Saint who valued society's 'throwaway people'

St Teresa of Kolkata (Calcutta)
St Teresa of Kolkata (Calcutta)

The Catholic Church is preparing to celebrate the canonisation of one of the highest profile saints of the 20th century this weekend. Mother Teresa of Calcutta will be declared a saint by Pope Francis at St Peter’s in the Vatican on Sunday; and Jesuits and their associates will be joining the celebrations.

In Guyana, Jesuits work alongside around two dozen Missionaries of Charity nuns whose convents have been turned into hospitals and shelters for the homeless and a refuge for the outcasts and neglected of society. They have been holding a novena in the Cathedral in Georgetown over the past week. In New Amsterdam, the Sisters care for a group of elderly men, referred to as the ‘grandfathers’, who have been abandoned by their families. The nuns also give a hot meal each day to dozens of people who gather at their gates early in the morning. They also run a free day-care service for children; and in Georgetown, the nuns take care of women who have been forgotten by society.

Among those who have been reflecting on Mother Teresa’s legacy has been Sr Gemma Simmonds CJ, Senior Lecturer in Theology at Heythrop College, whose order – the Congregation of Jesus – was founded by the English woman, Mary Ward. Mother Teresa originally joined the Sisters of Loreto – another order founded by Ward, inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola - before recognising her ‘call within a call’ to serve the poorest of the poor and founding the Missionaries of Charity.

“She literally was picking people up off the streets,” Sr Gemma explained to Jenni Murray on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour yesterday. “Mother Teresa was seeing people literally dying in the gutter and she felt a powerful sense of God saying: These are my children, these are human beings, who first of all need to be touched – need to be reminded of their human dignity, who had had their humanity taken away from them by their poverty and degradation. And her first aim was to restore that.”

Women who pushed the boundariesSr Gemma Simmonds CJ

Prior to her death in 1997, Mother Teresa was often criticised over her fundraising methods and the sources of money to support her charitable work. But Sr Gemma believes there is no such thing as ‘clean money’. “I think she saw it as: these are people who – wherever they got their money from – are willing to give something for the poorest of the poor, when governments are failing them, and I think she was so fixed on the desperate needs of the poor, she didn’t really care where the money came from as long as it came for the poor.”

Mother Teresa remained a huge admirer of Mary Ward throughout her life, and Sr Gemma describes them both as people who pushed boundaries in the Catholic Church when it came to the role of women. “She went out there and broke the mould of charitable work and said to people: it is not acceptable that there should be throwaway people, and that seems to be an enormously important thing still tragically today – there are still too many throwaway people.”

The face of obvious sanctity

One British Jesuit who met Mother Teresa and felt inspired by her was former Provincial, Fr Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ. Back in 1976, he travelled to Calcutta where a visit to the Missionaries of Charity had been arranged. Despite suffering with flu and a high temperature, he set off with a colleague on the afternoon of 15 September to visit Kaligat, the original disused Hindu temple; it was there, 24 years earlier, that Mother Teresa had started her house for the dying. Since then 34,000 had passed through it, with around 16,000 dying there amid care and love.

“We watched the sisters cleaning the dying and sick and feeding them with better food than they themselves ate,” recalls Fr Michael. “We then walked over to the mother house of the Missionaries of Charity, which was also their noviceship. I had no appointment with Mother Teresa and had not expected to see her but, to my great surprise, she quietly walked into the room, Saint Teresa of Kolkata remembered: flickrsat down and started talking about her work. In the face of obvious sanctity, human wisdom is redundant. Thus I can only ascribe to the effects of my fever the fact that I questioned several of her statements and we had a vigorous exchange of views that lasted nearly an hour and a half. But though I could not accept her views on the role of Jesuits – ‘Continue looking after the rich: it is what you know best’ – we ended by praying together and she invited me to say Mass for the community the following morning. When I left the fever had gone!”

The following day, Fr Michael visited Shishu Bhawan, a home for abandoned mothers and babies, and Prem Dhan, in the notorious and dangerous Tiljala area, where the sisters looked after the sick and mentally handicapped in what had been a chemical factory. “Before leaving, I gave Mother Teresa a copy of the decrees of our 32nd General Congregation,” he says, “and wrote the following dedication in it: To Mother Teresa, with the request you pray for all Jesuits that they may work for the poor and oppressed with greater love and dedication …”