Mother Teresa: An Inspiration to the World, a Mother to All

An Interview with Father Brian Kolodiejchuk

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By Traci Osuna

NEW YORK, MAY 23, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Although Blessed Teresa of Calcutta is widely known to have suffered an intense trail of faith, those closest to her remember the nun's sense of humor and "characteristic smile and cheerfulness," says the postulator of Mother Teresa's cause for canonization.

Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, who worked along side Mother Teresa for many years and co-founded with her the Missionaries of Charity Fathers, told ZENIT that her optimism is "even more impressive knowing now of the interior sufferings she had."

The priest is the editor of "Where There is Love, There is God" (Doubleday Religion, 2010), in which he has compiled many of Mother Teresa's speeches and words of wisdom she shared with her religious communities over the years. 

In the interview with ZENIT, Father Kolodiejchuk speaks about the universal message of Mother Teresa, who founded the Missionaries of Charity, and how it provides hope and guidance to people from all walks of life. He also reveals how this humble woman impacted the lives of millions, both those she knew personally and those who felt they like they knew her.

ZENIT: In your book, "Where there is Love, There is God," you have compiled many of Mother Teresa's speeches, letter and teachings over the course of her ministry. Why do you feel her message is so universal?

Father Kolodiejchuk: Mother Teresa's message is so universal because it is basically the message of the Gospel applied to concrete situations in the world of today. I think her words also have such wide appeal because they touch on a fundamental thirst that is in every human heart, and that is the thirst and search for love, for goodness, and for truth. Mother Teresa knew that this thirst can find its fulfillment only in God.

The basic idea and structure of the book revolves around Mother Teresa's message of the primacy of love. Her understanding of God, which can be summed up in the Johannine affirmation "God is love" (1 John 4:7), the presence of Jesus as the incarnation of God's love, [and] the attempt to love as Jesus loved are topics which everyone can find something on which to feed his or her spiritual life. Her own example, or the examples of those who were an inspiration to her -- oftentimes the poor she served -- can serve as an inspiration to us, too, in our endeavor to love God and neighbor.

ZENIT: Can you share with us how you came to be so close to Mother Teresa?

Father Kolodiejchuk: I first met Mother Teresa in 1977 in Rome. She invited me to join a group of contemplative brothers she was founding there. Over the next several years I met Mother often since she frequently came to Rome. In 1983 I was one of three priests that … would become the Missionaries of Charity Fathers.

This priest branch of the Missionaries of Charity was Mother Teresa's "youngest child," so to speak, and since there were so few of us at the time, we were very close to Mother. We had the privilege of [visiting with] her and corresponded with her as well. Mother Teresa was really "a mother" to us ... by the way she looked after us and spoke to us. She had tremendous reverence for the holiness of priesthood (notwithstanding the personal failures of priests that she also knew very well).

ZENIT: Mother Teresa lived among and identified with the poor, the sick and the dejected of society, yet she also spoke to and was revered by world leaders. How did this modest woman capture the attention and devotion of so many from all walks of life?

Father Kolodiejchuk: I think it's true to say that people, whether on the upper or lower echelon of society or somewhere in between, are instinctively drawn to goodness, to genuineness, to holiness. Mother Teresa's selfless love and compassion for the poor, the joy and peace she radiated, and her strong convictions and courage in saying exactly what she believed, drew people from all walks of life to her. Her example of "love in action" often elicited in others a desire to imitate her in some way.

Mother Teresa was never interested in publicity and would have preferred to stay out of the public eye had that been possible; but as her work became more and more known it could not be avoided. She handled giving public speeches and media as she did everything else, with faith that this was God's will for her at that moment and also as an opportunity to make the goodness of God and the poor known.

ZENIT: Mother Teresa is quoted as saying, "God is love, God is joy, God is light," yet she struggled with her own faith and felt very distant from God in her personal life throughout her ministry. You write, "The more she wanted God, the further he seemed to be for her." How was she able to remain so dedicated to her work for others while experiencing her own "spiritual darkness"?

Father Kolodiejchuk: Father Mother Teresa's dedication stemmed from a totally selfless and pure love of God and from a profound faith -- faith that the work was "God's work," what he had asked of her, and faith in the Gospel message, particularly Jesus' words, "As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me." It was through her mission to the poor that she saw, loved and consoled Jesus, the "unloved, unwanted, unclaimed" One. The trial of faith that she underwent whereby she experienced the feeling that God was absent was only on the sense level, for she was in reality constantly united to him. 

She herself said, "I know this is only feelings -- for my will is steadfast bound to Jesus"; she lived in an "unbroken union" with God and was able to declare that her "mind and heart are habitually with God." The "darkness," as she referred to it, was part of the call, identifying her not only with the poor she served, but also with Jesus. She experienced something of his "darkness and pain on earth"; it was a small share in his redemptive suffering. Her painful longing for God made reparation and obtained grace for the many who don't know, don't want and don't love their Creator; it was part of living her charism to quench the thirst of Jesus for love of souls, and in particular for the poorest of the poor.

ZENIT: Through all the hardships she both witnessed and personally experienced, she seemed to put a positive spin on them, even to say "I never call difficulties 'problems.' I always say, 'gift from God,' because it is always much easier to take a gift than to take a problem." Was this a trait that you witnessed often while working with her over the years?

Father Kolodiejchuk: Definitely. Mother Teresa chose to focus on what is beautiful and had a special gift of perceiving God's action even in challenging circumstances, accepting whatever happened as permitted by him for some greater good. It was again a reflection of her strong faith. She also had a sense of humor. In hindsight, her characteristic smile and cheerfulness are even more impressive knowing now of the interior sufferings she had.

ZENIT: A chapter in the book is titled "What Prevents Me from Loving?" In it, Mother Teresa addressed contraception and how the poor she served responded to natural family planning. She had said: "Poor people may have nothing to eat, … not a home to live in but we can see they are great people when they are spiritually rich. … And abortion, which often follows from contraception, brings people to be spiritually poor, and that is the worst poverty and the most difficult to overcome." What do you think she would advise the average person to do to combat such "spiritual poverty" in our everyday lives?

Father Kolodiejchuk: I prefer to answer this question by using Mother Teresa's own words. Basically what she advises through the statements that follow is to recognize our inherent dignity as human beings, to live the commandments, to practice purity and self-control, to pray, to support and help one another.

"You and I and every single human being in the world is a child of God, created in the image of God to love and to be loved."

"And it is for us, especially for you who have young girls and young boys … to teach them the dignity, the respect, the love for life. Teach them purity, teach them holiness. Teach them and don't be afraid…. Teach them not to touch each other so that on the day of their wedding they can give each other a virgin heart, a virgin body."

"To be able to control yourself, to be able to love, you must pray."

"Again, I appeal to you: teach the children love; teach the children the commandments of God."

"And so I think it will be a wonderful thing if you all join together and will help the government to abolish that law of abortion, so that the people will protect the child, and will love the child and will want the child, the gift of God. You must help the government."

"I just want to tell you one more beautiful thing -- God's tenderness and love for each one of us. And so, amongst you … any who have already done the abortion, tell to God, say, 'I am sorry. I will never do it again.' … God will give you a clean heart, because God's mercy is much greater than our sinfulness. He will forgive."

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On the Net:

"Where There is Love, There is God": www.randomhouse.com/book/177614/where-there-is-love-there-is-god-by-mother-teresa