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Mother Teresa
The Person, Religious, and Channel of Grace

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

It is an unexpected privilege to write to you on the occasion of Mother Teresa’s entrance into eternity. More than twenty years ago, while teaching in New York City, Mother Teresa invited me to speak with her about the new branch of the Missionaries of Charity that she was founding. They are now called the Missionaries of Charity, Contemplative.

Our conversation lasted five hours. Since then, I have come to know Mother very well. Teaching her Sisters over these years, throughout the world, has enabled me to know their foundress extraordinarily well. I sincerely consider my friendship with her to be one of the great blessings of my priesthood.

My plan here is to share with you something of what I have learned about Mother Teresa on three aspects of her extraordinary life: Mother Teresa, the person, as I have come to know her through years of personal experience; Mother Teresa, the religious, as reflected in the Missionaries of Charity, whom she founded; Mother Teresa, the channel of grace, as seen in the transformation of souls that she and her Sisters have been able to accomplish since 1950, when they were first established in Calcutta as an institute of consecrated life.

Mother Teresa, the Person

Her plans to form a contemplative community were based on the conviction that without prayer and solitude, nothing worthwhile could be done for God. At first, the contemplatives were to be called Sisters of the Word:

  • Because their primary focus would be on the Word-made-flesh, who dwells among us, now on earth in the Blessed Sacrament. Devotion to Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist would be the bedrock of the Sisters, who are now called Missionaries of Charity, Contemplative.

  • Because these Sisters were to give some two hours each day in visiting the homes of people, to bring them the revealed word of God in talking about Jesus and Mary and the basic truths of Christianity.

Since that first meeting with Mother Teresa, I have been associated with both the active and contemplative Sisters, mainly in teaching them the Catholic faith. I have also come to know Mother Teresa as a person, through years of correspondence, conversation and cooperation in her apostolic enterprises.

I would single out certain qualities of her personality as outstanding:

  • Her deep faith in Jesus Christ, as the Living God who became Man out of love for us.

  • Her deep love of the poor, in whom she sees Jesus Christ expressing His thirst for our love of Him, to be shown by our love for them.

  • Her deep trust in God’s providence. She never seems to worry, and is always reaching out to do more for the poor, without being anxious of how this can be done. “God will provide,” is her unspoken motto.

  • Her deep concern for the salvation of souls. This is reflected in her desire to bring Christ to those whom her Sisters serve. “Pray and work daily,” she tells the Missionaries of Charity, “that all may become followers of Christ.”

Mother Teresa, the Religious

If there is one thing that is certain, it is that Mother Teresa’s phenomenal influence on the modern world has been possible only because she is first and foremost, and unembarrassingly a religious.

The Constitutions of the Missionaries of Charity could not be more plain. I quote from the section on “External Signs of Our Consecration.”

  • As a sign of entrance into a new state of life by religious consecration, and of our desire for self-effacement

    • We receive a new religious name at the time of profession.

    • We call each other “Sister.”

    • We cut our hair completely.

  • Our religious dress consisting of:

    • A simple and modest white cotton habit;

    • A cincture of rope and sandals;

    • A crucifix and rosary

  • Will be the sign of:

    • Our consecrated love for God and the Church;

    • Our dedication to the world’s poor;

    • A reminder of the edification expected from all those who wear the habit.

Mother Teresa could not be accused of being out of touch with the times. But she knows as I have learned from years of close dealing with her Sisters that authentic religious life is never out of touch with the times, always relevant, always needed in the Church, always attracting young generous souls to respond to a genuine religious vocation, always needed; but never more so than in our day; and nowhere more so than in materially super-developed countries like the United States.

Let me quote just seven short statements of Mother Teresa, each embedded in her Constitutions for the Missionaries of Charity, of how she sees religious life.

  • Let us make our Society something beautiful for God.

  • Rejoice that once more Christ is walking through the world in you, and through you, going about doing good.

  • Just as the seed is meant to be a tree, we are meant to grow into Jesus.

  • I will give saints to Mother Church.

  • Thank God from the depths of your hearts that He has chosen you for Himself and for life.

  • Submission for someone who is in love is more than a duty—it is a blessedness.

  • God will take care of you, if you remain one.

Running as a theme through all of mother Teresa’s conferences to her Sisters is this towering fact: religious are specially called by Christ to be patterns of holiness. Whatever else they do, and whatever other responsibilities they may assume—this is the primary goal in life, as religious, to become holy.

In spite of all the re-interpretation of religious life in the past generation, Mother Teresa has never wavered in her conviction that religious are first and mainly and primarily to be holy. She tells her religious, “Be conscious of your great responsibility of having to help your Sisters become saints.”

Mother Teresa does not leave this exhortation in thin air. She spells out in the most uncompromising terms how religious are to become holy.

Prayer is the foundation for sanctity. “Jesus,” she tells religious, “ is our Prayer, and He is also the answer to all our prayer. He has chosen to be Himself in religious as the living song of love, praise, adoration, thanksgiving, intercession and reparation to the Father.”

“The prayer of religious,” says Mother Teresa, “should be the prayer of little children, one of tender devotion, deep reverence, humility, serenity and simplicity.”

In one simple sentence, says Mother Teresa, “Holy Mass is to be the prayer of the day for religious.”

For her Missionaries of Charity, “Our one hour daily adoration before the Blessed Sacrament exposed gives us one more opportunity to sit at His feet in communion with the Lord to whom we belong.”

So the list of required practices of piety go on. But Mother Teresa leaves no doubt about the primacy of prayer in the religious life. “We shall pray our work,” her Sisters are told, “but we may not substitute our prayer for work. If a sister has missed any community prayer for some reason, she must make up for it.”

As one came to know Mother Teresa more personally, one learned that she had no illusions about the practicality of religious life. Many years of working with her and her community have made one thing clear. Religious life is not mainly active labor for the poorest of the poor. The heart of religious life is to grow in intimacy with Jesus. Everything else is not only secondary, but depends absolutely on this union with Christ, especially with Christ Crucified here on earth, as a prelude for union with Christ Glorified in the world to come.

Mother Teresa, Channel of Grace

If there is one distinguishing feature of Mother Teresa it is her phenomenal impact on the modern world. She has literally transformed the thinking of millions of people. In fact, her impact has been especially great on the minds of people who are not Catholic or not Christian, or not even professing faith in any religion.

Superficially, it might seem that her extraordinary influence has been really due to the self-sacrificing care that her Missionaries of Charity have given to the homeless, the helpless, the hungry, the despised and the dying in over one hundred countries throughout the world.

No doubt, this generous charity is a partial reason. But I do not believe it is the foundational explanation. The following quotation from one of Mother Teresa’s letters illustrates what I believe is the bedrock of her influence.

Our Lady was the most wonderful wire. She allowed God to fill her to the brim so that by her surrender, she became full of grace, and naturally the moment she was filled by this current, the grace of God, she went in haste to Elizabeth’s house to connect the wire, John, to the current, Jesus.
We, too, ask Our Lady to come into our lives and to make the current, Jesus, use us to go around the world and continue connecting the hearts of men with the current, Jesus.

Mother Teresa discovered and has been sharing the discovery with anyone who is willing to listen: that our role in life is to be channels of grace to others. And we shall be effective conduits of God’s blessings to the world in the measure that we ourselves are filled with His grace.

Mother Teresa’s message is very simple. Be holy and you will do wonders in the lives of everyone whose life you touch. Be united with God, and He will work miracles through you, and beyond your wildest dreams.

But there is one caution. Stay humble. Like Mary, give God credit for everything He does through you. More than once, Mother Teresa confided to me that, “God chose His least human creature when He decided to use me for His work.”

Our task in life, Mother Teresa would say, is to bring Jesus to others. Since Jesus is God, He wants to continue working the miracles He began performing during His visible stay in Palestine. He wants especially to work miracles in the conversion of sinners and in bringing stray sheep back to the fold.

All of this Jesus will do, and does, provided we are deeply in love with Him. In practice, this means that we follow Mary’s directives to the servants at the marriage feast of Cana, “Do whatever He tells you.” The servants obeyed. The result was the first miracle that Christ performed.

Mother Teresa’s message is clear. Ask Our Lady to make Jesus use us to go around the world connecting the hearts of men with the current, who is Jesus.

Of course, this presumes that we ourselves are united with Jesus in loving and cheerful obedience to His will.

Catholic Faith
Vol. 3 - #6, Nov/Dec 1997, pp. 1-3

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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