The first time I heard Mother Teresa speak was at St. Albert’s College in Ranchi, India. I was doing my studies in philosophy at the college, and she came to address the staff and the students in March 1966. I met her personally at noon on November 30, 1966, in the motherhouse parlor in Calcutta. (In January 2001 the Indian government officially changed the city’s name to Calcutta.)
The last time I was with her was on July 19, 1997. I was the main celebrant at a Mass at the sisters’ house at 222 Via Casilina in Rome. After the Holy Mass she started talking to us brothers in the chapel. A sister came to wheel her away in her wheelchair, and Mother told us to go have breakfast.
While we were doing so, she sent the regional superior, Sr. Elena, to ask us to stay afterward so that she could talk with us again in the chapel. She came in her wheelchair and spoke to us for over 45 minutes about humility and charity and how to become holy. The only way to humility, she told us, is to accept joyfully all the humiliations, mistreatments, and trials of everyday life.
One of the brothers asked, “Mother, who is your favorite saint?”
She said without waiting for him to finish the question,“Our Lady.”
The brother was not happy with the answer. “But Our Lady is very special. Who else?”
She said, “St. Joseph”—in other words, the Holy Family.
She told us to keep praying for China. She told us not to get preoccupied with many useless things but to concentrate on Jesus and His life and mission. She blessed us all.
She did not want to stop. She repeated some things many times, as she tended to forget what she had said a minute before. She had totally surrendered her memory, her will, everything. These things the Lord had taken away from her, but remaining with her were His grace and His love. This was enough for Our Lord, for her and for us.
On the afternoon of that same day, Br. Charbel and I accompanied her to the airport along with some sisters and others. We were given the VIP room, where she enquired about how things were with the brothers. She wrote a few notes for us and for the Lay Missionaries of Charity, and then she had me sit closer to her.
She spoke with me about the Corpus Christi Movement, an international movement she had founded, with the blessing of Pope John Paul II, for diocesan priests. Fr. Pasquale Cervara, the coordinator of Corpus Christi, was present. Her last words to me were “I want you to be a part of it.”
By then the Air India official had come to take her to the aircraft. Our eyes were full, as we all felt that perhaps it was the last time we would see her in this world. It was a symbolic take-off. Air India would not bring her to the home of her heavenly Father, but her hour would soon come.
Mother Teresa’s last letter to me is dated August 23, 1997. It was a short note of recommendation for an elderly person who wanted to become a priest.
I talked to her on the telephone from our house in Albania on August 26, 1997, her 78th birthday. She sounded quite well. “How are you, Fr. Sebastian, and how are all the brothers? You are always in my prayers. Pray much for Mother. All right.”
I told her that 26 of us were on our annual retreat, to which she replied, “Thank God for the vocations and try to help them to become holy. Pray much for Mother. God bless you.. . . If you need anything, do not hesitate to ask the sisters. God bless you. Mother loves you.” This was the last time that I spoke with Mother.
Her hour arrived on September 5, the first Friday of the month. That is when her immortal soul flew from her frail, old, worn-out body to be with the Source of life and love for all eternity. She would be like a piece of iron stuck to its magnet once and for all, destined to carry on her mission of loving service from the throne of the Most High God.
Thirty-one years of knowing a person. In one sense I knew her more than my own mother, whom I loved so much. With my mother I lived 19 years, most of which I spent at school. But with Mother Teresa I spent the best part of my life, working with the poor in various parts of the world. She used to say, “We know each other by heart.”
Through her life and work Mother Teresa gave visibility to the invisible God, as a light bulb makes electricity visible. As the light bulb does not produce the electricity, so too the power to do good belonged not to her but to the Lord. There were therefore no grounds for her to be proud. It was clear to her that the more united she was to Jesus, like the branch to the vine, the more abundantly she would bear fruit for Him.
“Let us thank God and Our Lady” was her spontaneous response when people thanked her for the blessings they received through her prayers. Aware of the Source of all power, she wrote in the first pages of her handwritten Constitutions:
It was Jesus Christ on the Cross through His blessed Mother—in His great mercy and love—who chose one of His most unworthy and most incapable of human beings to start His own work among the poor. Therefore the Society as a whole or in detail is completely and will always remain the sole possession of the Mother of God.
Jesus redeemed the world. But He calls people to carry on His work of redemption in the world. Mother Teresa was chosen to help the world recognize the presence of Jesus under the distressing disguise of those broken in body and soul. Her invitation to become holy was a pleasant appeal to hearts: “God wants us all to be holy. In the evening of life when we appear before God, we are going to be judged on love.”
The task God entrusted to Mother Teresa, though difficult, was very important: namely, to surrender herself totally to His holy will and to dedicate her life entirely to the service of the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta. According to her, “This was an order.” With the command he also gave her the assistance of the Holy Spirit. For her the “Upper Room” was the passenger compartment of a train headed for Darjeeling in the dark hours of the night of September 10, 1946. The gift that she received on that night unfolded with time.
Mother Teresa was given the grace to understand that the biggest disease in the world today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for, and deserted by everybody. The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference towards one’s neighbor who lives by the roadside and is assaulted by exploitation, corruption, poverty, and disease. . . . Only in heaven we will see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them.
Mother Teresa’s joy was an expression of God’s loving presence in her. “Joy is prayer. . . . Joy is love. . . . Joy is a net of love by which we can catch souls,” she wrote in the sisters’ Constitutions. I often marvelled at her untiring energy, her calm, and her charming smiles. I saw people come to her with frowns and scowls and go away with radiant faces. Many even confessed their sins to her, and these she directed to a priest for sacramental confession. She had the gift of touching hearts with peace, of anointing them with “the oil of gladness” (Ps 45:7).
Her work disturbed the consciences of many and moved even the most hardened hearts. I have seen politically potent people kneel to kiss her feet. Often her appearances required police protection and even military assistance because of the crowds. When she was sick and stooped, people of all ages and walks of life still ran to her. Many just wanted to touch her feet or her sari, to get her blessing or even just a glimpse of her aged, smiling face.
It was the firm belief of countless people throughout the world that Mother Teresa was a “living saint of our time.” Not only Roman Catholics but people of all religions and denominations considered her sanctity heroic, her spiritual gifts extraordinary. The Hindus in India believe that she was another manifestation of one of the goddesses of charity.
The popularity and the formal recognition she received from the most prestigious quarters did not make any difference to her personality or her behavior. Her lifestyle remained simple, humble, joyful, available, ready to serve rather than to be served, ready to do any sort of work.
One day she could be with the president and leading ministers of India, and the next she could be found washing and feeding people in one of her homes for the poor. This constancy, this heroic humility and charity, convinced the world of her exceptional holiness of life.
Her photos were distributed by the thousands. Her simple words were quoted at gatherings of the mighty. Her letters and autographs are treasured with meticulous care. Audiocassettes, videos, books, and articles are sold not only in Catholic bookshops but in other religious and nonreligious venues. Many of these items can be found in various languages, even some of the less spoken languages of the world.
The years of selfless and dedicated service in no way diminished her initial fervor, her heroic charity, her zeal for the salvation and sanctification of souls, or her love for the poor. Her heart burned with the “fire of divine love,” which continually gave her new energy. She desired nothing except to love until she died of love.
Mother was very hardworking. Previous to her first serious heart attack in 1989, she often spent a large part of the night writing letters. Even on that last Friday, September 5, 1997, she spent the whole morning working.
Mother wanted to die working and to die in the room that had been hers for most of her life as a Missionary of Charity. God granted both desires.
From the moment the news of her going home to God was announced on the night of September 5, the world showed exceptional love and devotion, interest and concern. A week of vigil over her body was another form of preaching—not by mere words, nor even by action, but simply by physical presence.
Thousands of people lined up to have their last “dharsan” of the little “Mahatma—Mother Teresa” and to offer their final homage to her, many bringing flowers. Throughout the world Masses and prayers were offered in thanksgiving to God for His gift of Mother Teresa to the Church and to the world.
Her funeral was unprecedented: Never before had a religious received a Catholic and state funeral at the same time. This was her final way of evangelizing the nations, when on that morning of September 13, 1997, the eyes of the whole world focused on the solemn historic event in Calcutta.
A military band accompanied the slow procession from the Church of St. Thomas, Middleton Row, to the Netaji Stadium, with Mother’s corpse travelling on the funeral carriage that had been used previously for only Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, two great political leaders of the Indian nation.
Here religion and politics met in a momentary experience of heaven: the visible meeting the invisible; the Church meeting the nations. Here religions went beyond their boundaries; here political powers bowed their heads in respect and reverence to a simple religious.
Here God made Himself known, once again through His humble and obedient creature Mother Teresa, as the King of Kings of the whole world. Here the words of St. Paul were manifest: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27).
Is there anything that love cannot achieve? Charity coupled with humility is the mightiest of all weapons in our struggle to conquer the world for God.
Through Mother Teresa the love of God triumphed and the nations of the world bowed before the power of love—the love that can never be defeated, the love that ever conquers and goes forth to fresh victories, the love that made itself known on that solemn morning of September 13, 1997.
Sebastian Vazhakala, MC, was the first priest ordained as a Missionary of Charity. He is the superior general of the Missionaries of Charity Contemplative.