Who is Mother Teresa of Calcutta? Well Mother Teresa herself gave her identity: “By blood, I am Albanian.
By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.”
On Sept. 4, 2016, Mother Teresa will be officially proclaimed a saint by Pope Francis at a canonization Mass in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. Even before this ceremony, she has been acclaimed a saint not just by Christians, but many others of other faiths.
Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu of Albanian parents on August 26, 1910, in Skopje, in what is Macedonia today, Mother Teresa came to eastern India’s Kolkata city, formerly Calcutta, in 1929, as a missionary of the Sisters of Loreto.
Later, in what she described as a ‘call within a call’, she founded her Missionaries of Charity congregation in 1950 to serve Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor. She obtained Indian citizenship the following year. Mother Teresa earned 124 national as well as international honours for her works of mercy, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
She died on September 5, 1997 at the age of 87 and St. John Paul II declared her Blessed in the Vatican, on October 19, 2003.
Mother Teresa often accepted invitations to talk, as they would offer her an opportunity to draw the world’s attention on the poor and needy. Here’s one such interview where she talked Anto Akkara, an Indian rights advocate and journalist with international media. Mother Teresa spoke to Anto Akkara on November 17, 1995 at the Missionaries of Charity’s ‘Nirmala Sishu Bhavan’ centre in New Delhi. Below is a transcript of the interview.
Anto Akkara: Mother, what is your mother tongue?
Mother Teresa: Albanian. But, I am equally fluent in Bengali (language of Calcutta) and English.
AA: Right now what do you feel: Are you an Indian or Albanian?
MT: I am everything. Every country I love and I am a child of God to love the humans.
AA: So, you have no nationality?
MT: I have a diplomatic passport for India, diplomatic passport for Albania. I have Vatican passport and to America, I can go any time. Every time I ask for visa, they (USA) give me visa for five years. I have never had any problem in getting a visa to any nation.
AA: When you started your Congregation, did you ever think that it would grow as it is today?
MT: Oh, that everybody knows. We are now in 126 countries. We have 561 houses – tabernacles we call them – and over 4600 nuns. It’s simply to serve the poorest of the poor. We are wanted and we have championed those who have nothing, the deprived children of God.
(Today, MCs are in 139 countries with 758 ‘Tabernacles’ and 5160 nuns)
AA: What is the motive of all your work? Is it the fundamentalist religious motive as critics say?
MT: Jesus has very clearly said in the gospel. “Whatever you do, do to the least of my brethren.” Clear? That was the work of Jesus. Again, Jesus has said “Come, blessed of my Father, take the seat in the kingdom prepared for you, because I was hungry you gave me food, I was thirsty you have me drink, I was naked you clothed me, I was homeless you took me home and I was sick you visited me.” And we are just doing that. Brothers, Fathers and Sisters – all of us in the Missionaries of Charity are doing the same. All of us have been created by God to love and to be loved. We are involved in this work. When you do that, there is joy, unity and love.
AA: There are allegations that you receive funds and awards from persons with dubious character. Do you verify the credentials of the donors before accepting anything?
MT: No question of that. We have a vow to give wholeheartedly everything to the poor. Whatever we get from the government or other people – even one rupee we get, we give it to the poor. Completely free service. We have no salaries. When one says he is from a good Catholic family and says he wants to help us, why should we refuse his offer? …
AA: Recently the Sankaracharya has accused that the ultimate aim of your “manav seva” (service to mankind) is conversion. How do you answer that?
MT: My answer is: God forgive them all. For they know not what they are saying. I have told everybody that what we are doing is for the love of God and works of love are always to accept and respect others. Works of love are always works of peace. In our home (for the dying at Kali Ghat) in Calcutta, there is great peace, unity and love. Many Hindu families bring food, clothing nonstop to our home for the dying. This is an act of love. I didn’t ask them. They have only heard about what I am doing and they all come. They have to see the beautiful work that is being done. So many people (who go to her as volunteers) have found peace, joy and unity in their families by helping the poor. Anybody who helps the poor is delighted. So naturally, they (critics) are not very happy with us.
AA: What about the charge of conversion?
MT: Nobody can convert you except God. Even if I want I cannot make you say sorry to God. Very less to say, I can make one Catholic or Protestant. Nobody can change your religion unless you want to and God gives you the grace. It’s between you and God alone. Nobody can force you. We pick up people dying full of worms from the street. We have picked up more than 40,000 of them. If I lift up such a person, clean him, love him and serve him, is it conversion? He has been there like an animal in the street but I am giving him love and he dies peacefully. That peace comes from his heart. That’s between him and God. Nobody can interfere in that. Even if I wanted, I cannot do anything. When they die, we always send for their co-religionists. Muslims take the Muslim’s body to bury it, Hindus come and take away the dead to be cremated and Christians come and bury their dead. I do make conversion, if conversion means really turning people to God – to have a clean heart and to love God. That’s the real conversion.
AA: Critics allege secret baptisms in your homes. Is it true?
MT: No, nothing. For all those who make such stories which are not true, I only say God forgive all these people. I feel sorry for them because they are doing so much harm to themselves. If a Hindu wants to find the way to God, he has the right to go to any priest, nun or any other person. If you are Catholic, and some other person comes to you seeking guidance, naturally you take him straight away to someone who can show him God’s love. Conversion is not only changing the faith. Conversion is changing the heart and working over there is the grace of God. Then only comes the question of change of faith. Nobody can force you, not even the holy prophets.
AA: Do you have some new fields for your Congregation to enter?
MT: I don’t think we can do anything more than what we are doing now. We have picked up people full of worms from the streets, cared for them and let them die in peace and love. When they are brought to our home, they feel they are in their own homes, with their own families. Now, I am trying to open a house for AIDS victims here (in Delhi). The people are dying because of it.
AA: I heard you in September telling Catholic clergy in prison ministry that “to care for men and women in jail is to do something beautiful for God”. Are you planning to enter the prison ministry?
MT: We are already taking care of people from jail. Hundred and ten non-criminal women are already with us in Shantidhan (abode of peace). And soon, 22 boys will come to us from jail. Our Brothers will take care of them. (West Bengal state) Government has decided that non-criminal persons should not be kept in these kind of places and asked us to take care of them. They should live in an atmosphere of love. They need to be loved.
AA: You have been based in Calcutta which has been under Marxist rule for almost two decades. Have you had any trouble from the Marxist government of West Bengal headed by chief minister Jyoti Basu?
MT: We never had any problem from them. Jyoti Basu has been very kind to us. He was the one who told me “Mother, please do something for these (jail) girls. He has been helpful and always accessible to us over phone. We also never had any problem whenever we wanted to meet him.
AA: Is it true that you want to open a house in Beijing?
MT: Yes, I went to Beijing and we are going to open a house there by Easter.
(This dream of Mother still remains unfulfilled)
AA: What’s your stand on abortion?
MT: I always say “if you are afraid of them (the unborn), give them to me. Please, don’t kill them.” We are fighting abortion through adoption. In Calcutta alone, we have given more than 1,000 children in adoption. I cannot calculate how many babies we get a year. But we never refuse anybody. Everybody is most welcome.
AA: Activists in the church say you are perpetrating poverty by your acts of charity instead of trying to end it. What about trying the liberating approach to improve the exploitative system?
MT: How can I act in an impersonal manner? When a man dies in the street for want of food, how can I ignore him? When I find a starving or naked man in the street, I cannot walk past him. I think no human being can do that. There are others who take up that (liberating) role. I have no time to spend for that. I am busy with my work. My path is clear. I see somebody dying, I pick him up. I find somebody hungry, I give him food. He can love and be loved. I don’t look at his color, I don’t look at his religion. I don’t look at anything. Every person whether he is Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist, he is my brother, my sister. I think we all do like that.
(This appeared in Vatican Radio on Sept. 2, 2016)