A Conversation with Mother Teresa by Becky Benenate and Joseph Durepos
The following passages are quotations of Mother Teresa from the book “No Greater Love,” edited by Becky Benenate and Joseph Durepos.
In this interview Mother Teresa talks candidly about the order she founded, about her world wide work with “the poorest of the poor,” and about her faith. It is based on several conversations between Mother Teresa and Jose Luis Bonzales Balado.
1. Mother Teresa, do you find it easy to carry out your work among the poor?
Of course it would not be easy without an intense life of prayer and a spirit of sacrifice. It wouldn’t be easy either if we didn’t see the poor — Christ — who continue to suffer the sorrows of His passion. At times, we would be happy if we could get the poor to live peacefully with each other. It is so hard for those who have been deprived of their basic needs to live in harmony and support their neighbors, and not see them as dangerous competitors, capable of making their state of misery even worse! That’s why we cannot offer them anything but our testimony of love, seeing Christ Himself in each one of them, no matter how repugnant they seem to us.
2. How do you get so many vocations?
God is the one who sends them. They come and see. Sometimes they come from very far away. Many of them first hear about us by what they read in the newspapers.
3. With the sisters you have available, do you accomplish all that you would like?
Unfortunately, the needs are always greater than our ability to meet them.
4. Mother Teresa, what moves you to continually open new homes?
If God continues sending us so many vocations without fail, we believe that this is not so we can keep them hidden in convents. Rather, God wants to multiply the work of helping the poorest of the
5. What criteria do you use for opening homes in India and abroad?
We never open any home without already having been invited by the local bishop. In fact, the present requests for help far surpass our capability to meet them. As a general rule based on our Constitution, when we receive an invitation to open a new home, we first go and investigate the living conditions of the poor in that area. We never decide to open a home for any other reason than that of serving the poor. Normally, the decision to start a new home follows these investigations except in cases of the most extreme need.
6. What importance do you give to outward appearances?
Very little or none. As for our habit, even though the sari is part of our usual way of dressing, we would be willing to modify or relinquish it if we found out that we were not accepted for being dressed that way. We would adopt another form of dress if it were better accepted by the poor wherever we felt called to carry out our work.
7. What gives you strength to carry out your work?
We are taught from the very first moment to discover Christ under the distressing disguise of the poor, the sick, the outcasts, Christ presents Himself to us under every disguise: the dying, the paralytic, the leper, the invalid, the orphan. It is faith that makes our work, which demands both special preparation and a special calling, easy or at least more bearable. Without faith, our work could become an obstacle for our religious life since we come across blasphemy, wickedness, and atheism at every turn.
8. In your work, how much importance do you give to religious matters?
We are not simply social workers, but missionaries. Nevertheless, we try to do evangelization exclusively through our work, allowing God to manifest Himself in it. We teach catechism to the children in our orphanages. We only take the initiative with adults when they ask for instruction or when they ask us questions about religious matters. All of the sisters receive a good religious formation during their novitiate and more training in later years. We do not like to take the place of others who are more competent in some subjects than we are. For example, we refer more difficult questions to priests, besides those that are obviously related to their ministry. As for the criteria we use to determine our assistance, we never base our assistance on the religious beliefs of the needy but on the need itself. We are not concerned with the religious beliefs of those we help. We only focus on how urgent the need is.
9. Do the Missionaries of Charity have any preferences among the people they assist?
If there is any, it is for the poorest of the poor, the most abandoned, those who have no one to care for them, the orphans, the dying, the lepers.
10. According to some, the work of the Missionaries of Charity in the home for the dying destitutes only prolongs the misery of those cared for. Those who are restored to health return to the streets where they will encounter the same problems of disease and misery. What is your response to this?
Whenever it is possible we try not to limit our care to just medical attention. We try to achieve the human and social rehabilitation of those who are restored to health. It is true that in many cases those who recuperate prefer the freedom of the streets to the closed spaces of our surroundings, but this is something that we cannot prevent. We act under the conviction that every time we feed the poor, we are offering food to Christ Himself. Whenever we clothe a naked human being, we are clothing Christ Himself. Whenever we offer shelter to the dying, we are sheltering Christ Himself.
11. There are those who assert that the medical training of the Missionaries of Charity is too rudimentary for people who care for the seriously ill.
I know that. Our medical training is limited, but we try to offer assistance and care to those who, in most cases, have no one to give them even the most basic medical care.
12. It has also been said that the care that you give to such desperate cases could be better channeled to those who have a better chance of survival.
We try to help all those who need care, but we give preference to those who have the greatest need of help. We do not turn our backs on anyone.
No one is left out of our will to serve. In each suffering brother we see the likeness of Christ suffering in him. Even if we have to narrow our care down to a few, because of necessity or limited resources, our desire is to expand our charity.
13. At times, there isn’t much you do or can do for the dying, is there?
We can, at least, leave them with the impression of something important: that there are people willing to truly love them, because the dying are also children of God, and deserve to be loved as much or maybe even more than anyone else.
14. Don’t you ever experience repugnance in the face of so much misery?
Yes, we carry out our work mainly among the dying, the destitute elderly, poor, orphaned children, and lepers. We cannot deny that our work is hard for us in many cases. We don’t always carry it out under acceptable conditions. But all of us are better off working among the poor than among the rich. This is our lifetime work. During the novitiate, which lasts two years, we dedicate half the day to carrying out our work among the poor. The novices work under the supervision of older sisters. Then, before making our final vows, we spend several more years serving the poor. Our work becomes almost a habit for us, which makes it easier, instinctive, and natural, without being mechanical.
15. What significance do you attribute to your mission of assistance?
Our service is not limited to offering just material relief. We want to offer whatever is necessary so that the poorest of the poor don’t feel abandoned, and so they realize that there are people who care about them. We want our work to accomplish what a high-level official in our country once said to the sisters: “It is Christ who is again walking among us doing good in favor of men.”
16. What do you do for lepers?
We offer assistance to more than twenty thousand afflicted with this disease just in Calcutta alone, and to fifty thousand in all of India. We realize this is nothing in a country where there are four million victims of leprosy. The first thing we do for those who receive our help is to convince them that they really have this disease. We get the necessary medicines for them and we try to cure them. Today it is not necessary for lepers to live in isolation. If we can help them in time, they can be fully cured. So what the sisters try to do first of all is to convince the people to confront this disease. In India, leprosy is considered a punishment from God. It is part of the religion of the people. The sisters try to do everything possible to cure them and rid them of this belief.
17. From whom do you especially receive aid?
From everyone, thanks be to God. We have Hindu, Muslim, Parsee, Jewish, Buddhist, Protestant, and, naturally, Catholic Co-workers and benefactors.
18. Has it ever occurred to you that you could end up without resources for your works?
We never have any surplus, but we have never lacked what we need. Sometimes it happens in strange ways, almost miraculously. We wake up without resources, with the anguish of not being able to tend to our needy. A few hours later, we almost always see the most unexpected provisions arrive from anonymous donors. From Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Jews, Parsees, Muslims, and Hindus. From adherents of any religion or of no religion. From the rich and from the poor.
19. What is the work you accomplish like?
It is not important work in and of itself, but the humblest that exists. We think that its value comes from the spirit of love for God that inspires it. It is impossible to love God without loving our neighbor. At the same time, no Missionary of Charity forgets the words of Christ: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat” (see Matthew 25:35). This is what we are trying to do: feed, clothe, and visit Christ in the sick, the dying, the lepers, and the abandoned children.
20. Could you talk about your work with abandoned children?
Yes, we started with them and we are still with them, even though they are not our only work. Orphans and abandoned children are unfortunately the kind of children that are never in short supply. Once in the first years of our work, a policeman brought us a group of children that were caught in the act of stealing. They were too young to send to jail with common criminals. I asked them why they had done it. They explained to me that every evening from five to eight o’clock adults gave them lessons on how to commit robberies.
21. What kind of a future do the children you rescue have?
I don’t believe there is a better way of helping India than to prepare a better tomorrow for today’s children. We take care of the poorest of those children, the ones that are picked up in the slums. Each one of them needs a monthly allowance of just a few dollars. It is very moving to see children from other countries — French, English, German, Spanish, Swiss, Danish, and Italian children donate from their savings. We open a savings account for each child we take in. When the child is older and if he is capable, he receives higher education. We see that those children who do not have the aptitude for higher education receive an education in the trades, so that they will be able to make a living for themselves.
22. You Missionaries of Charity witness terrible injustices. How do you react to them?
The injustices are there for everyone to see. It is up to large organizations to provide or promote the ways of raising the standard of living of the masses that suffer injustice. We find ourselves in daily contact with those who have been rejected by society. Our first goal is to help these people achieve basic human development. We try to restore the sense of dignity that they should have as human beings, as well as children of the same Father. To accomplish this, we don’t look first and see if they are dying or if they have a whole life ahead of them.
23. Do you receive any aid from the Indian government?
We do not receive any direct aid, but we have to recognize that the government helps us in a very effective way by the confidence, esteem, and respect they show us. This helps us in many ways, like getting land for the work we carry out and free transportation on the state railways.
24. Do you receive any exemptions from the Indian government? Are you allowed to import everything freely?
No, not everything. Just food, medicines, medical equipment, clothing, and anything else that is needed for our work, such as furniture, typewriters, and sewing machines. We still need an import permit. We receive these things as gifts, and they all go to the poor. Nothing is for business transactions. It all goes to those in need, without regard to their race, beliefs, or religion. And there are so many in need! The only thing we have to do is declare to the government that these are free gifts. Since the government sees where everything goes we are given the necessary permits. They realize that nothing goes into our pockets. Everything is given back to the poorest of the poor. That’s why they trust us and give us the necessary permits.
25. How do you manage what you receive?
We have a register where we write down all our expenses as well as what we receive and for what purpose we have to earmark these gifts. For example, if someone donates one hundred rupees for the lepers, we don’t use that money for anything else. We try to carry out the will of our donors.
26. It seems that the Indian government is setting increasingly tighter restrictions on foreign missionaries. Are you affected by this?
We are a native Indian institution. Our mother house is in India. So we don’t fall under those restrictions. At the same time, we avoid evangelizing through means other than our work. Our works are our witness. If someone we help wants to become a Catholic, he has to see a priest. If there is a religious end to our work, it is nothing more than to bring all those we have contact with closer to God.
27. Do you receive any help from others?
Oh, yes! We have counted on the help of others since the very beginning. We call them Co-workers. We have many kinds of Co-workers, starting with the children from many countries who share their savings or the money they collect on drives for the children in India. Even though we Missionaries have the most visibility, really, we would carry out very little of our work without the generous help of thousands upon thousands of Co-workers and friends throughout the world.
28. Not all religious orders have known how to faithfully keep the initial spirit in which they were founded. Couldn’t the Missionaries of Charity lose it also?
Our fourth vow commits us to give free service to the poorest of the poor. This should keep us from the danger you mention. Our mission is so clear that there can be no misunderstandings. The poor know who they are and where they are. They are the reason for our order and our work. In Christ, they are the reason why we exist.
29. Are you ever tempted with the idea of working among the rich, where everything would be easier for you?
The poor are the reason for our existence. We were born for them and we dedicate ourselves just to them, without any temptation to turn away.
30. Do you attempt to present any special religious message through your work?
Love has no other message but its own. Every day we try to live out Christ’s love in a very tangible way, in every one of our deeds. If we do any preaching, it is done with deeds, not with words. That is our witness to the gospel.
31. Do you feel loved by the people?
Yes, for the most part, even though the extreme conditions in which many of our people live keeps them from seeing our unconditional love. They see that we live among them and in poverty like they do. They appreciate that a lot. Still, not everything is peaceful all the time. Sometimes there are outbreaks of jealousy or impatience when we can’t give them everything they need or ask for, or when they see that we are giving out the very things they want to others more needy than themselves. When that happens, we know it is useless to try to reason with them at that moment. It is best to allow them to calm down. They almost always have a change of attitude once they have calmed down.
32. Do you witness conversions to Catholicism among the people you help?
Yes, there are some conversions, but without us ever trying to encourage them directly. By practicing Christian love, we draw closer to God and we try to help others draw closer to Him, without placing any religious pressure on anyone. When they accept love, they accept God and vice versa. Our witness is none other than that. At the same time, it would be a mistake to forget that we find ourselves in India, among a people proud of their cultural and religious traditions. For that very reason they look with distrust upon any form of religious proselytism.
33. What contact do the Missionaries of Charity have with their families?
Once we are consecrated to serving the poor, they become our family. Naturally, we do not deny our blood relationships with our biological families, but contact with them is very limited. Only under extraordinary circumstances, such as before leaving the country for a foreign mission, do we go home. We just cannot do it, first of all because of our poverty; we do not have the money to spend on trips. Second, none of us can leave our post of service and care to the sick, the dying, the lepers, and the orphans when they have no one else to look after them.
34. What do you think of receiving awards?
The same as always: I don’t deserve them. I accept them willingly, not just to acknowledge the kindness of those who give the awards, but I think of what these awards can mean for our poor and our lepers. I think that these awards greatly help people to be favorably inclined toward the work we Missionaries of Charity carry out among the poorest of the poor.
You who suffer, grant that, today and every day, I may be able to see you in the person of your sick ones and that, by offering them my care, I may serve you.
Grant that, even if you are hidden under the unattractive disguise of angel of crime, or of madness, I may recognize you and say, “Jesus, you who suffer, how sweet it is to serve you.”
Give me, Lord, this vision of faith, and my work will never be monotonous, I will find joy in harboring the small whims and desires of all the poor who suffer.
Dear sick one, you are still more beloved to me because you represent Christ. What a privilege I am granted in being able to take care of you!
0 God, since you are Jesus who suffers, deign to be for me also a Jesus who is patient, indulgent with my faults, who looks only at my intentions, which are to love you and to serve you in the person of each of these children of yours who suffer.
Lord, increase my faith. Bless my efforts and my work, now and forever.
— MOTHER TERESA