmed with her Sept. 4 canonization in Rome by Pope Francis. Born in 1910 to an Albanian family in Skopje, the Balkan capital of today’s Macedonia, Blessed Teresa’s life as a woman of India commenced in 1929 with the Loreto Sisters.

Later, in 1950, she founded a new religious order of sisters, the Missionaries of Charity, devoted like her to the poorest of the poor. What was it about Blessed Teresa of Kolkata that so firmly gripped the world’s attention? People certainly were struck by her visible care for suffering people. It now is known, though, that her personal journey of faith, while profoundly rewarding, was agonizing too. Her life, like that of many saints, was more complex than it appeared to be from the outside looking in.

Her story, first, is about longing to bring light into the darkened circumstances that so commonly surround the very poor. Canadian Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, a Missionaries of Charity priest and editor of the 2007 book of her private writings titled “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light,” calls attention to her desire “to keep the lamp — the life of Jesus within her — burning, radiating his love to others and so dispelling the darkness.” The book tells a compelling story about Blessed Teresa and sisters of her order light­ing a lamp in the dark, one-room shack where a man lived alone. Upon first discovering the lamp in a dark, dirty corner of that room, Blessed Teresa asked the man, “Don’t you light it?” But because no one ever came to see him, he responded, “For whom will I light it?” For a while the sisters came daily to light the lamp. Eventually, the man began lighting it himself. Then, two years later, he “sent word” to the sisters, saying, “Tell Mother, my friend, the light she lit in my life is still burning.”

Blessed Teresa remains a source of inspiration today, and her story, I believe, ought to focus on this also. Serving among destitute, abandoned and dying people, and listening respectfully to them does not come naturally to everyone. Some feel uncomfortably out of place in this mission. Yet Blessed Teresa inspired the confidence in many that they, indeed, could touch the lives and spirits of the poor. The inspiration of saints often is understood mainly in terms of how they moved others to follow their example. But the church has a long history of viewing inspiration more broadly. Simply put, this broader meaning has a lot to do with the power and force of the breath of life. For, the English word “inspire” is rooted in a Latin word meaning “to breathe.” Take a look in the Gospel of John at what Jesus did and said to the disciples after his resurrection. He “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (20:22). If the Lord’s breath carries the Spirit, can the breath of his followers carry the Spirit too? I like to think of saints as inspirational people whose faith and example breathe renewed life into the Christian community and the world. To know Blessed Teresa’s story it is essential to know of her life’s unique focus on two words Christ uttered on the cross, “I thirst” (Jn 19:28).

“Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light,” published 10 years after her 1997 death, explains what these words meant to her. She wrote that once as she traveled by train in India, God “gave me” a call, “to satiate the thirst of Jesus by serving him in the poorest of the poor.” That September 1946 day, Father Kolodiejchuk explained, Blessed Teresa “had a decisive mystical encounter with Christ.” From then on a persistent theme of her life was the call she never ignored to quench Christ’s thirst witnessed in the lives of the very poor. Her private vow, moreover, was never to refuse Jesus anything. Finally, Blessed Teresa’s story is all about a woman of endless mercy. Her canonization is timed to coincide with an event in the church’s current Year of Mercy called the Jubilee for Workers of Mercy and Volunteers. “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light” pre­sents a lengthy list she composed in 1983 of all those who deserve kindness from others.

Notably, the list represents her response to a question Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15). “Jesus is the Homeless — to be taken in,” and “Jesus is the Unwanted — to be wanted,” she wrote. “Jesus is the Drug Addict — to befriend him” and “the Prostitute — to remove from danger and befriend.” With remarkable clarity she believed both that works of mercy served Jesus as he was found in others and that through them Jesus called out to her. Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.

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