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Saint of the Poor continues to inspire

HONG KONG (SE): A large crowd gathered at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on September 4 to hear Pope Francis proclaim Mother Teresa of Kolkata a tireless worker of mercy, describing her as an icon of God’s love, as he declared the woman who has become known as the Saint of the Poor a saint of the Catholic Church.

The parishes of Our Lady of China in Tai Kok Tsui; Ss. Cosmas and Damian in Tseun Wan; and the Caritas Institute of Higher Education in Tseung Kwan O also organised prayer services with a direct video link to the canonisation ceremony in Rome.

On the previous day, the Caritas Institute and the parish at Tai Kok Tsui held an exhibition depicting the story of the life of Mother Teresa, as well as film clips, documentaries and talks on the significance of her life.

Although the bishops of India had requested that the ceremony be held in Kolkata, where Mother Teresa began her ministry among the poor and dying in the late 1940s and founded the Missionaries of Charity which today boasts 6,000 members working in 139 countries, Pope Francis insisted that she is to be a saint for the universal Church who belongs to the whole world.

As the Indian, Oswald Cardinal Gracias, put it, “She also belongs to the Hindus, the Muslims, the Jews and many others.”

Pope Francis called her a person totally inspired by gratuitous love, free of ideology and obligation, who offered her services freely and without distinction of language, culture, race or creed.

Known for her engaging smile, the pope said, “Let us carry her smile in our hearts and give it to those whom we meet along our journey, especially those who suffer. In this way, we will open up opportunities of joy and hope for our many brothers and sisters who are discouraged and who stand in need of understanding and tenderness.”

He then challenged the 120,000 or so people gathered in Rome for the canonisation ceremony to reflect on their own lives, saying, “Our task is to perceive the call of God and then to do his will. But in order to do this, we must ask ourselves what is God’s will in my life.”

Born Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in 1910 in Skopje, today’s capital of Macedonia, to ethnic Albanian parents during the era of the Ottoman Empire, she arrived in India in 1929 as a novice with the Loreto sisters and, after becoming the principle of an upmarket school, she requested permission to leave the congregation in the late 1940s to found the Missionaries of Charity.

While the controversies that followed her throughout her life are still alive 19 years after her death in 1997, she did inspire people the world over to travel to Kolkata and work as volunteers in her institutions.

The captain of the Australian cricket team, Steve Waugh, sought inspiration for his charitable foundation at the back of the chapel during morning Mass when his team was pitted against India in Kolkata.

He never spoke with her and only saw her from a distance, but went away with hope in his heart.

However, some left disappointed with the strictly limited parameters she placed on the service of her institutions. Medical people observed that simple life-saving measures were banned and to this day there has been speculation over loose financial controls.

Others note that her work was remedial and not transformative, as while it did challenge people to be generous, it did not challenge the unjust systems or cultural blinkers at the heart of the misery.

But these are not the criteria by which sanctity is judged.

Mother Teresa was not canonised for her expertise in social science, but because she was a woman of exceptional love, who cared, always stressing that the poor cannot wait, a strong witness in the midst of what Pope Francis describes as an age of globalised indifference.

To those who accused her of demanding conversion in return for care and treatment, she retorted, “Yes, I convert. I convert a Hindu into a good Hindu. A Muslim into a good Muslim, a Sikh into a good Sikh and a Christian into a good Christian.”

Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the Canadian director of the Mother Teresa Centre, describes her as being among the great mystics of the Church.

He told CNS that despite the dark night of the soul she experienced for over 50 years of her life, she was a woman passionately in love with Jesus.

“As a young woman she made a resolution to love him as he’d never been loved before, which is a daring thing to say if you are taking it seriously,” he reflected.

The director of Caritas in India, Father Frederick D’Souza, described her as redefining and comprehensively revitalising the meaning of the word service in terms of social work which, when she set out on her lonely road, was not much more than a vague memory in the Church of Kolkata.

She believed that the dignity of people entitled them to a better place to die than the mud of the street that the city had designated for many of its residents.

Father D’Souza said she gave the word service new meaning, one which involved the spirit of self-sacrifice and self-giving.

Her Hindu biographer, Navin Chawla, was taken by her effervescent joy and sense of humour, which he says served her well. “I cannot go with a gloomy face among those dying in pain,” she once told him.

Ironically, the woman of worldwide fame is barely known in her native Albania, because of a government that bans anything written about God. 

Visar Zhiti recently became the first person to write about her in Albanian. He said it is not right that people have no access to information about the nation’s most celebrated daughter.

But in today’s commercialised world, no one can go into the log book of saints without a logo and 44-year-old Karen Vaswani, a Mumbai-based designer and sometime jazz musician and vocalist, produced one depicting her holding a young child in her arms.

Although she says it is not exactly original, she insists that the motif and blue and gold decorative work is.

Commissioned by the archdiocese of Kolkata, it was chosen by the superior general of the Missionaries of Charity, Sister Mary Prema Pierick, and Father Kolodiejchuk.

Although St. Mother Teresa no longer walks on this earth, her spirit continues to inspire. She is the sometimes unwanted reminder to all of us that every time we bend to the needs of our brothers and sisters, we visit the Son of God.

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