Those of us who knew her feel a twinge of guilt writing about Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. Mother’s life was always about the other, about Jesus, and she did not enjoy being the centre of media attention. She accepted that for the sake of Jesus and the poor she would have to tolerate a few photographs, but her deal – with God? – was that it meant one soul out of purgatory for every photo taken.
Often she was keen to share news about houses being opened, women joining the congregation or new apostolic initiatives, but there was no sense of self-adulation. Everything that she did, the news that she shared, was ad maiorem Dei gloriam – for the greater glory of God. Ignatian spirituality ran very deep with her.
How to write about someone I loved as a spiritual mother and to whom I owe so much as a priest? I might start with her prophetic insight. She foresaw, I believe, the impending breakdown of the Middle East, and the deterioration of the priesthood. Long before it was so obvious, she described our culture of self-absorption, which Pope Francis recently described as the way of the couch potato.
In 1991, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the military action being proposed by the Americans and British seemed inevitable. I spent that winter in Calcutta and can testify to Mother’s absolute preoccupation with the consequences of the proposed Allied military action. She knew it would mean children orphaned, homes destroyed, limbs lost and the poor becoming poorer. I was set the task, as a newly ordained priest, of helping her to write letters to President Bush and Saddam Hussein. For hours we laboured over them, the draft pressed against the tabernacle by her immense hands and the final copy put on the altar. The letters
In a strange way, I feel I was given an interior vision of Mother’s heart. She understood the immediate urgency of the present situation, but she also had a dreadful fear, and a premonition about how the Middle East was to unravel over the next 25 years and fall into chaos. I would venture that God was crying over our catastrophic manoeuvrings in the Middle East and the mayhem we were to cause.
The precious and fragile neighbourly cooperation between Christian, Muslim and Jew – which had somehow allowed those ancient and faith-filled communities to survive – has now disintegrated. The suffering cries of persecuted Christians are like the cries of Rachel’s children.
The posturing of politicians has so much to answer for. John Paul II pleaded for peace, and so did Mother. Through them came the cry of the pierced heart of Jesus.
Somehow the Evil One had bludgeoned and seduced our leaders into thinking that violence and self-righteous anger would build a more settled and respectful world. Mother knew that wasn’t the way.
She always said that if she had not picked up the first dying person off the streets, she would never have started. Every time she spoke to you – believer, non-believer, poor or rich – her deep eyes were filled with an inexpressible Christ-like love. But her heart and soul, wrestling with her dark night, was also penetrating God’s hiddenness, pleading for you in prayer.
Her famous moment of inspiration on the train journey to Darjeeling – in which she received her “call within a call” to serve the poor – and the work of her early years gave her an unquestioning knowledge of God’s deep personal love for each person, in each moment of their lives from conception into eternity. That knowledge – which with Mary “she had pondered in her heart” – took her to the battlefields of the Middle East, the slums of Bogotá, the halls of Kensington Palace and the abortion clinics of New York. Through the Sacred Heart of Jesus, she pleaded for the sanctity of life.
Mother and Diana, Princess of Wales, only met a few times but they were significant moments, not because of glamour but for the reasons of God’s creative plan. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of Lisieux, in their respective darkness, have all helped us penetrate more deeply (but tentatively) the mysteries and purposes of God. Moments of intense humility, fear of the Lord and wonderment help us, the passive observer, to grasp better perhaps how “the Good God” (in St Thérèse’s words) is speaking to us. Mother reverenced the family and the sacrament of marriage as the wonderful and pre-ordained part of God’s plan. She understood fully the unbreakable bond of marriage and family as a sacred space for the nurturing, protection and formation of children into the reality of knowing that they are loved and marked by God.
Mother loved Diana as a child but also knew that the breaking of the union between her and Prince Charles would have a dramatic effect on many people’s perception and receiving of the call to married life and the openness to children. Much can be said and written about this, but in all these things Mother, if alive today, would not have balked at exhorting all to return to God’s design and plan for marriage and family.
Full of common sense, organisational skill and the habits of a well-formed Religious, Mother knew how to bring order, to address practical matters and to be Martha. She had no time, however, for the fripperies and minutiae of clerical intrigue or the murmurings of daily gossip. She was focused on the essential and immediate business of coming to know, channel and protect God’s unconditional love and purposes for our world.
Priestly formation in the 1980s was perhaps not such an exact science as it is today. We were left (not unwillingly) much more to our own devices. The Missionaries of Charity were a spiritual home, and their love and knowledge of the priesthood were invaluable. Mother, over precious years, helped us young priests to understand that we “had no rival in holiness but Jesus”.
Though we were painfully aware of our deep sinfulness, frailties and inadequacies, Mother said we were – and had to be – Jesus for the people we were to wash, serve, feed with the Bread of Life and prepare for heaven. Jesus was to be for us our pattern, model and calling. She wanted us to be priests for the sake of the kingdom.
We would do well to listen to Mother’s insights today. The statutory controls and demands of insurance companies have perhaps held us too aggressively by the hand. As we have become more professionalised, so we have found it more difficult to “be all for Jesus in the Immaculate Heart of Mary”, as she expressed it.
As Benedict XVI once reminded the German clergy, no soul is saved from the other side of a computer screen or across a desk. Mother exhorted us priests to take Jesus and find him in the people we serve. She wanted us to be free to love, speak of Jesus and be Jesus.
There is much that leaves us hamstrung in our call to evangelise, not least our own fears. Mother loved her priests, but she set us to work so that we would be worn out. Humanly, we hold back, but for Mother there was no time to waste. She was always conscious that in giving we will receive. She did not need to talk about “the smell of the sheep”, for she was already there among them asking us to join her. Perhaps there can be no more prophetic person for this Holy Year of Mercy.
Fr Alexander Sherbrooke is parish priest of St Patrick’s, Soho