The opportunity to see one’s former next door neighbor canonized is a rare occurrence in life.
Years ago, when I lived on Rome’s Coelian Hill, I resided at a basilica of two of Rome’s martyrs from the fourth century which was next to a basilica built over the sixth century home of Pope Saint Gregory the Great.
The Missionaries of Charity were given use of some of the buildings that were part of the complex of the Basilica of San Gregorio Magno, which is how Mother Teresa came to be my next door neighbor. She stayed at this convent whenever she was in Rome for meetings.
Being with her was unforgettable. Kneeling near her in the poor and simple chapel of the Missionaries of Charity. There, as in all chapels of the Missionaries of Charity, the words I THIRST are written on the wall next to the Crucifix and provide the Sisters with a focus for their meditation, their prayer, and the reason for their consecrated life.
Meeting and interacting with Mother Teresa, you instantly knew she was a very exceptional and extraordinary person. But it was also very startling. When I met Mother, she had entered the last decade of her life. One was struck by her small stature. Her slight build. Her growing frailty.
One was also struck that THIS was the instrument God used to give the Church a new Religious Family: the Missionaries of Charity. Men as well as women. Active and contemplative. With a place for lay associates in the Religious family, too. This was the woman through whom God had touched so many people in so many countries. This was a woman people of every faith and even of no faith could look upon and see humanity at its most inspiring. The word “saint” came to the lips almost reflexively, for both Catholics and non-Catholics.
One was struck while helping her or translating for her — this was a woman of celebrity, instantly recognizable all over the world. But that had no significance to her except that it could advance her work with the poorest of the poor. In them, she saw and served her Beloved. She saw Jesus in everyone but especially the suffering and needy. She taught this to her Missionaries of Charity. But she also taught it to anyone who came into contact with her. She taught it by actions even more than words. You saw it in Mother’s eyes.
In her own way, she taught me that it mattered not what we couldn’t do or what we couldn’t change; the Lord asked us to do all we could do and change what we could change. Mother knew she couldn’t solve all the poverty in India, let alone the world. She knew her Missionaries of Charity couldn’t help every person in need. As she said, “We’re not called to be successful. We’re called to be faithful.” To do what the Lord asks of us. To help those we have the opportunity to help. The Lord gives us opportunity to make a difference in peoples’ lives. People who otherwise might be without hope or help but for the Lord placing them in our path.
In that way, too, they can see the love of God made visible to them in our faces and in our hands. Jesus can touch them through us and we, in some poor way, can be Jesus’ hands. His smile. His voice that encourages and reassures. That was Mother Teresa’s way. And it was a lesson she taught her student on the streets of Rome.
Jesus today suffers in so many of His brothers and sisters around the world. He suffers in those members of His Mystical Body being persecuted and martyred…just as the Holy Innocents in His infancy or Saint Stephen soon after He ascended to Heaven. The way of persecution and martyrdom has continued through the centuries — and is still experienced in the Church today.
Mother Teresa’s life, witness and teachings are a call to remember that in the person who is in need, there we find the Lord whom we love.
To look into the eyes of a Patriarch who is bishop of the See that Peter the Apostle governed after leaving Jerusalem and before settling in Rome is to look into the eyes of the suffering Jesus who cried from the Cross “I thirst.” To extend a hand to a brother or sister in Christ who is from that place, Antioch, where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians, is to reach across time and touch something of the Church in its first generation.
As we give thanks to God for Mother Teresa… As we give thanks to God for the amazing works He performed through this very special yet unassuming woman… As we give thanks to God that He places her, as a Saint, raised to the altars as one to be honored, to be inspired by and whose intercession with Him should be sought… As we rejoice that Pope Francis canonizes her… Let us remember that the suffering and the afflicted she so loved are still among us.
The Mother Teresa who would turn and say, “I need you to translate; I need you to…” now needs each of us to carry on the work she did so well and that she has handed to us to continue.