My Sinhala-language book on the life of Cardinal Thomas Cooray records how the former Sri Lankan archbishop collaborated with Mother Teresa in promoting Natural Family Planning. That was around the time of Pope Paul VI’s controversial encyclical “Humanae Vitae.”
On a related 1964 visit to Mumbai, India, Cardinal Cooray invited the head of the Missionaries of Charity (MC) to extend her legendary apostolate of caring for destitutes to his archdiocese of Colombo.
Ever since then, the Colombo-based “Home of Compassion” became a noted charity in the country’s cityscape. People stood aghast watching MC nuns walk the city streets picking up old destitute persons abandoned on walkways. The white-sareed Indian nuns of the Home soon portrayed a new face of a Church-of-service.
But before long they became victims of the Buddhist country’s long-festering sensitivity to Indian immigration. Strict laws against immigrants began to be arbitrarily implemented. In 1971, the government refused to renew visas permitting the nuns to continue the high-profiled ministry to the poor.
Mother Teresa flew in from Calcutta hoping to intervene on behalf of her nuns. On hearing that she was in Colombo to meet with Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, I went to the Home of Compassion in the hope of interviewing Mother for my Catholic weekly regarding her visit with the prime minister.
Surprise! She walked into the Home of Compassion still smarting from the bitter disappointment with Bandaranaike and offloaded all her anger on me. Perhaps she saw me as just another representative of Sri Lankan society. Lecturing me forthwith on the consequences of visa denial to her nuns, “I will take my girls away,” she told me. My journalistic instinct could not suppress the more important question: “But, Mother, what will happen to the poor inmates of this home?” “Ask your Prime Minister, they are no longer my responsibility,” pat came the unexpected reply.
She did take her nuns back to India. Although both she and I knew that the Church had made emergency arrangements for local nuns of another India-based congregation, the Apostolic Carmel Sisters, to take over the apostolate, the irate Mother Teresa’s seeming indifference to her lifelong commitment to the care of God’s poor left me surprised.
My surprise-mixed disappointment endured until I met Mother Teresa more than a decade later under very different circumstances. After the 1970s, the country’s State and Church were both under new leadership and the MC nuns were able to open new homes in Sri Lanka. And in the early 1980s, Cardinal Cooray’s successor, Archbishop Nicholas Marcus Fernando even invited Mother Teresa to address the priests of Colombo archdiocese.
A few days before the event, Archbishop Fernando asked me whether I would like to interview the MC head at his home. It was an unmissable opportunity! The memorable interview took place a half-hour before the priests’ meeting. After letting her recount the progress of her congregation worldwide and in Sri Lanka, I asked Mother Teresa about new apostolates to suit the changing times.
At that stage, she revealed that she had adopted Pope John Paul II as her prayer intention and planned to urge nuns worldwide to adopt bishops and priests as their personal spiritual adoptees. Later that day, when she further explained the prayer-adoption plan to the Colombo clergy, they listened though with mixed reactions.
Noticing the different circumstances of our second meeting as well as the Mother’s prayerfully composed posture on that day, with great reluctance I refrained from recalling our first encounter. The Scriptures say that even Jesus had spells of anger like the occasion when he whipped Temple desecrators. In a way, denying visas to those serving the poor too could be a form of desecrating living Temples!
(Veteran Asian Church journalist Hector Welgampola from Sri Lanka has retired as Executive Editor of the former Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) based in Bangkok. Before UCAN, Hector headed editorial teams of newspapers in Sri Lanka. Since retiring Hector has lived in Australia with his wife, Rita. He authored the resource book Asian Church Glossary and Stylebook.)