Mother knew a lot more than her prayers
I first met Mother Teresa in 1971. I had just joined the Jesuits in Melbourne, Australia, and she had not long established a refuge for homeless, mostly alcoholic men in the inner city.
The refuge was in a decaying 19th Century Victorian tenement house and Mother Teresa thought she needed something larger and away from the inner city haunts of the homeless alcoholics if the work of her sisters was to make any difference.
She was good friends with Jesuits in many countries and had Australian Jesuits as Mass celebrants and confessors for her Melbourne convent. She came to visit the Jesuit novitiate where I was reluctantly imprisoned and I was the one designated to show her the range and reach of the novitiate property.
A large building that in its prime accommodated 120 young Jesuits in training, the building was in what was even then an outer Melbourne suburb. Today it is a highly developed suburban area with schools, supermarkets, football fields and church and community centers.
Not so 45 years ago and Mother visited at the invitation of the Novice Master to edify us novices. That wasn't all that was on Mother's mind.
As we walked around the perimeter of the property — about 50 acres — I noticed she would drop a tiny miraculous medal. I reached down to pick it up and return it to her.
"No, no!" said Mother. "I don't want it back!"
"Why?" I asked in a respectful tone.
"Because whenever I want a property, I drop miraculous medals in it and it comes back as a miraculous gift," she replied.
Really, I thought. As a surprised 18-year-old, I recognized she must know more than her prayers! This ethnic Albanian-born nun in modern day Macedonia, the most famous Macedonian since Alexander the Great, was as direct and deliberate as she was shrewd and disarming
As it turned out she didn't get that property. Half of it went to the archdiocese to build a high school and the other half to a property developer who was prevented from demolishing the wreck of a building we lived in as novices because of its 'historic' value. It was a dreary building from the 1930s that showed all the miserliness of the Depression era in which it was built.
But Mother did get another property from the archdiocese and a purpose built development on the land paid for by the man who had made his money as a real estate agent buying and selling properties for the archdiocese.
The medals worked but not as expected.
I remained involved with the Missionaries of Charity for many years after and learnt a lot about their lives, their simplicity, their fortifying faith, their reverence for Mother Teresa and their nobility. Her deeds and those of her sisters speak for themselves.
I found the attacks on Mother Teresa by the journalist and commentator Christopher Hitchens to be among the most bigoted and misanthropic I had ever encountered and had only ever met such malice in cranky anti-Catholicism in Northern Irish Protestants of which he was once one.
But I often wondered how Mother Teresa ever got to India as an Irish Loreto sister all the way from her hometown of Skopje, now the capital of Macedonia in what was the Ottoman Empire when she was born.
And it was a puzzle to me how an Irish Loreto sister — most of whom are very well educated and fully alive to the nuances and ambiguities of faith and life in the Catholic Church — could give birth to such a staunchly anti-intellectual, authoritarian and pious congregation.
For example, she prevented her sisters from ever learning the languages of the people whom they served in different parts of the world and would never permit her sisters to "skill up" and provide more professionally qualified service to those they assisted.
But she herself was not an educated woman. In Loreto, she was a "lay sister" in charge of the kitchen and the garden. And she wanted her Missionaries of Charity sisters to serve the poorest of the poor and those at the end of the line whom the professionals had either not cared to help or had given up on.
The clarity and simplicity of her focus and commitment led her to balance apparent contradictions in other areas too. At home in the gutter, she was just as ready to don one of her two saris and consort with the rich and powerful without the slightest hint of compromise.
She was at home in the gutter and shrewd enough to meet and charm prime ministers, media moguls and popes. She was one of the greatest figures of the 20th Century.
I have met quite a few people in my life — modest and invisible for the most part — whom I considered even while they lived to be saints. I can now say I have even met one who was canonized on Sept. 4. 2016
by Father Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of ucanews.com and based in Thailand.
First published by www.ucanews.com