On September 4th of this year, in this Holy Year of Mercy, Mother Theresa of Calcutta, the great founder of the Missionaries of Charity and herself an apostle of mercy, will be canonised a saint. When the Church canonises someone as a saint it is not the Church that makes the saint, it is simply recognising the holiness of the person’s life and their presence in heaven and the continuing heavenly help given by the person from heaven. To make this discernment the church might take centuries e.g it took almost 400 years to make that decision regarding St John Ogilvie (the Jesuit martyr put to death at Glasgow cross), but often the Church doesn’t have to dwell on it, it simply knows. The Church has known since the beginning of the holiness of Teresa of Calcutta’s life, has known of her great labours on behalf of the poor, has known that she had a charism which she shared with others in the founding of the order, they knew that she herself shared in a special way in the cross in her own life.
Mother Teresa was born and brought up in Macedonia and Albania. From an early age she expressed a desire to join a religious order especially with a connection to India. She joined the Loretto sisters, an Irish order, and went to Calcutta where she taught at a school, eventually becoming headmistress. She became very disturbed by the poverty that surrounded the school especially through famine which struck in 1943 bringing terrible suffering and the civil war that came in 1946. She left the order after receiving what she believed was another call, this time to serve the poor in a special way, the poorest of the poor. She took up residence and began to feed the poor and care for the sick. She was to be joined by 13 others who became sisters, at the time of her death the order had grown to 4500. She begged for food and medical supplies and began to take in the dying from the streets – her aim she said was to take the people from the streets where they were treated like animals and to allow them to be treated like angels. She said that in touching the bodies of the poor, cleaning their wounds and giving them comfort, it was like touching he body of Christ. The house of the dying was joined by a house for Lepers, a terrible wasting disease. This was in turn also joined by a house for lost children, homeless youths. The work was to grow: to places all round the world, wherever she could find the poorest of the poor. She identified alcoholics, Aids sufferers drug users, people living n the street anyone who was abandoned was seen as part of the work. She has homes in many countries and in the major cities of the world where poverty had many faces. She found herself in war zones, in countries with earthquakes and natural disasters, at Chernobyl. In the end she had 517 missions in 100 countries 450 centres around the world. She spoke eloquently of the poor and the poorest of the poor and for the poorest of the poor – she was their voice. She reminded the world that the poor where not only to be found on the streets of Calcutta but in our shiny prosperous cities in the west, in rich and comfortable families, in the lifestyles we had created – the poorest of the poor have many faces – hungry faces, lonely faces, sad faces desperate faces….
You can’t but be in awe of the love that possessed her to do this work, a radical love. To leave everything behind, the comfort of her convent and to have nothing, absolutely nothing, and to live as the poor amongst the poor. To share their destitution, their dependence on the charity of others, and to transform your life to become the servant of the poor, washing and cleaning the dying, caring for the broken, loving others whom no one else will love. You can’t help thinking this is putting the words of the Lord into practice: a new commandment I give you – love one another as I have loved you.
Today at Mass we hear again those words of the Lord, love one another as I have loved you. What is it when we hear them? Is it some sour moral command, a kind of slap in the hand to do better: you better love people better, you better learn to forgive, you better do more for others and not think about yourself, is it some vague command to make things better by loving people. Is it some sweet command: things would be better of we only love one another, why can’t we just love each, why do we need to hate each other, why can’t we just get on. No there is something more here.
To understand this passage you have to understand 3 things that it misses out, that are left out and should be part of it to make it clearer. One comes before it and the other comes after, the third is in the setting of the passage. This text is preceded by Judas’s betrayal, his leaving Jesus to do the deed, his taking of the money. This passage is then followed by Peter’s denial of Jesus 3 times. He didn’t know him, never saw him, never heard of him (hard to think of a greater denial). The words of Jesus then in this passage take on a different aspect: Jesus is the one who is able to love even when he is betrayed, even when he is denied. Even when those closest to him turn away from him and sell him for gold and say that they never ever knew him. Love one another as I have loved you. The third thing is that this passage comes in the context of the last supper where there is no mention of bread and wine only what the Eucharist leads to a self sacrificing love, a love that washes the feet of his disciples, that kneels before them and acts as a servant. It takes on the actions of the one designated as the lowliest in the house. The love that is spoken about for the disciples is a radical love. A love that doesn’t look for anything in return. A love that doesn't pour everything out rather than gathers everything in. A love that empties itself and gives everything away.
In Mother Teresa of Calcutta we see such a love. Not a love that is looking for anything in return. Not something that counts the cost of what it does. Not something that loves only because it receives love. This is a radical love just like Jesus speaks of that loves even when your are betrayed, denied and even when you become like the lowest you still love. It’s the very love which he showed in going to the cross and it’s the very love that we are called to imitate.
Love one another as I have loved you. Parents love your children. Children love your parents. Families love one another. Brothers and sisters love one another. Friends and enemies love one another. People who live in the same street, the same building, love one another. People who work with one another, love one another. Couples love one another. When you see a poor person in the street, on the tv, love one another. When your banks balance is full and others have nothing love one another. When there is someone who is sick or dying, love one another. Love one another is a call to a radical kind of love – love that walks the extra mile, turns the other cheek, offers you cloak to another. A radical love.
In Holy Year of Mercy we will have a new saint who was merciful and who will help us to be merciful. She will help us not to forget but to hold close always the words of the Lord to love one another as he has loved us. They are to be a beacon for us. The gold standard to which our Christian life is measured, counterfeit or true.