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Charity: the soul of missionary activity

by Mother Teresa of Calcutta

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    Document Information

  • Descriptive Title:
    Mother Teresa Reflects on Redemptoris Missio
    Description:
    A reflection on Redemptoris Missio, issued by John Paul II in 1991.
  • Larger Work:
    L'Osservatore Romano
  • Publisher & Date:
    Vatican, April 8, 1991

[Note: Italicized text represents quotations from Redemptoris Missio. Plain text is Mother Teresa's reflection on the italicized passages.]

God is Love. Yes, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life (Jn 3:16). Like us, in all things except sin—in Jesus, with Jesus and through Jesus we go to the Father.

A missionary must be a missionary of Love. A missionary is one who is sent. God sent his Son. Today God sends us. Each one of us is sent by God and his Church. Sent for what? Sent to be his love among men. Sent to bring his love and compassion among men. We have to carry our Lord to places he has not walked before. In Melbourne, once— the sisters picked up a man from the street. He was an alcoholic with no name, no work, nothing, a real street case. After a week, he came up to the sister and said: "Now I am all right and I am going home. I will never drink again. I have realized God loves me". Then he went back to his home, to his wife, his children and to his work. After a month he returned with his first salary saying: "Use this to show God's love to others like me".

Once a man came to Nirmol Hridoy, Home for the Dying Destitutes, Calcutta. He just walked in—right into the ward. I was there. After a little while he came back and said to me: "I came here with so much hate in my heart,- hate for God and hate for man. I came here empty, faithless, embittered and I saw a sister inside, giving her whole-hearted attention to that patient there. I realize that God still loves. Now I go out a different man. I believe there is a God and he loves us still".

In Ethiopia, the Apostolic Delegate told us during the homily at Mass: "I thank you, in the name of the Holy Father because by your presence you are making the Church fully present here". We make the Church present by proclaiming the Good News. What is the Good News? The Good News is that God still loves the world through each one of us. You are God's Good News; you are God's love in action. Through you God is still loving the world. Each time people come into contact with us, they must become different and better people because of having met us. We must radiate God's love. By our living and working together as God's family, we proclaim that unity in the Church, as well as by working with all people, serving all people, of any religion, colour, caste or race.

The Church all over the world wishes to be the Church of the poor...; she wishes to draw out all the truth contained in the beatitudes of Christ, and especially in the first one: "Blessed are the poor in spirit".... She wishes to teach this truth and she wishes to put it into practice, just as Jesus came to do and to teach".

The head of the social workers in Calcutta told me: "Mother, you and we are doing the same social work but there is one difference. We are doing it for something and you are doing it for someone".

That someone is Jesus. "Who are you?" the people asked Jesus. John's disciples also came to ask Jesus, "Are you the Messiah or shall we wait for another?" And Jesus answered them saying: Go and tell John: the blind see, the lame walk, the dumb speak, the lepers are cleansed, the dead rise, and the Gospel is preached to the poor. Jesus did not answer them directly. He lets the good news and people meet God. They see God's love alive.

To the apostles, Jesus asked this question: "And you—who do you say that I am?" Each one of us must answer this same question personally.

Jesus identified himself with the poor from the moment he left his Father's side to the moment he returned, especially during his passion and death on the cross. He became the poorest of the poor —the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the stranger, the prisoner. Jesus revealed the extent of true love on the cross. Love to be true has to hurt. The poor are Jesus' Calvary today. "Suffering is present in the world in order to release love,... in order to transform the whole of human civilization into a civilization of love" (Salvifici Doloris).

When we look at the cross, we know how much Jesus loved us then.

When we look at the tabernacle, we know how much Jesus loves us now.

On the night before he died—Jesus left us himself in the Eucharist, under the appearance of bread and wine. So is he also present in the distressing disguise of the poor, though in quite a different way.

And he gave us a new commandment: "Love one another as I have loved you".

And to make it easy for us to love, he said: "Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me"; for I was hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, unwanted, untouchable,—and you did it to me. I call this the Gospel on five fingers—five words: You did it to me. Jesus cannot tell a lie. In your five fingers you have your love for Jesus. And St. John tells us that "if anyone says, I love God, yet hates his brother, he is a liar. One who has no love for the brother he has seen—cannot love the God he has not seen". Look at your fingers often and remind yourself of this love.

At each Holy Communion, Jesus satisfies my hunger for him and then he makes himself the hungry one to satisfy his hunger for my love—for souls.

The Eucharist and the poor we must never separate. The poor and the Eucharist are one. There is not one without the other. If we really believe that he, Jesus, is in the appearance of bread and he, Jesus, is in the hungry, the naked, the sick the lonely, unloved, the homeless, the helpless, the hopeless, then our lives will be more and more woven with this deep faith in Jesus, the Bread of Life to be eaten with and for the poor.

Father Gabric, S.J., told me this story: A Mohammedan Mulvi was standing with him and watching a sister bandaging the wound of a leper with so much love. She didn't say anything but she did something. The Mulvi turned to father and said: "All these years I believed that Jesus was a prophet, but today I know he is God because he has given so much love into the hands of this sister". That sister even today, does not know that by her action she brought Jesus into the life of that man. Today Jesus walks through the world in and through you and me, "going about doing good".

How beautiful is our vocation as missionaries. How great is our calling. How fortunate people would think themselves if they were given a chance to give personal service to the king of this world. And here we are—we can touch, love and serve Christ, the King of kings—all the days of our life. A young aspirant, after spending three hours cleaning a man from the street, came back with a radiant smile and said: "Mother, I have been touching the Body of Christ for three hours".

The poor deserve preferential attention, whatever their moral or personal situation. They have been made in the image and likeness of God to be his children, but this image has been obscured and even violated. For this reason, God has become their defender and loves them. It follows that the poor are those to whom the mission is first addressed, and their evangelization is par excellence the sign and proof of the mission of Jesus.

Every human being is created in the image and likeness of God, and Christ, by his Incarnation, is united with each human person. In the beginning when I first started the work, some people passed remarks that the Church is not made of rubbish. That meant the poor, the sick, the dying, the crippled, the homeless, etc. Now everyone seems to have turned towards what was considered rubbish. Yes, the poor are worthy of respect and human dignity. Human beings cannot become conscious of their own dignity unless they have experienced love. It reminds me of the man who died in Nirmol Hridoy: "I have lived like an animal in the street, but I will die like an angel, loved and cared for".

Someone wanted to give some money, but he was told: "Why give it to Mother Teresa, who will use it for people who are just dying or for lepers who are useless to society. Instead, invest it in a course or seminar where it can be used to bring uplift, youth education, or to obtain talks and support families".

There was talk that Mother Teresa is spoiling the people by giving them things free. Once at a seminar, in the name of the whole group, one nun got up and said to me, "Mother Teresa, you are spoiling the poor people by giving them things free. They are losing their human dignity. You should take at least 10 naye paise for what you give them; then they will feel their human dignity more". When everyone was quiet I said calmly: "No one spoils as much as God himself does. See the wonderful gifts he has given us freely. All of you here wear no spectacles, yet you all can see. Say, if God were to take money for your sight, what would happen? We are spending so much money in our Shishu Bhavan to buy oxygen for saving life, yet continually we are breathing and living on oxygen and we do not pay anything for it. What would happen if God were to say, 'You work four hours and you will get sunshine for two hours', how many of us would then survive?". Then I also told them: "There are many congregations who spoil the rich, then it is good to have one congregation in the name of the poor, to spoil the poor". There was profound silence, nobody said a word after that.

The purpose of our missionary activity is to bring the poor to Jesus and to bring Jesus to the poor.

In fidelity to the spirit of the beatitudes, the Church is called to be on the side of those who are poor and oppressed in any way. I therefore exhort the disciples of Christ and all Christian communities—from families to dioceses from parishes to religious institutes—to carry out a sincere review of their lives regarding their solidarity with the poor.

Mary was the first Missionary of Charity. After welcoming Jesus into her heart and into her womb, she rose and went in haste to sanctify John and to do the humble work of a servant for her cousin Elizabeth. Jesus in her came in contact with John and he leapt for joy in his mother's womb. Jesus in the Eucharist necessarily leads us to Jesus in the poor. We need to be pure of heart to see Jesus in the person of the poor, for a pure heart can see God. This purity means that our heart "has to be emptied of all self-seeking, of all sin. Once we take our eyes away from ourselves, from our interests, from our own rights, privileges, ambitions—then they will become clear to see Jesus around us. Impurity is present whenever we are proud or bitter, harbouring uncharitable thoughts, words or deeds, unforgiving, jealous or blocked by earthly riches. The people at the time of Jesus rejected him because his poverty threatened their riches. Jesus was sent by his Father to the poor and, to be able to understand the poor, Jesus had to know and experience that poverty in his own body and soul. We too must experience poverty if we want to be true carriers of God's love. To be able to proclaim the Good News to the poor we must know what poverty is.

Prayer gives us a clean heart and a clean heart can see God. So let us pray: "Mary, our Mother—give us your heart so beautiful, so pure, so immaculate, so full of love and humility that we may be able to receive Jesus in the Bread of Life, love him as you loved him and serve him in the distressing disguise of the poor".

But while Mary was sinless and pure from the moment of her conception, we are stained by sin and God, in his sacrament of mercy, has given us confession. We go to confession as sinners with sin and we return as sinners without sin. Mary could stand near the cross on Calvary and hear his cry: "I thirst" because she knew Jesus in his littleness and poverty in the manger of Bethlehem and in his hiddenness at Nazareth for 30 years, known only as "the son of the carpenter, Joseph", she was not surprised at the passion but could own him as her son at the moment when he needed her most.

At the same time, I express gratitude to the missionaries who, by their loving presence and humble service to people, are working for the integral development of individuals and of society through schools, health-care centres, leprosaria homes for the handicapped and the elderly, projects for the promotion of women, and other similar apostolates.

Let us not make a mistake—that the hunger is only for a piece of bread. The hunger of today is much greater: for love —to be wanted, to be loved, to be cared for, to be somebody.

Feeding the hungry—not only for food but also for the Word of God.

Giving drink to the thirsty—not only for water, but for peace, truth and justice.

Giving shelter to the homeless—not only a shelter made of bricks but a heart that understands, that covers, that loves.

Nursing the sick and the dying—not only of body but also of mind and spirit.

I do not agree with the big way of doing things. To us, what matters is an individual. To get to love the person, we must come in close contact with him. If we wait kill we get the numbers, then we will be lost in the numbers, and we will never be able to show that love and respect for the person. I believe in a person-to-person relationship. Every person is Christ for me, and since there is only one Jesus, there is only one person in the world for me at that moment. Humility always radiates the greatness and glory of God. Let us not be afraid to be humble, small, helpless to prove our love for God. The cup of water you give to the sick, the way you lift a dying man, the way you feed a baby, the way in which you teach an ignorant child, the way you give medicine to a leper, the joy with which you smile at your own at home--all this is God's love in the world today. I want this to be imprinted in your minds: God skill loves the world through you and through me today. We must not be afraid to radiate God's love everywhere. Once someone asked me: "Why do you go abroad? Don't you have enough poor in India?" I answered: "I think Jesus told us to go and preach to all the nations. That is why we go all over the world to preach God's love and compassion by our humble deeds of love.

I encourage the volunteers from nongovernmental organizations who in ever increasing numbers are devoting themselves to works of charity and human promotion.

As we find Jesus in the Eucharist and in his poor, we are also called to help others to find him there. Our works of love have become a means of unity. If you come to Calcutta, you will see it so clearly. Many volunteers from different nations—Japanese, Indians, Australians, Europeans, Americans, —come everyday to the motherhouse for a little talk, holy Mass and Holy Hour. Where they stay, they also pray together. It is so wonderful to see them working together at our different homes for the poor. Our home for the dying has become a centre where they receive so much. There many have touched and experienced God. It has even brought Hindus close to God and close to Christ. One day, a Gujrati family came to Green Park where we have crippled people, undernourished children and people suffering from tuberculosis. The whole family came with cooked food and I asked the sisters to serve it. To my surprise they said: "Mother, we want to serve it by ourselves". Some of them were even old. For them, it was a great thing—for they believe they become unclean.

It is in fact these "works of charity" that reveal the soul of all missionary activity: love which has been and remains the driving force of mission, and is also "the sole criterion for judging what is to be done or not done, changed or not changed. It is the principle which must direct every action, and the end to which that action must be directed. When we act with a view to charity, or are inspired by charity, nothing is unseemly and everything is good".

We pray daily after receiving Jesus in holy Communion, the prayer "Radiating Christ". In our chapels, we put a transparent veil on the tabernacle to remind us that we too must become so transparent that people see only Jesus through us and we will see Jesus in them. We must allow Jesus to live in us, to grow in us, to shine through us.

Charity begins today. Today somebody is suffering, today somebody is in the street, today somebody is hungry. Our work is for today, yesterday has gone, tomorrow has not yet come—today, we have only today to make Jesus known, loved, served, fed, clothed, sheltered, etc. Today—do not to wait for tomorrow. Tomorrow might not come. Tomorrow we will not have them if we do not feed them today.

Love will also make us fearless in doing the things he did and we will courageously go through danger and death with him and for him.

—We will be ready to die daily to self and willing to pay the price he paid for souls out of love.

—We will be ready to go to any part of the world at any time to spread his love.

—We will be happy to undertake any labour and toil, glad to make any sacrifice demanded by missionary life.

How much we have to thank God for giving us Jesus to espouse us in tenderness and love by giving us his life, his heart and himself in the poor.

Let us pray that we be pure and humble like Mary so that we can become holy like Jesus.

All for Jesus through Mary.

God bless you.

Mother Teresa

Taken from the April 8, 1991 issue of "L'Osservatore Romano". Editorial and Management Offices, Via del Pellegrino, 00120, Vatican City, Europe, Telephone 39/6/698.99.390.

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