Becoming Mother Teresa's Collaborator (Part 2)

Interview With Close Ally of the Calcutta Nun

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By Irene Lagan

WASHINGTON, D.C., AUG. 27, 2010 (Zenit.org).- As the world marked on Thursday the 100th anniversary of the birth of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, it was clear that her legacy is far from fading away.

Following her namesake, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whose doctrine of the “little way” provided direction to people daunted by the austerity of the great spiritual masters and made sanctity seem possible, Mother Teresa taught us how to love the seemingly unlovable, the poorest of the poor.

To mark the anniversary of the nun's birth, ZENIT spoke with one of Mother Teresa's close collaborators and allies, Jim Twoey. Twoey is a former White House correspondent and was recently the president of St. Vincent's, a small Catholic college in Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Mary, have recently relocated back to the Washington D.C. area.

Part 1 of this interview was published Thursday.

ZENIT: Do you think Mother Teresa’s life and work will have a lasting impact on society?

Twoey: I think she will have a greater influence in the 21st century than she had in the 20th century. As the age wave sweeps across America, and you see our elderly and disabled exiled to the margins of society, they will discover in Mother Teresa that she too knew the darkness and the desolation that they are living, and that she can be a guide in finding hope in what would otherwise be a hopeless situation.

Mother was asked once what the worst disease is: leprosy, or AIDS. She said it was neither, that loneliness was worse. That’s going to be the disease of the 21st century. In America alone there are some 78 million baby boomers. And, as that cohort, which did not have a lot of children, ages and retires, many will find themselves alone. Plus, they have been so heavily influenced by the culture of death. So, Mother’s pronouncements of the culture of life will be a source of hope and encouragement, along with her reminder that the poor are a gift to us and not a burden. We need them and they need us.

Also, she had the ability in her own life to find God when she could not feel his presence, and to seek him and love him. These are lasting examples that will heavily influence how people in the 21st century survive loneliness and poverty.

The revelation of her darkness and inner solitude -- a surprise to all of us who knew her -- will bear a lot of fruit in this next century. I think she will come to be seen as a mystic because of the experience she had with Christ early on in 1947, and having conversations with Christ. All of this is knowledge about Mother's life that is going to be very rich for years and years to come.

I remember what Mother said, "If Jesus puts you in the palace, be all for Jesus in the palace, and if he takes your life and cuts it up into 1,000 pieces, they are all his." There’s eternal wisdom in what she says.

ZENIT: Along with teaching us how to love the poor and those in our midst, Mother Teresa was a strong voice for the culture of life. What lasting impact will this aspect of her message have?

Twoey: I think her fearless witness of the sanctity of life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death has buttressed the conviction of many Church officials and politicians. I think they’ve received great consolation and courage from her words. For those who heard them [her teachings] and did not respond to the unmistakable truth of her words, it reminds you of the seed that was sown on the footpath: They had the opportunity and chose not to accept it.

I think her words will have the same lasting influence that you find in the writings of Augustine and Aquinas in their understanding of theology, or St. Francis De Sales on marriage and family life, and Blessed John Henry Newman on university life. She will join with Francis of Assisi and others regarding the poor and our obligation to the poor and the beauty and liberation of poverty in the consecrated life. 

But I think she will be a great influence to all those who have great interior aridity and dryness. And I think for those who met Mother and didn’t respond, it is like the parable of the rich man who went away sad because his possessions were many. She made an urgent appeal to them and they went away sad.

ZENIT: In working so closely with her, you never knew how much she was suffering interiorly?

Twoey: We had a gathering at St. Vincent’s College a few years ago with many of her closest companions. Her successor, Sister Nirmala was there, her niece Aggi, Sandi McMurtrie who traveled with her, and others. All said the same thing: None of them knew of her inner darkness. We all knew Mother lived a mortified life. Her body was in a state of disrepair: It was a race to see which would give out first, her heart or her lungs. She’d had heart attacks, malaria dozens of times; she was breaking bones year after year.

We knew her life was mortified and all of us assumed she was getting all the sweet consolations the saints get. And when we found out after her life the exact opposite was true -- that after her conversations with Jesus in 1947 she was led into a desert she never left, it was a shocking revelation to all of us. It made us all rethink her life, and in the process, to love her even more. We realized that despite the darkness and emptiness inside, she was so cheerful, joyful, energetic. She really was given a share of the poor’s suffering because inside they often feel that same darkness and hopelessness. It characterizes the lives of so many poor today. We knew that her life was hard, but we had no idea that interiorly it was worse. I was in her hospital room in 1996. She had a tabernacle in the room and an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. There was no question where her faith was.

If you read "Come Be My Light" and her letters, it is remarkable that through the rest of her life, she learned how to befriend the darkness: how to seek and find and love Christ in the darkness.

ZENIT: What challenges do the Missionaries of Charity face now, and have they remained faithful to her vision?

Twoey: There’s been no change in the Missionaries’ fidelity to Mother’s vision. In fact, I’ve seen it deepen. These are women and men who knew Mother so closely and have such a personal attachment to her that it is for them a matter of obligation to carry forward the vision and the mission.

Over the years, the Missionaries have fed the poor, treated the sick and suffering, worked with the homeless. Their vow of wholehearted and free service means that they do this for free, and have never charged anyone, including the government, a cent. That’s why Mother was so adamant at the end of her life that the U.S. waive fees for visas. She felt it was an issue of justice. It didn’t happen in her lifetime but Congress passed the religious worker [legislation] after her death. The reality is that America has tremendous debt to Mother Teresa and to the Missionaries. 

That doesn’t mean the order is not facing new challenges. For example, when Mother started the order many of the first sisters were girls she taught at the school as a Loreto sister. Now many of the nuns are sick and elderly, so the younger sisters are learning to care for the sick and elderly among them. Many of them can’t go out and do all the work they once did, so they become much more contemplative. That’s an example of an emerging challenge.

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On ZENIT's Web page:

Part 1: www.zenit.org/article-30168?l=english