September 28, 2007

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Despite challenges, Blessed Teresa kept her life focused on Jesus

I can hardly believe that it has been 10 years since Mother Teresa—Blessed Teresa of Calcutta—went home to God. It was one of the special graces of my life that I had the opportunity to spend time with her while I was the bishop of Memphis.

Mother Teresa made one feel comfortable in her presence. We don’t hear it said very often, but she had a wry sense of humor in the midst of her care for the poorest of the poor.

Despite her life given to deal with the ugliness of our social ills, Mother kept her heart and mind focused on Jesus, and she did so with a cheerful disposition. Mother Teresa’s cheerfulness continues as one of the characteristics of the Missionaries of Charity today.

I was particularly impressed by the way Mother could maintain her composure and focus during two press conferences at which I was present.

Most of the folks from the media were friendly and positive. Mother Teresa never for a moment thought their attention was about her. Rather, in her mind, it was about Christ and the poor. And for those who, in fact, were hostile in their demeanor and by the questions they asked, she was unperturbed and kind in her responses.

Blessed Teresa was most often confronted with questions about her unswerving concern for issues of respect for human life, especially abortion. Some of her critics could not accept her forthright support for human life issues.

As for her care for the very poorest of the poor, those abandoned by most folks of our society, she was inevitably cajoled with questions about why she was not more politically involved in solving the problems of society at their root, not just caring for individual poor and uncared for people.

Often enough, she responded that if she had not picked up the first dying man in the gutter she wasn’t sure her mission would have evolved. She was committed to what she and her Missionary sisters could do with their “hands-on” care of the down and out.

On the other hand, she had nothing but praise and words of support for those who could take up the cause of society’s need for social reform. She kept her composure and was steady in her focus on Jesus, whom she saw especially in the individual, the suffering and the dying person by person.

Blessed Teresa was criticized during her lifetime. And she continues to be criticized now. As we know, in the process for her canonization all of her writings, including her private correspondence, are reviewed as is always the case in the Church’s canonical process.

The postulator of her Cause for canonization published some of her writings and some confidential letters she had written to her personal spiritual director. Some of this correspondence indicated occasional fears that God seemed to have abandoned her. On occasion, she even wondered about God’s existence.

If one is familiar with the lives of some of our greatest canonized saints, we know that the phenomenon of “the dark night of the soul” is not uncommon in the face of the inevitable struggles of life. It is telling to read the Gospel account of the prayer of the suffering of Jesus on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34; Mt 27:46).

I would like to believe that in our secular culture the critics in the media, who are want to say that Mother Teresa was living a hypocritical life because she did not show her inner turmoil in public, simply don’t understand. The spiritual reality of the inevitable testing of one’s faith—even for holy people—is part of becoming sanctified. Yet, I admit that I wonder about the motives of some of her critics.

The fact is that Mother Teresa would not be deterred by the critics. She may have suffered doubts at times, but she kept her focus on Jesus and his needs in the poor.

Blessed Teresa is, above all, a model of patient humility. The last time we were together, as she was boarding the airplane, she pulled me aside and said, “Bishop, when you place the drop of water in the wine at the offertory of the Mass, will you pray that I will be dissolved in Christ?”

She kept her heart and mind focused on Jesus to the end. Her enduring message is a call to love Christ, whom we meet in every human person, especially the poorest of the poor.

She taught us that in order to live that call, it must be supported by patient perseverance, which is made possible by prayer before the tabernacle and in the celebration of the Eucharist. We would do well to pray to be “dissolved in Christ.” †

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