By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Tomorrow, September 5, is the eleventh anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. On October 19, 2003, she was declared Blessed by Pope John Paul II. Anniversaries are always wonderful opportunities for reflection. I am sure that you do that with anniversaries of significant events in your own lives, which helped to shape who you are. Every commemoration of an event also provides us with a challenge, which can be one of gratitude for a person or event or inspiration to continue on a certain path in the future.
I would like to treat the anniversary of Mother Teresa’s death as a challenge for all of us to listen to her prophetic voice, which was always accompanied by her faithful living out of the Gospel message.
It has been said that “imitation is the highest form of flattery.” The Church does not put the Saints and the Blesseds before us to flatter them but in honoring them she does challenge us to imitate them. There is always the danger of admiring figures from afar without the intention or desire to imitate them.
That is not the purpose of the Church in putting the Saints before us. Jesus calls us to imitate Him, and the Saints, in imitating Him so well, give us inspiration and courage to follow Jesus’ call. Sometimes, we can look at a holy person and reduce that person to only one aspect of his or her life. We sometimes see this with the figure of Saint Francis of Assisi. His love of nature and animals is very well known and is easy and comfortable to admire. However, how many know and strive to imitate his great union with the Passion of Jesus, his poverty, his love for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and his high regard for the priesthood?
Jesus does not command what we might call “selective imitation” of Him, and the Church does not encourage selective imitation of the Saints. This is why I would like to reflect this week on the total and prophetic message of the great Mother Teresa, whom the world so admires.
Mother Teresa’s prophetic role
In the Church’s Liturgy, we read this description of the role of the Saints in the Church: “You renew the Church in every age by raising up men and women outstanding in holiness, living witnesses of your unchanging love. They inspire us by their heroic lives, and help us by their constant prayers to be the living sign of your saving power” (Sacramentary, Preface for Holy Men and Women II).
We sometimes confuse the word prophet with a description of someone who foretells the future. This is not the understanding of this word in the Scriptures. A prophet in the Old Testament is one who calls the people back to fidelity by his words and example. He is often a thorn in the side of the people because he clearly identifies their infidelity and God’s displeasure with them. Jesus Himself fulfilled the greatest of prophetic roles in His own ministry. The reason that the Preface we just quoted speaks of the Church being renewed in every age is that the Saints often respond to the needs of a particular time and place in human history in fulfilling their roles as witnesses to Christ.
This was certainly so in the life of Mother Teresa and this is why she also had what we might call a prophetic role for the Church and for society. We may say that Mother Teresa’s prophetic role was fulfilled in calling the world to defend and work for the dignity of the human person. We might even say that her whole life, with its remarkable deeds of charity and heroic activity on behalf of the poorest of the poor was one great proclamation of human dignity.
The actions of Mother Teresa became known throughout the world. There was and continues to be a temptation to pick and choose certain activities that Mother engaged in and to isolate them from their true motivation or extol them while ignoring other aspects of her work.
In the opportunities that Mother Teresa had to speak to different groups around the world, she made clear what her motivation and philosophy was: the lifting up of those rejected by the world, because in God’s sight these are His creatures, endowed with the dignity inherent in every man and woman.
This is what motivated Mother Teresa to found the Missionaries of Charity whose mission is, in her own words, to care for “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to society and are shunned by everyone.”
Mother Teresa’s zeal, vision and example were such that at the time of her death the Missionaries of Charity had over 4,000 Sisters, an associated community of Brothers and over 100,000 lay volunteers operating 610 missions in 123 countries. These included hospices for people with AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, soup kitchens, counseling programs, orphanages and schools. However, although many of these apostolates involved social work, Mother never ceased to proclaim: “I am not a social worker. I don’t do it for this reason. I do it for Christ. I do it for the Church.”
Seeing concerns in their proper perspective
During a talk which Mother Teresa gave at a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. in 1994, she put her mission and the challenges of today’s world in their proper perspective. She said: “Many people are very, very concerned with the children of India, with the children of Africa where quite a few die of hunger, and so on. Many people are also concerned about all the violence in this great country of the United States.
These concerns are very good. But often these same people are not concerned with the millions who are being killed by the deliberate decision of their own mothers. And this is what is the greatest destroyer of peace today – abortion, which brings people to such blindness.”
With all of the challenges which Mother Teresa faced in serving the poorest of the poor, she never wavered in proclaiming that this was the greatest poverty in our world: the taking of the lives of millions of unborn children.
She fulfilled a prophetic role when she never ceased to proclaim to those who admired one aspect of her work that, along with helping the poor, she was committed to saving the lives of the unborn. She reminded the whole world, especially those in materially affluent countries that, “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you can live as you wish.” Care for the materially poor and the physically needy was only one aspect of Mother’s message.
The challenge to nations
The words “love” and “peace” can be used with great effect. Demagogues down through the ages have pretended to proclaim them and have led many to their deaths and have destroyed their countries at the same time. Mother Teresa reminded us: “Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use violence to get what they want. That is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion. Any country that accepts abortion is the poorest of the poor.”
Mother Teresa did not attempt to “muddy the waters” by speculating about the reality of what is clearly human life when she saw it in some of its most rejected forms in the gutters of Calcutta. She picked up that unpleasant looking form of human life, sometimes filled with maggots, and loved that person and cared for this creature made in God’s image. She did not suspend her powers of reason, as those who defended human slavery did, to pretend that it was impossible to know whether a clearly human person could and should be legally defended or looked after.
Throughout salvation, human and American history, there have been periods of time when societies and inspaniduals were faced with great issues which transcended others in their importance. Many different prophets down through the ages called their listeners to recognize the great questions they were facing. Not every issue is equal.
One of the issues that transcends others is the right to life, even when that life is hidden by the ravages of AIDS, poverty or a mother’s womb. This right comes to us from God and is enshrined in the very documents that make up the foundation of our country. When this right is denied, clouded, abandoned and used as a political tool, the entire structure of legitimate and honorable government totters and those who support this abandonment on television, in public speeches or in the voting booth totter with it.
Many wanted to make a humanitarian out of Mother Teresa. Likewise, some will want to make politicians of those who defend the life of the unborn. We proudly respond to Mother Teresa’s prophetic voice and proclaim human dignity, in the gutter, in the sick and the poor and in a mother’s womb. We do this not as humanitarians or politicians but as creatures of God, called to defend the inherent dignity of our fellow men and women, clearly recognizable, regardless of the circumstance, to those who have eyes to see.
September 4, 2008