Mass to conclude the year commemorating the centenary of the birth of Blessed Mother Teresa
Knock Shrine, 28 August 2011
“the inviolability of the seal of confession is so fundamental to the very nature of the Sacrament that any proposal that undermines that inviolability is a challenge to the right of every Catholic to freedom of religion and conscience”
My dear Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, co-workers, members of the Order of Malta and fellow pilgrims,
This Mass today concludes the year of prayer commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. To the world she was perhaps better known as ‘Mother Teresa’, the smiling nun who gave her life to helping the poorest of the poor. To her fellow sisters and many co-workers of the Missionaries of Charity she was known simply and with great devotion as ‘Mother’. Today we give thanks for her heroic witness to Jesus in what she referred to as the distressing disguise of the poor. We give thanks for her tireless example of joyful service to others.
On the occasions that I met Mother Teresa, what always stood out for me was her awareness of the presence of God and her tireless joy in serving the Lord. She would say, ‘Let there be kindness in your face, in your eyes, in your smile, in the warmth of your greeting. Always have a cheerful smile. Don’t only give your care, but give your heart as well.’ A huge challenge I am sure you will agree, especially when faced with so much that could tempt us to lose heart and despair. Yet, even in the seemingly insurmountable challenges that confronted her, Mother Teresa always met those challenges head on, with great hope and a great smile.
Today we give thanks for those 4500 religious sisters, the Missionaries of Charity around the world who, inspired by the charism of Mother Teresa, continue to give cheerfully of their hearts and of their care. They do so to make the love of Jesus present to the poor and to those in need.
We give thanks for the contemplative brothers and sisters of her Order who support the Church’s mission of charity by their life of constant sacrifice and prayer. We thank God for the many lay co-workers and Missionary of Charity Fathers who continue to serve Christ in those people whom the world would rather have us ignore or simply forget.
I am sure that when she came to Rathfarnham in Dublin to join the Loreto Order in 1928, Mother Teresa could never have imagined she would become the founder of such a great work of service to the Gospel and love of Christ. Even when she experienced her famous ‘call within a call’ on the train journey to Darjeeling in 1946, her request to leave her Order for a life of service to the poor was not met with immediate universal approval. She had to wait two years before she would receive permission to test her ‘inspiration’ against the reality of life on the streets of Calcutta.
Of course, even then, the path ahead was not always clear or without pain. Mother Teresa wrote in her diaries that her first year of this new mission was fraught with difficulties. She had no income. She had to resort to begging for food and supplies. She experienced doubt, loneliness and the temptation to return to the relative security of convent life. She wrote in her diary: ‘Our Lord wants me to be a free nun covered with the poverty of the cross … Of free choice, my God, and out of love for you, I desire to remain and do whatever be your Holy will in my regard.’
The fact is, anyone who earnestly desires to follow Christ will, sooner or later, come to this same decisive moment in their life. For most of us, it confronts us many times, even many times in the same day! It is that moment when, with the full weight of our own free will, we are invited to first choose and then to trust in God’s will and logic when our own will and ‘logic’ is drawing us in a more comfortable, even a more reasonable direction.
This tension is played out in the Gospel passage we have just heard. Peter rejects the idea of a Christ who will suffer greatly and be put to death. For him, the cross represents failure and who wants to be part of a failure? It is worth remembering that Peter is also a strong man.
Trusting others, even a good man like Jesus, was never going to be easy. Yet that is what Jesus asks him to do. He asks him to set aside his human instinct for strength, for security, for certainty and logic and to accept the utter poverty of the cross. By rejecting suffering and death, Christ tells Peter that he is thinking, not as God thinks, he is thinking as human beings do. St Paul tells us all that we must put on the mind of the Lord.
‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Mt 16:24). It is interesting to note that Jesus does not say here that you must take up ‘my’ cross. Instead he says to each disciple that he must take up ‘his’ cross. There is always a temptation to imagine that we already know beforehand what our cross and time of testing will be. It is often much more difficult to recognise the cross Jesus intends for us personally and to accept it once we have recognised it. It is one thing to know about carrying our cross in the abstract; it is another to live it in the daily anguish of our deeply personal hopes and fears.
Each of you I know will have your own personal cross that you carry with you here today.
I hope that your pilgrimage to this Shrine of the Mother of our Lord, who stood at the foot of the Cross as her Son was dying, will give you some peace. I hope it gives strength to journey on with hope through the challenges that face you or your loved ones at this time. Be certain that as you do so, Jesus journeys at your side to help you carry your cross. The truth is that the cross comes to us all and turns our expectations about life and happiness upside down.
At the end of every solemn profession of a member of the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa would bless a cross and then give it to each Sister as she told her the destination of her first assignment. It was a poignant reminder to the new missionary that faith involves a surrender of our whole person to Jesus. Echoing the words of today’s Gospel – that whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Mt 16:25) – she would often explain it like this: ‘A sacrifice to be real must cost, must hurt, must empty us of ourselves. The fruit of silence is prayer, the fruit of prayer is faith, the fruit of faith is love, the fruit of love is service, the fruit of service is peace.’
Last week I had the joyful, uplifting experience of attending World Youth Day in Madrid. On the Friday, near two million young people gathered in the soaring heat along the Paseo de Recoleto for the Stations of the Cross. The prayers for the stations had been prepared by the Little Sisters of the Poor. Each station was dedicated to a different challenge faced by young people around the world. Young people from the Holy Land, Iraq, Spain, Albania, Rwanda and Burundi, Sudan, Haiti and Japan carried the WYD cross from station to station.
The cross was also carried by young unemployed; young people who have overcome drug addiction; and, those who care for people with HIV/AIDS. The whole experience was very moving. Many of the young people present had tears in their eyes as they reflected on the immensity of love shown by Jesus on the Cross for each one of us. All of this reminds us that in this world there are people who suffer injustice, persecution, harsh treatment; marginalisation; poverty, slavery and vexations. But they do not suffer on their own. To all of them Jesus says: ‘You are not alone’ because Jesus takes on their pain and walks at their side.
In a short reflection after the stations Pope Benedict XVI told the young people gathered, “You are open to the idea of sharing your lives with others. So be sure not to pass by on the other side of the road in the face of human suffering, for it is here that God expects you to give the best of yourself: your capacity for love and compassion.”
So many young people today are open to the idea of sharing their lives with others, of living the love spoken by the Cross.
Therefore, the challenge for the Church, for every parish and Diocese is to become a place where young people are supported in this desire to come to know Christ, and his love, personally. It is important that they are given the opportunity to share that love with others in a meaningful and life-giving way. Organisations such as the Order of Malta, which also has its pilgrimage here today, have a vital role to play in this regard, in light of Pope Benedict XVI’s call to young people to find new outlets for their love and compassion,
I commend all charitable Catholic organisations in Ireland such as the Order of Malta; the Society of St Vincent de Paul; The Legion of Mary; The Apostolic Workers; The Pioneer Association; the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, the Knights of Columbanus, which all make a particular effort to bring more and more young people into their ranks. It is also vital that Parish Priests and Parish Councils provide opportunities for young people to show leadership within their parish, to have opportunities to be heard and listened to, to express their ideas about how they can give expression to the love and compassion of Christ in the homes and streets and youth clubs and schools of their own parish.
At the end of the World Youth Day Mass, Pope Benedict stretched out his hands over the two million young people present. He had already told them that he was sending them out to the whole world to preach the Gospel. He then said to them, ‘Receive this cross as a sign of the love of Christ. Proclaim Christ, Christ crucified. He is the strength and the wisdom of God.’
Five young people from the five continents of the world then received a cross from the Holy Father, kissed it and put it around their neck. They were accepting, just as the young Agnes Bojaxhiu, or Mother Teresa, once had, the joy and the challenge of the cross of Christ.
The eighteen year old Agnes Bojaxhiu had left her homeland because she understood that in her faith, she possessed a gift so wonderful that she was simply driven to share it with others.
It is easy to imagine that the journey to become the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta we celebrate today was somehow extraordinary or privileged. It was not. She had exactly what each and every one of us has available to us today. She had the Scriptures. She had a particular love for reading the Scriptures. It was here that she came to know Christ intimately.
That is why I ask all families to have a Bible in their home, to display it in a prominent and respectful place, to read it together and to reverence the presence of Christ in their home through His Word.
Mother Teresa also had the Sacraments of the Church, especially the regular grace of confession and the Eucharist. These were the means by which she, an ordinary person in the eyes of the world, became such an extraordinary witness to Christian love across the world. They are the same means that are available to you and to me.
Important discussions are taking place about renewal in the Church in Ireland today. In the Second Reading, St Paul tells us not to conform ourselves to the standards of this world but to let God transform us inwardly by a complete change of mind. The renewal that is needed is God’s work. It is, first and foremost, renewal of mind and heart.
We are back, once again, to the question: Is the way we think, going to be God’s way or man’s way? Have we put on the mind of Jesus? I would imagine that if Blessed Teresa were asked she might suggest that we should all pray attentively and listen first to the Word of God and also to each other. For, if we first let God transform us inwardly – as St Paul recommends – by a complete change of mind – then we will be able to know the Will of God – what is good and pleasing and is perfect.
Listening to the Word of God – praying in response to that way – celebrating the Sacraments, all of these answer the call to become personally close to Jesus Christ. These are the fundamental building blocks for authentic renewal. The Scripture – prayer and the sacraments – are the privileged means for purification and renewal. The Gift of the Spirit at Pentecost ushered in a new era – an era in which Christ now acts in a new way.
He lives and acts through the Sacraments in His Church. He shares with us the fruits of His victory won for us on Calvary. That is why he rebuked Peter for suggesting that suffering and death were not for Him.
In the Word of God, Christ speaks to us. In the Eucharist, Christ nourishes us. In Confession, Christ forgives us. These are all sacred and treasured rites. Freedom to participate in worship and to enjoy the long established rites of the Church is so fundamental that any intrusion upon it is a challenge to very basis of a free society.
For example, the inviolability of the seal of confession is so fundamental to the very nature of the Sacrament that any proposal that undermines that inviolability is a challenge to the right of every Catholic to freedom of religion and conscience.
Last Sunday Pope Benedict reminded us in Madrid that
“The Church then is not a simple human institution like any other. Rather she is closely joined go God. Christ speaks of her as His Church – Christ cannot be separated from the Church any more than the head can be separated from the body”.
Today Jesus said to us in the Gospel: ‘If any of you want to come with me, you must forget yourself, carry your cross and follow me. Last Sunday, before two million young people gathered from the ends of the earth, the Vicar of Christ went on to say: “Following Jesus in faith means walking at his side in the communion of the Church. We cannot follow Jesus on our own”. He went on to say: “Anyone who would be tempted to do so ‘on his own; or to approach the life of faith with that kind of individualism so prevalent today will risk never truly encountering Jesus”.
Mother Teresa knew well that Jesus builds the Church on the rock of the faith of Peter – who confesses that Christ is God. That is why she did not hesitate to visit Pope John Paul II and ask his advice, share her plans with him and ask his blessing. When she presented Sister Nirmala to Pope John Paul as the Superior General of the Order and her successor, Mother Teresa said: “I am completely free now” to which the Pope replied: “You still remain the Foundress”.
Mother Teresa was born at the beginning of the bloodiest century in human history. It was a century notorious for its growing disregard to the sanctity of human life. It was the century of two World Wars, the Holocaust and other genocides as well as the mass killing of the innocent through abortion and euthanasia on an unprecedented scale.
In all of this Mother Teresa stood out as a fearless beacon of life and hope in the midst of the growing culture of death and despair. In an age which is giving up on the search for objective truth, the highest aspiration of the human spirit, how refreshing it was to hear her voice raised up to say that life is the most beautiful gift of God to humankind and that those nations that destroy life through abortion and euthanasia are, in fact, the poorest. The child in the womb is the most vulnerable of all, she would say. That is why the innocent child in the womb deserves our special protection and care.
Next June it will be Ireland’s privilege to host the 50th Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. The theme of the Congress is, “The Eucharist: Communion with Christ and with one another.” If she were alive and here today, I can well imagine how Mother Teresa would beg us all to do our utmost to prepare our hearts and minds for this great event. You see, early in life she discovered a profound truth: that the greatest evils in the world is loneliness.
She used to say, ‘There is so much suffering in the world but I still think that the greatest suffering is being lonely – feeling unloved – just having no-one. Of course there is a cure for this disease – it is called love. But sometimes there is a scarcity of love. Supplies run out. But fortunately, those supplies can be replenished in various ways.
Mother Teresa discovered one way that never failed. Her union with Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament, gave her frail little body not only the courage to proclaim Jesus crucified to the ends of the earth but that same union gave her the energy to reveal the face of Christ to the abandoned baby and to the dying leper and to millions of others as well. It was her communion with Christ that drove her out and drove her on to be in communion with so many others.
Today the spirit of Mother Teresa lives on in her beloved Missionaries of Charity and in their co-workers. That same Spirit lives on in each one of us also for it is the Spirit of the Risen Christ – for each one of us is called to be a missionary of charity – in our own way – in our own place – in our own time. And what a difference that would make.
That is the CALL and that is the CROSS – to love our enemies – to pray for those who persecute us.
To forgive those who are killing us – to go the extra mile to offer the other cheek.
What a difference that would make.