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The Spirituality of Mother Teresa

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

It is a privilege to say a few words about Mother Teresa at this first anniversary Mass, commemorating her death on September the fifth, 1997. I thought I would concentrate on some of the features of her spiritual life that I had come to know in my twenty-five years of knowing her.

Given the magnitude of the subject, suppose I prefix each of my half-dozen observations on her spiritual life with a simple sentence, and then briefly explain how she lived out this feature of her life.

Deep Faith in the Real Presence. In my estimation this was the bedrock of Mother Teresa’s spiritual life. She believed, without a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus Christ is really, truly, and substantially present in the Blessed Sacrament. So deep was this faith that she declared, and must have repeated hundreds of times, “I make a holy hour everyday in the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Our holy hour is our daily family prayer where we get together and pray the Rosary the first half-hour and the second half-hour in silence. Our adoration has doubled the number of our vocations.”

No words of mine can adequately explain how deep was Mother Teresa’s faith in the presence of Jesus, now on earth, just as He was during His visible stay in Palestine. Without this faith, there would not have been a Mother Teresa.

Deep Apostolic Love for the Poor. Mother Teresa loved poor people. I would say the poorer they were, the more she loved them. Her constitutions could not be clearer. The Missionaries of Charity are to give their free and whole lot of service to the poorest of the poor.

In one sentence, that is why she founded her community. Born in Albania, which is one of the poorest countries in the Western world, she labored in India which is one of the poorest nations in the Eastern hemisphere. Then, within India, Calcutta has the reputation for being the slum city of the country. During my stays in Calcutta, I will never forget the million or more people daily sleeping on the sidewalks or in the streets, with no home to go to.

We Americans are living in a dream world. Mother Teresa lived in the real world in which most of the human race goes to bed hungry everyday.

It was her deep love for these desperately poor people that inspired her to serve whatever needs they had. As she often told me, the deepest need of the poor is to know that someone loves them.

No Dependence on the Government. It may come as a surprise, even a shock, to many people to know that Mother Teresa would not accept one penny from the State for the widespread financial support that her apostolate needed.

Behind this independence of the government was her deep conviction that financial dependence becomes financial enslavement. She wanted her Sisters to be totally free in caring for the poorest of the poor. This freedom, she was convinced, depended on relying entirely on the generosity of the people. As again she told me more than once, “If ever people stop supporting the apostolate of the Missionaries of Charity, they will simply cease to exist.”

Regularity in the Daily Order. The more closely I came to know the Missionaries of Charity, the more I realized how strictly regular was their daily life. Rising in the morning at four-forty, on feast days at five-ten, was only the beginning of their regular routine. There are set times for prayer, set times for meals, set times for apostolic work.

Needless to say this was only a pale reflection of Mother Teresa’s own personal life. The result, however, was astounding. This regularity has produced extraordinary fruitfulness in the service of others. That is why, in my judgement, the Missionaries of Charity could not have been founded except in India. To this day most of their more than four thousand membership is from India.

There is a remarkable relationship between poverty and regularity. Poor people, we might say, are trained by Divine Providence to live regulated lives.

Zeal for the True Faith. After some thirty-five years of serving the poorest of the poor, Mother Teresa was called to Rome by Pope John Paul II. He told her how deeply he appreciated what she was doing worldwide to relieve the poverty of so many people. But then he told her, “I would like to change your Constitutions. I want the Missionaries of Charity to become missionaries not only of poor bodies but also of poor souls.”

The Holy Father then told her to start catechizing and evangelizing. When Mother told the Pope that her Sisters were not trained for this apostolate, he told her, “train them!”

I had known the Missionaries of Charity for some years before she got this order from the Holy Father. But then my life changed drastically. Mother Teresa was instructed by the heads of four congregations in Rome to start training her religious to teach the Catholic Faith. At the same time I received corresponding orders from the Vatican to work with the Sisters in training them for their new apostolate.

Words cannot describe the impact which this had on the Missionaries of Charity. They have been phenomenally zealous and effective in teaching the true faith. Located in over one hundred countries throughout the world, I can honestly say they are now the largest missionary order in the world. But now, the word “missionary” has come to mean teaching the faith which God became man to reveal to the world.

Needless to say, the Sisters have not departed from their basic charism of serving the poorest of the poor. Their focus is still on the poor people, who not coincidentally, form most of the human race. But now the Missionaries of Charity combine two kinds of poverty, the poverty of the physically destitute and the poverty of those who are spiritually in the greatest need.

Mother Teresa never forgot Christ’s statement to His own Nazarenes, when He told them that He had come into the world to proclaim the Gospel to the poor.

Great Prudence. It is not surprising that Mother Teresa was gifted with an extraordinary prudence. I do not hesitate to say that she was divinely enlightened in this matter. I still remember her conversation with Cardinal Koch of New York. She had just opened the first house of the contemplative Sisters. She told the cardinal how deeply she appreciated his support of her community. Then she added, “However, I want to make sure that our Sisters have only the best priests in the Archdiocese as their chaplains, confessors, spiritual counselors and retreat directors.” She had no illusions how indispensable are solid priests to direct the spiritual lives of her community.

Spirit of Prayer. We could go on for hours explaining one feature of Mother Teresa’s spirituality after another. But I think at the heart of everything she did, and of everything she achieved, was a deep, shall I say, constant union with God.

It was not coincidental that so many photos of Mother Teresa show her with a Rosary in her hand. Believe me this was not by chance. She literally lived in the presence of God and constantly depended on His supernatural assistance. It was from Him that she derived, as she said, all the light she had ever received to know what God wanted her to do. It was from Him that she received all the strength to do His will.

In one sentence, this might be a synthesis of the spirituality of Mother Teresa. All she ever wanted to do in life was the will of God. But she knew there was no other way to know what God wanted, every moment of the day, except by asking Him for the grace to know His divine will and then to do it with all her heart.

I would like to close by quoting from the “Prayer for Mother Teresa,” approved for private use by the Archbishop of Calcutta. The prayer reads:

God our loving Father
You have exalted the beauty of your love for us in the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta

She showed the poor and the suffering,
the weak and the lonely how much You long to love them – how in their poverty and pain You thirst for them through Jesus your Son. It was He, hidden in the poor, whom she served as her Lord and loved as her Spouse.

May her example encourage us to
recognize Jesus in our brothers and sisters in need and reach out to them with ardor and joy, kindness and compassion, as she did.

May her work here continue as we
ask you, Dear Father, that through her intercession your grace will touch our weakness and heal our wounds.

We ask this favor through the
intercession of your handmaid, Mother Teresa. (mention the special favor prayed for)

May the beauty of her life, holiness and
message be lifted up by the Church, even as she lifted the beauty of your Son’s presence in the precious disguise of the poor.


Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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