An exclusive interview with a cardinal who shared a very special friendship with a saint.
VATICAN CITY — On Sunday, 4 September Mother Teresa, founder of the Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity, is to be canonized in Rome. She was born in Skopje, Albania, on August 27, 1910 and died in Calcutta, India, on September 5, 1997.
Her life was marked by industrious, patient and tenacious dedication to the poor: men, women and children who were healed, protected, rescued from misery, solitude and humiliation and given back a good life, in the name of Jesus Christ. Mother Teresa knew that the many forms of protection, care and serious dedication ignited something immense that transmitted the warmth of God’s presence. She knew that expressions of love mended the world, making it a better and more beautiful place, and transforming it into a welcoming home for everyone.
With the proclamation of Mother Teresa’s sainthood just around the corner, Vatican Insider interviewed Cardinal Angelo Comastri, Vicar General of His Holiness for Vatican City State and Archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, who shared a very special friendship with Mother Teresa and recently published a book titled “Ho conosciuto una santa” (I met a saint), published by Catholic publishing house, San Paolo.
Your Eminence, what is your fondest memory of Mother Teresa?
“My fondest and most moving memory was our final encounter on 22 May 1997. My mum had died just a few days before this, on 5 May and I confided my pain to the mother. She took my hands in hers and almost as if to transmit her peace to me, she said: ‘Now your mother will always be close to you because Heaven does not draw us apart but brings us closer. I will also go to Heaven soon and I will always be close to you, along with your mother.’ These words are like a warm embrace that helps me overcome all difficulties.”
What space did prayer occupy in Mother Teresa’s life and what was its significance?
“By the will of Providence, Mother Teresa was called to give a speech to the UN General Assembly. The Secretary General, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, invited her to a public gathering, which took place on 26 October 1985. He introduced Mother Teresa to all participants at the ceremony, with the following words: ‘We find ourselves in a speech auditorium. Over the years men who are considered the earth’s most powerful have stood on this podium. Today we have the chance to welcome the woman who is truly the most powerful person on earth. I don’t think I need to introduce her to you because she has no need for words. Mother Teresa asks for actions. I am certain that the best we can do is to pay tribute to her and tell her she is much more important than me and all of us here gathered. She is the United Nations” She is peace in the world!” Upon hearing these grandiose words, Mother Teresa, became even smaller but her faith was great, as was her courage. She showed everyone her ever-present rosary and said: ‘I am just a poor nun who prays. Through prayer, Jesus deposits his love in my heart and I go and give it to the poor I come across along my journey.”
She was silent for a moment and then added: ‘You too, go ahead and pray! Pray and you will become aware of the poor around you. Perhaps they live on your own landing at home. Perhaps there are people at home who need your love. Pray and your eyes will open and your heart will fill with love.’ Prayer was the bedrock of Mother Teresa’s life.”
On the night of 10 September 1946, Mother Teresa was on a train, when she heard “the call to give up everything and follow Jesus in the slums, to serve him among the poorest of the poor”. In the decades that followed, she and her Missionaries of Charity opened dozens of centres around the world: what, in her view, were the most serious forms of poverty in wealthy western societies?
“Mother Teresa often remarked that selfishness was a person’s greatest curse. And she would add: ‘I challenge anyone to find a selfish person who is happy’. Selfishness is widespread in affluent societies and this is sadly why they are also rife with discontentment, disquiet and violence. The root of selfishness, as with all ills that afflict us, is the absence of prayer. Devotion to the poor based on prayer, is the only cure for selfishness and a chance to find joy.”
What would Mother Teresa have to say to someone who felt discouraged to the point of considering it pointless to generously offer one’s qualities for the benefit of others, since the world will not change anyway?
“I remember that on the way back from Oslo after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Mother Teresa stopped off in Rome. The courtyard in front of the humble building which housed the Missionaries of Charity on Monte Celio was crammed with journalists. Mother Teresa did not dodge them, but welcomed them as her own, handing each of them a small medal bearing the image of the Blessed Virgin. One of them said: ‘Mother, you are 70 years old! When you die, the world will go back to what it was before. What is it that has changed after all this hard work? Mother Teresa, you should take a rest! It’s not worth putting in all this effort’. She smiled and replied: “You see, I never thought I could change the world! I simply tried to be a drop of clean water that could reflect God’s love. Don’t you think that’s something?’ The journalist was speechless and the Mother was surrounded by silence. Mother Teresa then turned to the journalist and added: ‘Try to be a drop of clean water yourself, then there will be two of us. Are you married?’ ‘Yes, Mother’ ‘Tell your wife too, so that then there will be three of us. Do you have children?’ ‘I have three children, Mother.’ ‘Then tell your children too and there will be six of us.’ Mother Teresa said clearly that each of us has a tiny yet essential stock of love; it is this small stock of love that we should be concerned about investing. So let us fill the only case we will take with us beyond death: the case of charity. Mother Teresa would never tire of repeating: “Fill it, while you still have time. Everything else is smoke that disappears in a flash’.”
What did Mother Teresa see as the role of man and woman in God’s plan? And what do you think was her greatest contribution to the reflection on women?
“I would like to mention one particular episode: in 1995, Beijing hosted the fourth UN conference on the condition of women. It was attended by EU member states along with 174 other countries. The aim of the meeting was to reaffirm equality between man and woman. The Holy See referred to Mother Teresa to get its view across. The fear that her reflections did not coincide with those of the majority did not discourage the slight nun from expressing her thoughts with humble courage. She wasn’t afraid to tell the truth: she was a total stranger to conformism. Her message was the following: ‘I hope that this Conference will help everyone to know, love, and respect the special place of women in God’s plan so that they may fulfil this plan in their lives. I do not understand why some people are saying that women and men are exactly the same, and are denying the beautiful differences between men and women. All God’s gifts are good, but they are not all the same. As I often say to people who tell me that they would like to serve the poor as I do, ‘What I can do, you cannot. What you can do, I cannot. But together we can do something beautiful for God.’ It is just this way with the differences between women and men. God has created each one of us, every human being, for greater things– to love and to be loved. But why did God make some of us men and others women? Because a woman’s love is one image of the love of God, and a man’s love is another image of God’s love. Both are created to love, but each in a different way. Woman and man complete each other, and together show forth God’s love more fully than either can do it alone. That special power of loving that belongs to a woman is seen most clearly when she becomes a mother. Motherhood is the gift of God to women.’ These words are crystal clear and need no further comment.”
What do we learn from Mother Teresa’s tenacious perseverance in prayer and her devotion to the poor throughout those long years she spent in what became famously known as the “crisis of faith”?
“I believe – it is my humble opinion – that the “crisis of faith” was a gift from God to defend Mother Teresa from the temptation of pride. Let me explain. Mother Teresa’s fame was such that it even exceeded the Pope’s and the Pope then was John Paul II! Mother Teresa was sought after by everyone. She received the Nobel Peace Prize, which was a unique feat and almost impossible for a Catholic nun. She was invited to speak before the UN General Assembly: this factor also borders on the unimaginable. I could go on. She could have easily fallen into the pride and smugness trap. But God prevented this from happening by immersing Mother Teresa’s heart in the “crisis of faith”, which is a form of radical poverty, a situation in which one experiences a painful distance from God and their own smallness. How did Mother Teresa react? She reacted by praying harder and increasing her acts of charity. She fought the darkness with prayer and by increasing her charitable works she found herself in God’s arms, which is love. This is a saint’s response: faithful obedience to the Lord’s will.”