Remember this Christmas, as you are being inundated with material pressures, that the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is the greatest of all gifts. And this fall we were given another gift: Celebrating what we have long known to be true: That Mother Teresa is a saint. To coincide with her canonization, Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, MC, friend, collaborator, and priest of the order she founded, issued an invitation to mercy, to follow in her footsteps, which is to follow in the footsteps of Christ, in the book A Call to Mercy: Hearts to Love, Hands to Serve. He talks about mercy and the saint and the book.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Who’s called to mercy? How do you start?
Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, MC: Everyone is called to mercy. As Mother Teresa used to say, “we have been created to love and to be loved,” and a big part of this love is to receive mercy and give mercy. And we begin right where we are. Maybe first with ourselves, realizing that we are in need of God’s mercy and, after opening ourselves to and receiving His mercy, we might be more open and ready to extend it to others. Those in need of mercy are very close to us, or as Mother Teresa used to say, “Calcutta is everywhere.” So we need to begin even in our own homes, with those closest to us. How do we start? By doing little gestures of mercy, for example, some small service to a family member, even as simple as a smile, independently of whether we feel like it or not. Mercy can be precisely in this, that we make the first step with a small gesture towards someone we think does not deserve it. If we pay attention, opportunities for mercy and compassion are all around us.
Lopez: Early in the book, you explain about a close encounter Mother Teresa had with her own poverty, her own weakness. What would you say to someone who finds that unbelievable -- that this strong woman, an icon of saintliness in the world, was actually weak and a sinner?
Fr. Kolodiejchuk: To recognize and accept one’s own poverty and weakness is fundamental to being a Christian. The closer we are to the light, the more dust we see. The closer we are to God, the more we see our limitations and the least imperfection seems unbearable to the soul who wants to please the God whom she loves above all. All the saints have considered themselves to be just poor sinners. Mother Teresa heard Jesus say to her, “you are I know the most incapable person—weak and sinful, but just because you are that—I want to use you for My glory.” She would often say, “God uses nothingness to show His greatness,” speaking of herself before anyone else.
Because of being so aware that by herself she was “nothing,” Mother Teresa gave Jesus free reign with her. He could thus use her fully just as He wanted, “for His glory and the good of the people,” as she would say.
Lopez: What is the significance of her canonization? Most people probably long ago figured she was already an official saint of the Church, or didn’t really feel they needed the designation because it seemed quite obvious? What do you make of the timing?
Fr. Kolodiejchuk: The canonization process was the Church’s discernment and confirmation of the sense among the people of God (and indeed, even beyond the confines of the Church) that Mother Teresa is a saint. While the canonization affirms what was almost universally held already, on a practical level, the canonization will allow for public veneration of St. Teresa throughout the Church that was not allowed previously; now even more widely than before she can serve as a role model and intercessor for us before God. This is an important aspect for Catholics. Moreover, the canonization is a wonderful occasion to make known to those who were very young or not even born in 1997 (the year Mother Teresa died) her life, work and message.
When asked in interviews, when Mother Teresa would be canonized, I would reply, “when it is an opportune moment for the Church.” Since the mission of Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity is comprised of the spiritual and material works of mercy, it is most appropriate that Mother Teresa was canonized during the Jubilee of Mercy. The miracle that led the way for the canonization occurred in 2008, but it was not brought to my attention until September 2013. The completed investigative process culminated in the recognition of the miracle by Pope Francis in December of last year and the canonization this year.
Thus in this Jubilee Year of Mercy that just ended, the Church presents to us Mother Teresa as an icon of mercy.
Lopez: Is there one testimony about the life of Mother Teresa that encapsulates her best?
Fr. Kolodiejchuk: The incident in Beirut, described on pages 14-16, shows through an extraordinary event the way Mother Teresa acted in ordinary events (as most of the testimonies in the book demonstrate). She was so concerned for those severely disabled (Moslem) children in West Beirut that she prayed that Our Lady would obtain a ceasefire that would allow her to save them. Once these children were brought to the Sisters in East Beirut, the loving care — simple, ordinary gestures — given to them led to dramatic improvement. She also involved a Jewish doctor in their care (that is not reported in this testimony). This one story demonstrates her great faith and trust in God, her love for and confidence in Mary, her practical sense and ability to get things done where others could not, her charity for all those suffering no matter their background, her ability to involve all kinds of people in her mission of service and her surrender to the at times incomprehensible ways of God.
Lopez: “The best teacher is Our Lady,” Mother Teresa said. How do you learn from her, practically speaking? What was Mother Teresa’s relationship with Mary and how did the Rosary help?
Fr. Kolodiejchuk: “Stay very close to Our Lady. If you do this, you can do great things for God and the good of people,” said Mother Teresa. This is exactly what she did: she stayed close to Our Lady, especially living united to and in imitation of her Immaculate (sinless) Heart and the great love for God and souls therein. Mother Teresa had a very personal, tender, delicate love for Mary. She strove to be a real Missionary of Charity as was Mary, whom she called “the first Missionary of Charity.” “Like [Our Lady,]” she exhorted her Sisters, “let us be full of zeal to go in haste to give Jesus to others.” Our Lady was her path, companion and support in all she did.
Mother Teresa’s favorite way to live this relationship with Mary was through the Rosary. She had received it almost as a mandate at the time of the Inspiration to begin her new community. In a visions she saw, she described the following: “Again that great crowd—I could see great sorrow and suffering in their faces—I was kneeling near Our Lady, who was facing them.—I did not see her face but I heard her say “Take care of them—they are mine.—Bring them to Jesus—carry Jesus to them.—Fear not. Teach them to say the Rosary—the family Rosary and all will be well.—Fear not—Jesus and I will be with you and your children.” Whenever she could — which was almost always — Mother Teresa had the Rosary in her hand. For her it was a way of keeping her hand in the hand of Mary, as it were. This relationship was eminently both spiritual and practical.