05 September 2016

Meeting Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa with Fr Michael Mohally

Yesterday, 4 September, Pope Francis canonised St Teresa of Kolkata (Calcuttat). Today is her feast day, the anniversary of her death in 1997. My Columban classmate and close friend, Fr Michael Mohally from the city of Cork, Ireland, wrote the article below for the September-October 2003 issue of MISYON, the Columban magazine in the Philippines of which I have been editor for 14 years now. We have re-published it in the current September-October issue of the magazine, now known as MISYONonline.com. Fr Michael is based in Manila.

Towards the end of his homily at the canonisation Mass Pope Francis made an off-the-cuff comment about what we should call the new saint and figured that everyone would still refer to her as' Mother Teresa'. Very few Catholics would know who St Pius of Pietrelcina is but they would know who 'Padre Pio' is. And in Chile San Alberto Hurtado SJ is still known to everyone as 'Padre Hurtado'.

Incidentally, Mother Teresa and Padre Hurtado spent some time in Rathfarnham, now a suburb of Dublin, within a few years of each other. Mother Teresa had her initial formation as a Loreto Sister in Loreto Abbey there in the late 1920s. 

Padre Hurtado lived in nearby Rathfarnham Castle, where the Jesuits had a retreat house, for some time in the early 1930s studying English.

by Fr Michael Mohally

The first time I was to have met Mother Teresa was in Hong Kong. I was asked to bring a package to her there from where she was to accompany Sisters into China to set up the first foundation of the Missionaries of Charity there. When I got to the convent I was told that the China foundation was on ‘hold’. Newspapers had got hold of the story and said that she was going there as the representative of the Pope. Rather than wait around, Mother Teresa had gone to Hanoi to set up a new foundation there.
One evening back home in Manila I received a phone call from the Missionaries of Charity asking if I would preach at the community Mass the following morning. Mother Teresa had just arrived on a visit to the Philippines and was tired after her long journey. They were not sure if she’d be at the early Mass but since all the Sisters in the Manila area would be there, it would be a very special community celebration. I accepted the invitation very reluctantly. I was in awe of Mother Teresa and her reputation as a rather unique person. I discovered that the principal celebrant wouldn’t preach because of his awe for her.
I arrived the following morning and entered the oratory from the rear. The senior Sisters sat at the rear and novices and juniors at the front. A quick glance told me Mother Teresa wasn’t with the seniors so I gave a sigh of relief – she must be having a sleep after her long journey.
We began the Mass and I preached. In my homily I imitated the way a little baby kicks a blanket and holds on to one’s finger and won’t let go. A child finds his identity in what he ‘owns.’ I was aware that one ‘novice’ was really enjoying what I was saying. I was encouraged that the point I was making was being understood. I focused on the ‘novice’ and suddenly recognized the face. It was Mother Teresa. There she was sitting amongst her novices with this winning smile on her face. She seemed tiny to me.

I mentioned in my homily what had transpired between her and Jesus on a train journey to Darjeeling many years before when Mother Teresa was still a Loreto Sister teaching in an exclusive girls’ school. Jesus had told her that the thirst for love, acceptance and respect in the hearts of the poor was His thirst and could be their experience also asked for it. Mother Teresa nodded vigorously in agreement.
Missionaries of Charity [Wikipedia]

After Mass we spoke a little about our not meeting in Hong Kong. I recall her telling me how she had insisted with the Chinese authorities that the Sisters should wear their habit and she mentioned particularly the blue band around the sari, as she wanted it as a symbolic reminder that Our Lady was their protector.
Later that morning as the crowds gathered around for her blessing, she was distributing Miraculous Medals. I was standing some distance away from her and she beckoned to me to come over. With that smile and gentle laughter she said, ‘Father, I must tell you about these medals.’
She was once in Lourdes giving out some medals when a man approached her asking if he could help. She said that what she needed now was more medals. He promised there and then to keep her supplied with a few thousand medals each month. And then she said, ‘You know, Father, they arrive every month just as I am about to run out of them.’
Miraculous Medal [Wikipedia]

I noticed a Middle Eastern couple in the crowd that morning. Their clothing spoke of wealth. I arranged that they be photographed with her. Later I discovered the man was very wealthy and had suffered a heart attack. He reflected on life and his accumulation of wealth, wondered with whom he could share this and had become a sponsor of the Missionaries of Charity. The feeling I had was that he and his wife had flown to the Philippines just to see and be near her.
Reflecting on the few occasions I met her, I would have to say it was her humanity that touched me. She was just a small, chatty old lady with a smile and a gentle sense of humor. She seemed to wear the same worn sandals all the time. She was the personification of her own saying, ‘Peace begins with a smile.’
Plaque of Mother Teresa, Wenceslas Square, Olomouc, Czech Republic Wikipedia]

A little child holds on to things to find its identity. ‘This is mine, that is mine’ is what gives it its sense of identity. Our journey through life is meant to lead us to our letting go of things that we think give us identity – status, wealth, degrees or whatever – and discover that it is God’s creative love that gives each of us our true identity.
Mother Teresa understood the story of the little baby. She understood the struggle of letting go and could laugh at it. What kind of sandals she wore did not really matter. She had grown to true Christian adulthood.

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