What Made Mother Teresa So Special, Part II

Interview with Missionary of Charity Father Brian Kolodiejchuk

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ROME, OCT. 12, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Mother Teresa had respect for other religions, but never compromised her own faith.



This is but one facet of one of the 20th century's most outstanding figures. To learn more about her, ZENIT interviewed Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, one of the three who began the priestly branch of the Missionaries of Charity and postulator of Mother Teresa's cause of beatification, which takes place Oct. 19.

This is the second of a three-part interview.

Q: To confirm the news of the beatification of Mother Teresa, Sister Nirmala, superior general of the Missionaries of Charity, and you acknowledged in one report that "Her witness and message are cherished by those of every religion as a sign that God still loves the world today." In what way does the figure of Mother Teresa contributes to unity and interreligious dialogue?

Father Kolodiejchuk: Mother Teresa's service was directed to all people regardless of caste and creed, race or nationality. In this way she witnessed to the truth that she herself proclaimed: "Every person is a child of God, made to love and be loved."

She insisted on the fact that we are all children of the same "loving Father" and did hope that all would come to knowledge of this truth.

At the same time, it is important to stress that Mother Teresa had great respect for all religions and had many friends among the people of other religions. Yet she never compromised her own faith. Her authenticity and transparency in this respect was much appreciated. Respecting others' religion implied that others too would respect hers, and people did in fact respect her religious convictions.

Wherever she went, she went as a "missionary," as a Catholic nun, a messenger of the Gospel and she was accepted and respected as such. Her very presence was a proclamation of her faith and a witness to the true face of the Church, a friend of the least and the last as was her Lord and Master.

Now in the years after her death, people of all faiths, drawn by her life and message, come to pray at her tomb. Likewise, throughout India people from different religious backgrounds gather to honor her life and work. So Mother Teresa continues to be a unifying factor.

Q: On entering religious life, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu -- future founder of the Missionaries of Charity -- chose a name, entrusting herself to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, patroness of the missions. What is the legacy of Mother Teresa for the missionaries of the 21st century?

Father Kolodiejchuk: Even if Mother Teresa lived what is traditionally called an "active" religious life, prayer had primacy of place in her vocation.

Mother Teresa's relationship with God was at the root of all of her activity and for this reason she was truly a contemplative. Her example reminds us once again that every missionary endeavor has to start and end in prayer. Prayer and sacrifice were her first missionary tools as it was for her patroness, St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

There is always a temptation to reduce mission to social service. But for Mother Teresa, a missionary is to be "a carrier of God's love." This mandate was the single goal of all her apostolic activity.

She strove to reveal the love of God in the concrete situations of daily life. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and every other apostolate she undertook, was her way of channeling God's love to the person.

Mother Teresa was seeking the face of Christ in prayer and in apostolate and in this way she became truly a contemplative in the heart of the world. From prayer, especially from the Eucharist, she went to the poor and from the poor she came back to prayer.

"I am not called to be successful but to be faithful," Mother Teresa often repeated. This was her way of affirming her focus on fidelity to the mission with which she was entrusted rather than getting lost in results or in the popularity that she enjoyed.

Her mission to the poor was not a matter of prestige but of service, of taking the last place among her brothers and sisters. She was consumed with one desire, to bring God's love to the poor and the needy.

To conclude, the supernatural origin and goal of every mission should always be kept in mind even when temporal activity is carried out. In this Mother Teresa remains an example. Everything she did was for the purpose of communicating the love of God to the people she served. This calls for the primacy of prayer in the life of missionary. And ultimately, only holiness of life can fully give the message of God's love.

Q: Mother Teresa's role as a founder stretches to the active and contemplative brothers and sisters, priests and consecrated laypersons. Also she animated co-workers to participate in the service of the poorest of the poor. Did she not run the risk of reducing the work of the Missionaries of Charity to mere social service, even though it gives great results?

Father Kolodiejchuk: Mother Teresa often said we are not social workers even though we are doing social work; and she would add, "We do it for somebody." What she meant by this was that it was to Jesus that her humble service was ultimately directed. As the basis of such a statement was what she called "the Gospel on five fingers," as she would count on the fingers of her hand the words of Matthew 25:40, "you did it to me."

In every service she carried out, she had this truth at heart. It was Jesus she was with in prayer, it was Jesus she was touching in the poor, it was Jesus she was meeting in every person with whom she came in contact. Again, she had truly become a "contemplative in the heart of the world," one that perceives, recognizes, serves God's presence in every person one meets and every event that occurs.

Mother Teresa never got lost in the results, even though they were considerable. What was important to her was the person in front of her in the present moment, the person that needed her love and care -- now.

She was profoundly convinced that all her accomplishments were "God's work" and that God was using her "nothingness to show his greatness." And when she would speak about results, it was just to point out the marvels that "God is doing." She was able to retain a contemplative dimension in her work and that was her safeguard to doing merely social service, as praiseworthy as that is.

Q: Some criticize the fact that Mother Teresa was caring for the marginalized, but did not direct her activity to change the social structures. What was the motivation of this attitude of Mother Teresa?

Father Kolodiejchuk: Mother Teresa's whole life was aimed at answering the call of God that she received in 1946.

Beginning on Sept. 10, 1946, she had mystical encounters with Christ, the outcome of which was the foundation of the Missionaries of Charity. These momentous experiences were the ultimate reason and motivation for the service of the poor. She was very much aware of this.

So her primary concern was following the call received from Christ, which for her did not include a call to change social structures. Her mission was to bring the love of God to the poorest of the poor through her humble service.

She was called to enter into the world of poverty and bring the Good News of God's love to the poor, not to resolve the political, economic and social problems of the world. She was very much aware of this and would not compromise this principle for any reason. On one occasion she said: "If I get mixed up in politics I will not have time to love," and that would certainly be true about her.

Thus the reason for no direct involvement in the work of social change was that Mother Teresa was following her proper vocation. She had a mission to a particular group of people, and she was engaged in one particular area of service to the poor.

She knew that she could not do all but endeavored to do her utmost where she was called. She would often say, "What I can do you cannot do, what you can do I cannot, but together we can do 'something beautiful for God.'"

While others are legitimately working to change social structures, she was intent on offering effective and immediate help to the poorest of the poor, those most in need. It is necessary to offer people a rod for fishing but someone has be concerned to offer them a fish in order that they have the strength to hold the fishing rod.

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Monday: Balancing a life of prayer and service.