A mother and a saint: Archbishop Fisher’s Homily for St Teresa of Kolkata

 

Welcome, friends, to our Mass tonight in celebration of the canonisation of Teresa of Calcutta. Our Mass will be followed by a live webcast in the Cathedral Hall of the canonisation ceremony from Rome, to which I invite you all. There will also be a supper, as Mother Teresa’s sisters would never have us go hungry.

I welcome tonight Sr Mary Lucy, regional superior of the Missionaries of Charity here in Australia, who worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta for five years and was at her side when she died.

With her tonight we welcome around 25 members of her congregation, who have come here not just from Sydney, but also from Wagga Wagga, Orange and Queanbeyan.

There are also many chaplains, friends and co-workers of the Missionaries of Charity celebrating with them this wonderful moment.

Tonight I also acknowledge the presence of Bishops Terry Brady, Tony Randazzo and Richard Umbers, auxiliary bishops of Sydney, Bishop Nicholas Hudson, Auxiliary Bishop of Westminister and Bishop Todd Brown, Emeritus Bishop of Orange, California.

I am also pleased to concelebrate with many brother priests. I also acknowledge Dame Marie Bashir, former Governor of New South Wales.

Above all I welcome the poor and sick, the suffering and the dying, who are the sisters’ special friends and the Church’s most distinguished guests at tonight’s celebration of Mother and every day.

 

Mother Teresa visited Australia repeatedly and left her in footprint on this land through the 14 Mission Houses of her sisters here, including their Pacific mother-house in Surry Hills.

But the first Mission House she founded in our region was in Bourke NSW, with the specific mission to help the Aborigines and the outback’s poorest, sickest and most dispossessed.

One story of her time there in Bourke that I particularly like is when she visited an old man, whom no-one seemed to know existed.

The room in which he lived was in a terrible state of neglect: the floors were filthy and the furniture dilapidated. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling and the curtains were drawn tight shut so no light penetrated the room.

The man was living in a state of near total darkness, symptomatic of his internal gloom, his hopelessness and despair.

Mother Teresa confessed to her sisters that she didn’t really know what to do for him. He obviously had no friend in the world. So, despite his initial protests, she started to clean up his room. Under all the mess she discovered a beautiful oil lamp, covered with layers of dust and grime. She dusted and polished it till it shone. ‘How come you never light the lamp?’ she asked.

‘Why should I light it?’ he replied. ‘I don’t need it for myself: I’m used to living in the dark. And no-one ever comes to see me.’

‘Will you promise me to light it if someone comes to see you?’ she said.

‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘if I hear a human voice, I’ll light the lamp.’

From that day forward one of Mother Teresa’s nuns began to visit the man. It was the beginning of a new life for him, a life brightened up not only by lamp light, but especially by the hope and love which had been lit in his heart: all because someone had taken an interest in him. Time passed and gradually he recovered.

One day he was able to tell the sister she needn’t come anymore. ‘From now on I’ll be able to manage on my own,’ he said. ‘But do me a favour: tell the wrinkle-faced nun who came to see me the first time that the light she lit in my life is still burning.’

Today Pope Francis will recognise that that wrinkle-faced sister is a saint of God and that the light she lit is still burning in the Catholic Church.

Adding the name ‘Saint’ to her titles from tonight will no doubt bring a wry smile to the face of the humble Teresa, as did the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, the state funeral granted her like Gandhi by the Indian nation and, most gloriously of all, being made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1982! But perhaps no title captures her so well as the word ‘Mother’, a word that speaks of fruitfulness, tenderness and nurture, both of a spiritual family that grew from a small handful of women in 1949 to somewhere around 5000 Missionaries of Charity today; and of a family of the poorest of the poor in India and beyond.

It all began when Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born in 1910 to a Kosovar Albanian family in Skopje, in what was then the Ottoman Empire and is now Macedonia.

Fascinated by stories of missionaries, she discerned at an early age that she was called to religious life in a missionary order. She joined the Loreto Sisters at 18, learned English in Ireland, and was sent to complete her novitiate in Darjeeling in 1929 where she took the religious name Teresa in honour of St Thérèse of Lisieux, the then-newly canonised patron of missionaries. Serving as a teacher and headmistress in Calcutta, she was increasingly disturbed by the poverty and violence she saw.

One day, while on the train back to her convent, Teresa heard Jesus calling her to live among the destitute and help them as one of the poor herself.

And so, in 1948, she gained permission to do so and her new congregation evolved from there, speaking by deeds more than words of Christ’s thirst for souls and love for the most dispossessed.

Teresa’s life might be said to illustrate the wisdom of our first reading tonight about the difficulty of knowing God’s mind and discerning His will (Wis 9:13-18). If even Teresa changed vocational course and experienced abandonment, it’s hardly surprising that many of us, less mature in the spiritual life, find much of what God permits opaque. Our epistle, too, in which St Paul frees the slave Onesimus (Phlm 9-10, 12-17), is paralleled in Teresa’s life of returning dignity to those of lowest caste, the poor, lepers, those with AIDS, the dying, and those enslaved by sin, addiction or anything else that degrades the human spirit.

Teresa could honestly say “I see God in every human being. When I wash the leper’s wounds I am nursing the Lord himself.” So, too, her life might be said to illustrate our hard Gospel passage, with its talk of preferring Christ to family, friends, even to our own life (Lk 14:25-33).

To understand such talk from Jesus, we must understand His insistence that we love God first and demonstrate that love by acts of charity towards our neighbour. If we do not love God first, our acts of charity will lose inspiration and direction, become heartless, bureaucratic, even self-serving, and ultimately dry up.

“There is always the danger,” Teresa observed, “that we may just do the work for the sake of the work. This is where the respect and love and devotion come in: that we do it for God, to Christ, and that’s why we try to do it as beautifully as possible.” To say we love God while ignoring our needy neighbour will be a fraud, spiritualising away the sufferings of others and excusing our own sloth or selfishness.

And so Teresa could tell her sisters to “Spread love everywhere you go, so that no one ever comes to you without leaving happier.”

So Teresa’s life might be said to be a parable, a story that shows what it means to love with that cross-shaped love that points upwards to God and outwards to our neighbours, the first, vertical pole of love holding up the second.

For Mother that cross-shaped love was to expressed for the poor and from amongst the poor, and so she lived the dispossession of our gospel passage.

Yet some of her more cynical critics have complained that poverty was not hard for her, as she had grown up with little, and that she had her benefactors and could rub shoulders with the mighty when she wanted.

We might be tempted to respond defensively to such pusillanimous ingrates on behalf of Mother Teresa, but she would have none of that.

Instead we might reflect on how behind her joyful smile there was a deep pain and this was her true dispossession, her truest personal poverty.

In recent years we’ve learnt that this saintly woman endured a long ‘dark night of the soul’, in which she felt separated from God, even rejected by Him, even as she experienced an ever-growing longing for His love.

She knew first-hand what it meant for a disciple to take up the cross to follow Christ (Lk 14:27). “I have experienced the paradox,” Teresa said, “that if you love until it hurts there can be no more hurt, only more love.”

She persisted in faithful love and so today we recognise in her, not just an extraordinary joy that radiated from her wrinkled face, not just good works she did herself and established for others to do, but the qualities of a mother and a saint.

As she said in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, so we might hear her tonight speak from the heavenly altar: “Holiness is not the luxury of the few: it is the simple duty for you and for me.”

St Teresa of Kolkata, pray for us!

This is an edited version of the welcome and homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Mass celebrating the canonisation of Mother Teresa on 4 September.