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Mother Teresa: The face of mercy in the time of Francis

What made the missionary's holiness especially heroic? Her biographer explains.

Mother Teresa: The face of mercy in the time of Francis

image: By Robert Pérez Palou (http://www.robertperezpalou.com/) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“She acted with heroic faith and with a love that she did not perceive. So her holiness is much larger, and exceptionally heroic!” A strange phrase in the mouth of Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the one person in the world who best knows the woman who, next September 4th, Pope Francis will proclaim a saint. And can a candidate for sainthood act without love? But before accounting for this statement, the Canadian priest who became a Missionary of Charity, the last male branch founded by Mother Teresa, explains why Mother Teresa is a “personal message” for our time.

Benedict XVI said, in an interview with Jesuit Jacque Servais, that “it is a ‘sign of the times’ that the idea of God’s mercy is becoming increasingly central and dominant.” So is Mother Teresa a sign of the times?

Yes, without a doubt, in many ways. We can say that every saint is a “sign of the times” for the time in which they live, given that in general God raises up a saint to give a message at that time, primarily to bring to the conscience of the Church and to the world the message that corresponds to the needs of the present moment.

Beginning with Pope John Paul II and continuing with Pope Benedict, and now with Pope Francis, God’s mercy was a predominant theme in their teachings, and with Pope Francis, especially through his example. The entire work of Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity consists in works of mercy, both spiritual and corporal. In August, a new book will be published by the Mother Teresa Center, precisely concerning Mother Teresa and works of mercy; the book contains the teachings of Mother Teresa regarding works of mercy and then examples of how she lived them, according to the testimonies that were given during the process. The title is: “A Call to Mercy: Hearts to love and hands to serve.” The book will be published first in English and then, after the canonization, in other languages, certainly also in Spanish.

Why did she say of herself that she wanted to be “God’s pencil”?

A pencil is something insignificant, simply a tool that someone uses to write a message. When you receive a letter, for example, you want to read it to see what the person who wrote it wants to say; you do not focus on the paper or on the instrument that was used to write it.

By defining herself as a pencil, Mother Teresa wanted to emphasize the humility of the instrument — herself — and the greatness of God, that she valued herself as “nothing to show his greatness,” as she liked to say. And another thing: a pencil costs very little and is accessible to all, so it is very common. And He who uses it — God — does great things, if that pencil allows him to act with freedom.

There is a moment that Mother Teresa called the Day of Inspiration, when she heard the voice of Jesus who asked her to found a new order. One cannot understand the darkness if one does not know the light, and not many people are familiar with this experience. What is it about?

Now we know that Mother Teresa heard the voice of Jesus for the first time on 10 September, 1946, asking her to go among the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta, to bring them his light and his love. These interior locutions — and later, in 1947, inner visions — continued until the end of 1947. Prior to this, Mother Teresa had already passed through the passive purification that St. John of the Cross explains in his writings. This purification brought her, in 1947, to the consoling experience of a deep and continuous union with Jesus.

Much has been said about “50 years of the dark night of the soul.” Can this be equated with the experience of other saints or does it instead have a different meaning?

Despite this, and even after achieving the union with Jesus, her experience of the “darkness,” as she called it, came back. Some years later she was guided by a Jesuit priest who helped her to understand this darkness as the spiritual part of her work. It was a way to identify oneself with Jesus in his greatest suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, and on the Cross. For her part, she was experiencing what she called the greatest poverty in the world today, namely, that of not being loved nor desired, nor wanted. For Mother Teresa, her darkness was not so much for her purification, but rather as an expiation, to penetrate the darkness of the poor who have no faith and, above all, do not have love.

The only saints who had a similar experience of darkness during such a long period were St. Paul of the Cross, who also experienced periods of consolation, and St. Jeanne de Chantal. What is unique in Mother Teresa is that her darkness, as far as we know, continued until her death.

More to read: Looking back at Mother Teresa’s “Dark Night”

How can this “silence” in a saint be explained? And why is it not in opposition to holiness?

Holiness consists in faith, hope and love and therefore does not consist in what one feels, but rather in how one acts. Mother Teresa acted with heroic faith and with a love that she could not perceive. So her holiness is much larger, and exceptionally heroic!

Or we can say that no one is canonized for one’s feelings, but rather for one’s works; as a last resort: for one’s “love in live action,” another expression that Mother Teresa liked to use. As the Gospel tells us: By their fruits ye shall know them.

Mother Teresa was beatified in 2003 by Pope John Paul II, who immediately initiated the process, disregarding the required period of five years after death, as per the Code of Canon Law. Even Pope Francis cannot be said to have lost time. Why this acceleration?

Mother Teresa is exceptional in the sense that already, throughout her life, she had a solid and widespread reputation of holiness. People considered her as such and referred to her as a saint, even in her presence. After her death, this reputation of holiness and her power of intercession (since many people reported favors and even miracles that occurred through her intercession) allowed Pope John Paul II to make an exception for the first time regarding the waiting period of five years before they could begin (an established rule to ensure by means of facts the widespread reputation for holiness, which is the basic requirement for the Church to initiate a process of canonization).

However, despite having made an exception for the waiting period, the process has been carried out in accordance with canonical norms; the process itself has not been less demanding than any other. For John Paul II, Mother Teresa was a “personal message” for our time, who embodied many of the fundamental teachings of his pontificate, for example, the “civilization of love” and “respect for life.” With Pope Francis, there is a similarity in his charisma of reaching out to marginalized people, to the edges of human existence, among the poorest of the poor.

Surprisingly, after Mother Teresa’s death the Missionaries of Charity have had their greatest growth. There were 3,842 at the time of her death, engaged in 594 homes — now there are over 5,000 in 758 homes throughout 139 countries. Must the founder die so that the company that was born can be spread around the world?

In reality, the Missionary Sisters of Charity had their greatest development in the late 70s and the beginning of the 80s, when Mother Teresa was still alive. The fact that the congregation continued to grow is just a sign that her charisma is still alive and active in the Church, that it continues to bear fruit. But it is not true that they experienced an expansion only after her death.

The four Sisters of Mother Teresa who were killed in Yemen… did you know them?

No, I did not.

Is martyrdom also part of the charism of the Sisters of Mother Teresa?

To be a martyr, as with sainthood, is a possibility that exists in every Christian vocation. However, martyrdom is a grace and we do not know for whom God has reserved it, nor who will be “ready” to receive it. That said, Mother Teresa had hoped to give saints and martyrs to the Church, and after her death her wish has been granted.

More to read: 10 Inspiring quotes from Mother Teresa