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Learning from Mother Teresa

A homily given at Nashotah on September 6, 2011

My true confession:  It is not unusual to hear a biographical sketch of an obscure saint in the morning at Nashotah House, which, however interesting, leaves us still trying to remember his or her name by the afternoon.  Not so with Mother Teresa, who is probably the most famous Christian of our lifetimes – or if not the most famous, probably the most universally loved and revered.

There are obvious things to learn from Mother Teresa’s life – we think most naturally of her care for the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying – categories of people we remember in our prayers but whose lives are often beyond our touch.  She was quite literally like Jesus in our gospel this morning, “all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them” (Luke 6:19). No one, it seems, was beyond Mother Teresa’s touch.  And so we learn from her that mission is not done from a clinical distance but in press of human life and suffering.

I think there is something else to learn from Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity, though I suspect this is rather more of an accident born of Christian virtue than a matter of calculated strategy.  In Mother Teresa we see the fulfillment of our Lord’s injunction: “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16).  Quite similarly, 1 Peter – perhaps reflecting the Lord’s own words – enjoins us to “live such good lives among the pagans, that though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of his visitation” (2:12).

That many will wish to malign Christian believers was promised to us by Jesus himself: “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first” (John 15:18; cf. v. 19).  But at this point, Christians less noble than Mother Teresa often misstep.  We assume that if our views are unpopular, if we are made sport of, if all manner of evil is spoken against us (Matt 5:11), it must be a sign of our virtue.  And, indeed, it may be so.

But, dare I say, more often it is not.  More often our naysayers are carefully attuned to the distance between our words and actions, the distance between our convictions and our apathy for serving the world anything more than our opinions.  But it is the task of Jesus’ followers not only to speak but to quiet.  Yes, to speak the word with our tongues but also to quiet the world with our lives – at least long enough that the good news of Jesus Christ might be heard because it has first been seen.

We remember, for example, that Mother Teresa was a tireless advocate for life – at all stages.  What for another Christian might have been the shrill imposition of a political ideology was for her an unimpeachable integrity of thought and deed, a vision for the dignity of all human life so coherent it had to be taken seriously.  A vision so costly and compelling it shames the cheapness of the alternatives.

I don’t suggest that Mother Teresa was without her critics – but the criticism typically amounts to this:  she had the nerve not only to be one of the world’s greatest humanitarians but also a Catholic Christian.  A combination which both befuddles and galls religion’s cultured despisers.

May we too so adorn the gospel with good works that we too may befuddle and refute and silence a needy world which – though it doesn’t always know it – is still clamoring to touch Jesus.

One Response to Learning from Mother Teresa

  1. avatar Leo OBrien says:

    As a young Catholic seminarian in Rome Italy in the 1980’s I had the opportunity, with a small group of clergy and lay people, to spend a Holy Hour w/ Mother and her sisters. It took place at their small convent at St. Gregory’s Parish near the Coloseum. What was extroardinary about Mother was how down to earth she was. It was like speaking to a kindly Nun from your school days. She projected, though, a spiritual energy from her very small slight frame.

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