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In the service of the poor

Print edition : Sep 20, 1997 T+T-

There are other congregations in the Catholic Church that do charitable work, but the Missionaries of Charity has given a new dimension to active Christian charity.

ABOUT five years ago I was invited to conduct a retreat programme on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius for about 30 nuns of the Missionaries of Charity at their house in Yelahanka on the outskirts of Bangalore. I accepted the assignment joyfully since it gave me an opportunity to be of service to those whose only aim in life is to love and serve everyone without any thought of the natural differences that exist and persist among members of the human community. I went, however, with something of a preconceived idea that the nuns would be intellectually less challenging and alert than those devoted to education. But during those eight days of interaction with them, in person-to-person encounters as well as in talks to them as a community, I was happily rid of my prejudice. I found them knowledgeable, well acquainted with the spiritual classics and, above all, passionately aware of the situation in the country, especially the plight of the poor and the marginalised. I was struck by the stern programme of prayer and work that they went through, doing for themselves all that was required for their daily life.

On the same campus, there was - and still is - a home for the mentally handicapped, with whom I spent all my spare time; there I learnt a little of the love bestowed upon them unconditionally by the Sisters. These rejected and almost spurned members of the human community were being taught to interact with one another and unconciously were training themselves to attain a degree of normality. The loneliness of the mentally retarded is mitigated by a life in common with others in the same predicament, guided by the loving care and concern of the Sisters.

The inspiration of Mother Teresa's life and work was tangible in all that I saw and experienced. And while preparing myself to conduct the retreat, I found that the Constitutions she has drawn up as a Rule of life for her Congregation were infused with her spirit. Just as the Jesuits, in addition to the three traditional vows of religious life - poverty, chastity and obedience - take a fourth vow of total obedience to the Pope, to accept any assignment in any part of the world which he considers necessary for the people of God, so the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity take a fourth vow "to give Wholehearted and Free service to the poorest of the poor." In effect, they take a vow to serve the helpless and the rejected unconditionally, wherever they are sent.

Apart from community prayer and the daily Eucharistic Liturgy, Mother Teresa insisted on a period of personal communion with God every morning as the necessary basis for external activity of whatever kind. The religious discipline that she fashioned for her Sisters had to be accepted with joy, for the Lord loves a cheerful giver. She would make no compromises; for example, her Sisters are not to accept any food or drink during their visits, however pressing the offer of hospitality. And the simple habit that the Sisters wore - the blue-bordered white sari - had to be washed daily, whatever their work or the demands on their time.

I have had the privilege of a few personal glimpses of and encounters with Mother Teresa. She once came to our parlour in Loyola College, Chennai, where she sat and chatted with a few of us who introduced ourselves to her. Some years later, when I was given the honour of welcoming her at the college on behalf of an overflowing gathering in Bertram Hall, I was greatly surprised that she remembered and addressed me by name even before my name was announced. On the occasions when I listened to her speak - to a Charismatic convention or while accepting the award of an honorary degree by the Madras University in 1984 - I, like everybody else, was struck by her incredible humility. Numerous honours from all over the world have been bestowed on her, but she remained unperturbed, her own true self. She walked with kings, Presidents and Prime Ministers, but never lost the common touch that came naturally to her.

She nursed no antipathy for anyone. She went to Moscow during Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's time to found a house of service; after the Gulf war, she went to Iraq to look after orphaned and homeless children. No door to possible service could be shut on her. With great difficulty and against opposition, she founded homes for AIDS patients in the United States. The old, the terminally ill, unwanted babies cast away by broken mothers, the rejected of every category found in her a true Mother.

Apart from the Congregation of Sisters, she helped found the Brothers of Charity and other branches, in which her followers spend most of their time in prayer and contemplation and act as power-houses for those engaged in hard active toil.

There are other congregations in the Catholic Church that do similar work, but the Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa has given to active Christian charity a new dimension, a new meaning and thrust transcending all human barriers and breaking all narrow domestic walls. One hopes and prays that Mother Teresa's successor, Sister Nirmala, will carry on this great tradition with the full cooperation of all her sisters and brothers, and that despite any setbacks and failures that they may face, the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity will be true to their human and divine calling and, in the words of their Constitution, each be

a carrier of God's love, especially to the poorest of the poor, setting all on fire with love for Him, and for one another; a healing touch of God that cures all diseases; a soothing smile of God that warms all hearts; and God's language of love that all hearts understand.

Fr. V. Lawrence Sundaram, a Jesuit priest and an educationist, is a former Principal of Loyola College, Chennai.