Mother Teresa: A woman belonging to the whole world

Love for all. This is exactly what the Missionaries of Charity bring to the world. In the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta: “By blood and origin I am all Albanian. My citizenship is Indian. I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the whole world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.” Even after her death, Mother Teresa belongs to us — as a saint interceding for us from heaven and serving us through her hands on earth, the sisters who continue her mission.

With the desire to serve the poor in her heart, at the age of 18, Teresa joined the Loreto nuns and started her novitiate in Darjeeling, India — a choice that meant she would never again see her parents or her two younger sisters. After taking her vows, she was assigned to the Loreto community in Calcutta. Yet it was another 15 years after making her first vows with the order when she received her “call within a call” while on her way to an annual retreat. This call led her to found the religious community we now know as the Missionaries of Charity, whose focus is serving the poorest of the poor, without discriminating against social rank, race or religion.

A global impact

After consulting with both her spiritual director and the archbishop, Teresa was given permission to pursue this new mission. Two years later, she left the Loreto convent to begin medical training. When she returned to Calcutta, she spent time with the Little Sisters of the Poor where she worked in the slums, visited the sick, taught children in the streets and even opened her first school. Just two years into her time with the Little Sisters, on Oct. 7, 1950, Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity in the Archdiocese of Calcutta. Her mission grew with the Missionaries of Charity Brothers in 1963, as well as to contemplative branches of religious life, to priests and to the laity.

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Today the Missionaries of Charity serve in homes for the abandoned. These break down into homes for children (Shishu Bhavan), homes for the sick and dying (Nirmal Hriday) and centers for those with Hansen’s Disease (leprosy). Their website explains that “these centers are organized as ‘small villages’ or ‘colonies’ where each patient who has a family is given a small house, a small plot of land to grow their vegetables, and the possibility to work.” Beyond these homes and centers, the sisters also educate through their free schools and offer free medical assistance, social and spiritual help, as well as disaster and COVID-19 relief. Today the Missionaries of Charity serve in more than 133 countries.

Fewer than 30 years after founding the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa was given the honor of the Nobel Peace Prize “for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitutes a threat to peace.” She accepted the prize, but turned down the ceremonial banquet, requesting instead that the money that would have been spent on the cost of the banquet, amounting to $192,000, instead be donated to India’s poor. In her acceptance speech, Mother Teresa said that her prayer was that truth would bring prayer into the home, “and we will love naturally. We will try to do something. First in our own home, next door neighbor in the country we live, in the whole world.”

A real life experience with the Missionaries of Charity

Andrea, a friend of mine, and her fiancé spent three weeks volunteering in the first hospice opened by Mother Teresa. This Nirmal Hriday home in Kalighat, Calcutta, is called “the Home of the Pure of Heart.” It is a place of belonging for those who have literally been left to die on the streets. Back in 1989, Mother Teresa had counted that 23,000 of the 54,000 souls they had saved from the streets of Calcutta had died in Nirmal Hriday — souls who had literally been dropped off in the streets by their family. Without the missionaries, they would have died without care.

Andrea shared with me that her time in India was “a very different kind of service experience.” Usually volunteering includes fixing something, building something or doing something that seems helpful in a measurable way, yet in Nirmal Hriday her acts of service felt so small. “Every day we would walk to the home for the sick and dying, and we couldn’t speak to the people because of the language barrier,” Andrea said. “Instead of talking, we just sat with them, massaged them or prayed over someone who was dying.”

“There was a rawness in Calcutta in general,” she said. “There was noise constantly and poverty in your face everywhere you looked. There were maimed and disabled people sitting everywhere on the streets. There was garbage everywhere and no luxury of any kind, no comfortable place to sit nor a pretty view. You can’t run from the issues of Calcutta.” My friend spoke about how the brokenness in Calcutta really brought her to cling to God. It made her realize how Mother Teresa clung to God, because there was nothing else to be drawn to or to cling to but him. In the words of Mother Teresa herself, “If luxury creeps in, we lost the spirit of the order. To be able to love the poor and know the poor, we must be poor ourselves.”

A few of the women who stood out during Andrea’s visit included a young girl whose face had been burned by her betrothed. He was insulted by the dowry that had been offered to him, so he called off the engagement and poured acid over her face in order to punish her family and ensure that nobody would ever marry her. Another was a woman who couldn’t walk without help. “I was praying, and this woman was scooting next to me on the ground, and she grabbed a bed to prop herself up to standing” Andrea told me. “When she started to fall, I grabbed her hands, and she started to walk with me. She needed to use the bathroom, so I tried to lead her to a space on the ground where waste was drained through a shower drain. It was the first time I felt like I was encountering the suffering Jesus. Her suffering was so visible, and I couldn’t help but think of Jesus falling [at] Calvary.”

The work that my friend did in Calcutta may indeed have seemed small to her, but her ministry was a ministry of presence. She treated the poor with the dignity they deserved. Mother Teresa reminds us that “our poor people are great people, are very lovable people, they don’t need our pity and sympathy, they need our understanding love. They need our respect; they need that we treat them with dignity.”

Mother Teresa, help us to love with an understanding love, to be faithful in our presence to others. Help us to be Jesus’ Simon on the road to Calvary, loving in every step of the way.

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