Memorial Mass for Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption
In the first reading Isaiah lifts up a prophetic vision of how God will save his people. He describes a God who opens the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf, gives new strength to legs and speech to muted tongues. This saving God, Isaiah tells us, can also turn arid desert land into places of flowing waters and of new growth. In the gospel passage Jesus dramatically fulfills the prophecy in part, as he restores hearing and speech to a person who lacked both.] This week the news brought stories of the deaths of two renowned women, Princess Diana and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Their deaths and their interaction remind us of the challenges of our culture and the opportunities presented to us in the world of faith. Mother Teresa had the gift of seeing and of calling forth the best in every person. In a notable way she and Princess Diana who died tragically at age 36, could interact for the good of others. Mother Teresa was 38 years old with many years of service as a teaching religious sister when, in 1946, she received her "call within a call" and began to consider how she might guide herself and others to serve Jesus in "the poorest of the poor." In 1950 her Missionaries of Charity were approved by the local bishop as a diocesan community and fifteen years later the Holy See granted it pontifical status, a world-level recognition. Mother Teresa called her sisters to a commitment to prayer and to the poor but, even more, to living the poverty of the poor among whom they worked. As the years went by, some who did not know her attacked her and her work. But, because she knew that they had not come to visit her or to see her work at first hand, she herself could respond to what they said with the words of Jesus on the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Personal recollections of Mother Teresa are vivid indeed: In 1976 she spoke to many of us from around the country at the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia. The theme of the Congress was "The Eucharist and the Hungers of the Human Family." Mother Teresa considered both spiritual and physical hungers when she addressed the Congress. A priest friend of mine, Monsignor Philip J. Dowling of Philadelphia, had arranged for her to attend the Congress and, in the midst of it, his own father died. Mother Teresa interrupted her schedule to join in praying the rosary for the happy repose of Mr. Dowling, earning the abiding gratitude of the family and teaching all a lesson of concern for those who mourn. On the Saturday afternoon of the Congress, she agreed to go across the Delaware River to a church in Camden which served the poorest of the poor. I remember vividly that afternoon: It was very hot and Mother Teresa was late, but somehow people kept their patience. Later we learned that she had stopped on her way to the church to visit and to pray with a young woman critically ill with cancer. As always, she spoke to us very clearly, heart reaching out to heart, about the need for us to pray and to learn to see Jesus in the poor. In 1985, at the Eucharistic Congress in Nairobi, I met Mother Teresa again. Quietly she spoke of her great love for the Church, for the way in which the living body of Christ offered worship to God and also was an instrument of God's care for the poor. Six years later, when we learned here in Baltimore of the special need for a home for men dying of AIDS in the inner city, and I did not know where to turn, a call came to me from a priest who served as a spiritual guide to Mother Teresa's sisters in New York. In Mother's name he asked, "Is there a place for the Missionaries of Charity in Baltimore?" And so began the discussion which brought Mother Teresa here. She was a patient in a coronary care unit in La Jolla, California, when she accepted my invitation to establish the home here in Baltimore for men dying with AIDS. It came to fruition the following summer, when Mother Teresa herself came for the dedication of Gift of Hope. Many will recall how St. Wenceslaus Church was completely filled with people and that several hundreds more waited outside, disappointed that they could not see or hear Mother Teresa as she addressed the congregation. Afterwards, when the blessing of Gift of Hope was completed, I became aware that these hundreds of people were still waiting to see her. Her assistant said that Mother had never accepted an invitation simply to go out and speak to people, but that I should ask her personally. She instantly agreed to go out on the porch of Gift of Hope to speak to them, and her message carried loud and clear, not only to those who lined the street that afternoon, but also to tens of thousands of others who watched on live television. In 1994, the World Synod on the Consecrated Life met in Rome through the month of October. Mother Teresa was invited by Pope John Paul to address the gathering in one of its plenary sessions. But, for many of us who spoke English, the joy came in our meetings with Mother Teresa in the discussion group to which we were assigned. On almost every topic she had an intervention which reflected her personal experience as a foundress of a religious community or was the fruit of her own prayer before the Lord. The sessions in which she spoke up most frequently became like miniature retreats for us who participated in them. In May of 1996 Mother Teresa returned to Baltimore and, on a rainy afternoon, came to the Basilica. Again there were many waiting outside and Mother graciously agreed to step out onto the portico to speak to them. Inside, she used a special platform for her address to the congregation following the religious profession of vows of the 35 sisters of her Missionaries of Charity community on that day. On June 9 of this year Mother Teresa was back in Washington, again for the religious profession of some sisters. This time she was accompanied by her successor, the new Superior General, Sister Nirmala, and, weakened by her heart condition, used a wheelchair. Her words were relatively few and her voice was soft as she spoke briefly in the church. Later, she confided to some of us her urgent desire to go to China to make a foundation there. Three weeks and one day later we saw Mother Teresa again, this time in Rome at St. Peter's Basilica. It was the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul and, at the end of the Mass, as Pope John Paul II came down and prepared to visit the tomb of the Apostle Peter, Mother Teresa was wheeled out from the side and, to the great applause of many, they greeted one another. Just before the Mass this Sunday, Robert Lancelotta of the Basilica staff gave me a small remembrance card of Mother Teresa. It carried three quotations from Mother Teresa selected by the Missionaries of Charity to convey her thoughts and testament. I read them to the congregation at the conclusion of the homily: Prayer is the breath of life to our souls; holiness is impossible without it. It's a very great poverty to decide that a child must die, that you might live as you wish. Every child is precious, every child is a Gift of God. A tribute to Mother Teresa Those looking to pay a tribute to Mother Teresa can also consider this: The day before her death three members of her community came to see me by appointment. They told me that the census at Gift of Hope had risen once again and that there is need for more men volunteers to help during the daytime hours. The work is not easy; to help sick and weak human beings, sometimes the ability to do heavy lifting is required. Nor are the hours easy for a person with a job. Three shifts are available for volunteers: 8 a.m. to 12 noon, 12 noon to 4 p.m., 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Able-bodied volunteers who are interested in applying may call Gift of Hope, at 410-732-6056, between 8:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., every day except Thursday. And those physically unable to volunteer for this special work of caring for the poorest of the poor in Baltimore may certainly join in a reflecting on the words of Mother Teresa and finding in them inspiration for a daily prayer to bring us all closer to the Lord of all Mercies, who gave her the strength to see Jesus always in the poorest of the poor.