A. This morning, here in Baltimore, we are spiritually united with millions of pilgrims who travelled to Rome for the canonization of St. Teresa of Calcutta – who will always be known to us simply as “Mother Teresa”.
B. Even though we could not experience the thrill of seeing and hearing our beloved Pope Francis declare this kindred spirit a saint, we nonetheless can share in the Church’s joy over Mother Teresa’s gift of love: for she gave herself entirely to the Lord and to the poorest of the poor. We share in that joy through the Eucharist which was utterly foundational and central to Mother Teresa’s life and ministry. And we share that joy through the presence of the Missionaries of Charity; today we thank them for loving those in need here in Baltimore with the same kind of love that Mother Teresa shared with all the world.
II. A Brief Summary of Her Life
A. For the future Mother Teresa, the call to love came early. She was born in 1910 in Albania to a devout Catholic family and was given the baptismal name of Agnes. Her family fared well until her father’s unexpected death in 1919 after which her mother struggled to make ends meet. At the age of 12, Agnes felt a call to religious life and a call to serve the poor but was reluctant to leave her dear mother and family in their need. However, she continued to develop her life of prayer and the call intensified, so at the age of 18 she became a Sister of Loreto… Agnes literally made the difficult choice Jesus sets before us in the Gospel: those who follow Jesus must love him more than father or mother or family. Only later did her mother bless the call that her daughter Agnes had received; she would tell Agnes that henceforth she must be “only all for God and Jesus.”
B. She took as her religious name Teresa, for Thérèse of Lisieux, because this saint, the Little Flower, showed her (as she shows us) the path to holiness lies in doing small things with love and path to mercy lies in accepting of one’s sufferings as a share in Christ’s Passion. In 1928 she set sail for India and spent the next 15 years teaching. She was a diligent teacher and a joyful religious, willing to do anything needed. Yet, a further calling from God was stirring in her soul, a call to serve the poorest of the poor. She saw so many suffering people in the streets, so many without medical care, so many destitute and without anyone to love and care for them. Even as she began to help them, the profound link was forged in her heart between the suffering throngs of people and the crucified Savior. In her own life of prayer, she also experienced suffering – she prayed persistently yet mostly experienced a kind of darkness, a sense of God’s absence more than his presence, even though her great soul thirsted for him. In opening her heart to the poor and in her interior sufferings, Mother Teresa lived what Jesus proclaims to us in today’s Gospel: she truly picked up her Cross and followed Jesus throughout her life.
C. In 1946 she decided to ask to leave the Sisters of Loreto and to form a new religious order dedicated to serving ‘the poorest of the poor’ – those abandoned souls for which the crucified Lord thirsts. Again, she was tested in the very terms of today’s Gospel. Now, it was not a matter of leaving her family of birth but her religious family. She had to convince her superiors and her spiritual director that her second calling was indeed from God and then she had to make the break. In 1948 she received permission to begin living in Calcutta’s poorest neighborhoods where she cared for some of the world’s most destitute people. With indomitable courage, she went alone, a tiny light in the darkness. Soon she had begun a small school and some of her former pupils joined her – and a new religious congregation, the Missionaries of Charity, took shape, receiving formal approval in 1952. Her beautiful spirit of love for the poor also attracted members of the laity who work side by side with her sisters in serving poor and in affirming their dignity.
D. In beginning her new foundation, Mother Teresa also followed closely the Lord’s teaching in today’s Gospel where Jesus tells us that in building a tower or conducting a military campaign one needs to have enough resources to finish the job successfully. And then, the Lord adds, that we cannot succeed in the project of becoming a disciple without renouncing all our possessions … without becoming poor in spirit and in fact. To be a disciple is to be like the Lord himself who had nothing and gave everything. Mother Teresa fixed upon this Gospel truth in founding the Missionaries of Charity. Not only would they serve the poor, they themselves would live a life of poverty. Everything a Missionary of Charity owns, she can fit into a paper bag and every MC convent is a place of greatest simplicity and Gospel joy. By renouncing possessions & conducting her work with only the barest essentials Mother Teresa was God’s instrument in building a religious congregation that now numbers 4,500 sisters and is spread throughout the world – praying intensely, attracting co-workers, serving the poor, being a light in darkness. By embracing the poverty of the Gospel, Mother Teresa and her sisters also address not only the physical poverty of the poorest of the poor but indeed the spiritual poverty of those who have more than enough possessions yet live their lives estranged from God and from others. How many people are well-fed physically yet they are starving spiritually. Mother Teresa and now her sisters reach out to them with great compassion.
III. Mother Teresa’s Presence in Baltimore
A. In God’s Providence, Mother Teresa’s travels brought her to Baltimore several times. Cardinal Keeler warmly invited Mother Teresa’s sisters to come to Baltimore and those who know the Cardinal also know that he was very persuasive. In 1996, Mother Teresa was here in Baltimore for the opening of the Gift of Hope a hospice for the homeless suffering from AIDS and HIV – Standing at the door of the convent that would welcome so many over the years, Mother Teresa said to all who were present and now she says to us, “To love and know the poor, we must be poor ourselves.” Cardinal Keeler, for his part, never looked happier and thanked Mother Teresa for choosing Baltimore as a site where her Sisters would renew their vows, as they did, in this very Basilica. And every time I enter the little chapel in my residence, I reflect on the fact that Mother prayed there with Cardinal Keeler…and I keep her relic in the altar.
B. How blessed I was to meet Mother Teresa on numerous occasions, especially when I served as a priest and auxiliary bishop in Washington. I first saw her in the 1980’s when a home for women was opened – she was in chapel, a diminutive figure, sitting on the floor, praying. I was among those involved in helping set up an AIDS hospice in Washington and on a number of occasions offered Mass for the final vows of her sisters. I’m not sure she knew my name but she once called me “that nice young bishop” – I’m no longer young but I’m hoping that in heaven, Mother still thinks I’m nice! In those encounters, I met a woman, short in stature but a true spiritual giant, a woman meek and mild yet fearless in doing the will of God. She didn’t accomplish her work by way of bluster or threats but rather by the sheer force of her love and total consecration to Jesus. This was true of politicians, church officials, and busy people whom she persuaded to spend a night each week with poor. At every turn, she simply “out-loved” you and she won you over.
By renouncing all her possessions, Mother Teresa in God’s grace built “something beautiful for God” – and now from heaven she still continues to light our way amid the darkness. St. Teresa of Calcutta, Mother Teresa: continue to light our way. Help us to see and love Jesus in the poorest of the poor that one day we too may see God face to face!
May God bless us and keep us always in his love!