Theology of the Heart- the Saints
Teresa: The Person, Religious, and Channel of Grace
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
It is an unexpected privilege to write to you on the occasion of
Mother Teresa’s entrance into eternity. More than twenty years ago,
while teaching in New York City, Mother Teresa invited me to speak
with her about the new branch of the Missionaries of Charity that
she was founding. They are now called the Missionaries of Charity,
Our conversation lasted five hours. Since then, I have come to know
Mother very well. Teaching her Sisters over these years, throughout
the world, has enabled me to know their foundress extraordinarily
well. I sincerely consider my friendship with her to be one of the
great blessings of my priesthood.
My plan here is to share with you something of what I have learned
about Mother Teresa on three aspects of her extraordinary life:
Mother Teresa, the person, as I have come to know her through years
of personal experience; Mother Teresa, the religious, as reflected
in the Missionaries of Charity, whom she founded; Mother Teresa, the
channel of grace, as seen in the transformation of souls that she
and her Sisters have been able to accomplish since 1950, when they
were first established in Calcutta as an institute of consecrated
Mother Teresa, the Person
Her plans to form a contemplative community were based on the
conviction that without prayer and solitude, nothing worthwhile
could be done for God. At first, the contemplatives were to be
called Sisters of the Word:
Because their primary focus would be on the Word-made-flesh, who
dwells among us, now on earth in the Blessed Sacrament. Devotion
to Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist would be the bedrock of the
Sisters, who are now called Missionaries of Charity,
Because these Sisters were to give some two hours each day in
visiting the homes of people, to bring them the revealed word of
God in talking about Jesus and Mary and the basic truths of
Since that first meeting with Mother Teresa, I have been
associated with both the active and contemplative Sisters,
mainly in teaching them the Catholic faith. I have also come to
know Mother Teresa as a person, through years of correspondence,
conversation and cooperation in her apostolic enterprises.
single out certain qualities of her personality as outstanding:
deep faith in Jesus Christ, as the Living God who became Man out
of love for us.
deep love of the poor, in whom she sees Jesus Christ expressing
His thirst for our love of Him, to be shown by our love for
deep trust in God’s providence. She never seems to worry, and is
always reaching out to do more for the poor, without being
anxious of how this can be done. “God will provide,” is her
deep concern for the salvation of souls. This is reflected in
her desire to bring Christ to those whom her Sisters serve.
“Pray and work daily,” she tells the Missionaries of Charity,
“that all may become followers of Christ.”
Mother Teresa, the Religious
If there is one thing that is certain, it is that Mother Teresa’s
phenomenal influence on the modern world has been possible only
because she is first and foremost, and unembarrassingly a religious.
The Constitutions of the Missionaries of Charity could not be more
plain. I quote from the section on “External Signs of Our
sign of entrance into a new state of life by religious
consecration, and of our desire for self-effacement
We receive a new religious name at the time of profession.
We call each other “Sister.”
We cut our hair completely.
religious dress consisting of:
be the sign of:
Our consecrated love for God and the Church;
Our dedication to the world’s poor;
A reminder of the edification expected from all those who
wear the habit.
Teresa could not be accused of being out of touch with the times.
But she knows as I have learned from years of close dealing with her
Sisters that authentic religious life is never out of touch with the
times, always relevant, always needed in the Church, always
attracting young generous souls to respond to a genuine religious
vocation, always needed; but never more so than in our day; and
nowhere more so than in materially super-developed countries like
the United States.
Let me quote just seven short statements of Mother Teresa, each
embedded in her Constitutions for the Missionaries of Charity, of
how she sees religious life.
us make our Society something beautiful for God.
Rejoice that once more Christ is walking through the world in
you, and through you, going about doing good.
as the seed is meant to be a tree, we are meant to grow into
will give saints to Mother Church.
Thank God from the depths of your hearts that He has chosen you
for Himself and for life.
Submission for someone who is in love is more than a duty—it is
will take care of you, if you remain one.
as a theme through all of mother Teresa’s conferences to her Sisters
is this towering fact: religious are specially called by Christ to
be patterns of holiness. Whatever else they do, and whatever other
responsibilities they may assume—this is the primary goal in life,
as religious, to become holy.
In spite of all the re-interpretation of religious life in the past
generation, Mother Teresa has never wavered in her conviction that
religious are first and mainly and primarily to be holy. She tells
her religious, “Be conscious of your great responsibility of having
to help your Sisters become saints.”
Mother Teresa does not leave this exhortation in thin air. She
spells out in the most uncompromising terms how religious are to
Prayer is the foundation for sanctity. “Jesus,” she tells religious,
“ is our Prayer, and He is also the answer to all our prayer. He has
chosen to be Himself in religious as the living song of love,
praise, adoration, thanksgiving, intercession and reparation to the
“The prayer of religious,” says Mother Teresa, “should be the prayer
of little children, one of tender devotion, deep reverence,
humility, serenity and simplicity.”
In one simple sentence, says Mother Teresa, “Holy Mass is to be the
prayer of the day for religious.”
For her Missionaries of Charity, “Our one hour daily adoration
before the Blessed Sacrament exposed gives us one more opportunity
to sit at His feet in communion with the Lord to whom we belong.”
So the list of required practices of piety go on. But Mother Teresa
leaves no doubt about the primacy of prayer in the religious life.
“We shall pray our work,” her Sisters are told, “but we may not
substitute our prayer for work. If a sister has missed any community
prayer for some reason, she must make up for it.”
As one came to know Mother Teresa more personally, one learned that
she had no illusions about the practicality of religious life. Many
years of working with her and her community have made one thing
clear. Religious life is not mainly active labor for the poorest of
the poor. The heart of religious life is to grow in intimacy with
Jesus. Everything else is not only secondary, but depends absolutely
on this union with Christ, especially with Christ Crucified here on
earth, as a prelude for union with Christ Glorified in the world to
Mother Teresa, Channel of Grace
If there is one distinguishing feature of Mother Teresa it is
her phenomenal impact on the modern world. She has literally
transformed the thinking of millions of people. In fact, her impact
has been especially great on the minds of people who are not
Catholic or not Christian, or not even professing faith in any
Superficially, it might seem that her extraordinary influence has
been really due to the self-sacrificing care that her Missionaries
of Charity have given to the homeless, the helpless, the hungry, the
despised and the dying in over one hundred countries throughout the
No doubt, this generous charity is a partial reason. But I do not
believe it is the foundational explanation. The following quotation
from one of Mother Teresa’s letters illustrates what I believe is
the bedrock of her influence.
Lady was the most wonderful wire. She allowed God to fill her to
the brim so that by her surrender, she became full of grace, and
naturally the moment she was filled by this current, the grace
of God, she went in haste to Elizabeth’s house to connect the
wire, John, to the current, Jesus.
We, too, ask Our Lady to come into our lives and to make the
current, Jesus, use us to go around the world and continue
connecting the hearts of men with the current, Jesus.
Teresa discovered and has been sharing the discovery with anyone who
is willing to listen: that our role in life is to be channels of
grace to others. And we shall be effective conduits of God’s
blessings to the world in the measure that we ourselves are filled
with His grace.
Mother Teresa’s message is very simple. Be holy and you will do
wonders in the lives of everyone whose life you touch. Be united
with God, and He will work miracles through you, and beyond your
But there is one caution. Stay humble. Like Mary, give God credit
for everything He does through you. More than once, Mother Teresa
confided to me that, “God chose His least human creature when He
decided to use me for His work.”
Our task in life, Mother Teresa would say, is to bring Jesus to
others. Since Jesus is God, He wants to continue working the
miracles He began performing during His visible stay in Palestine.
He wants especially to work miracles in the conversion of sinners
and in bringing stray sheep back to the fold.
All of this Jesus will do, and does, provided we are deeply in love
with Him. In practice, this means that we follow Mary’s directives
to the servants at the marriage feast of Cana, “Do whatever He tells
you.” The servants obeyed. The result was the first miracle that
Mother Teresa’s message is clear. Ask Our Lady to make Jesus use us
to go around the world connecting the hearts of men with the
current, who is Jesus.
Of course, this presumes that we ourselves are united with Jesus in
loving and cheerful obedience to His will.
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
Vol. 3 - #6, Nov/Dec 1997, pp. 1-3
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