Peter Espeut | Walking the talk
Last Sunday, Teresa of Calcutta was canonised a Saint (with a capital 'S') of the Catholic Church. Most of us, I hope, try to do what is right, and try to leave the world a better place than we found it. Many uncanonised saints (with a common 's') have inhabited Earth; but many of us lack the discipline to follow through on good intentions.
The Catholic Church declares a Saint only after rigorous enquiry into their life by someone who used to be called 'The Devil's Advocate'. Their task is to show why the person should not be considered a Saint. Except for martyrs whose blood was shed for Jesus, two miraculous cures attributable to the intercession of the person have to be medically certified.
A Saint is not a perfect person; St Augustine asserted that every Saint has a past (he should know!), and every sinner has a future. What is required is 'heroic virtue'. Several persons testified against her canonisation, including noted British anti-theist, Christopher Hitchens.
What is extra special for us is that our land, Jamaica, was blessed by the touch of the feet of this Saint of God who spent four days with us in 1986.
Born in Albania, as a young girl she was fascinated by stories of the lives of missionaries and their service in India, and by age 12 she had decided to enter the convent. In 1929 she went to Bengal, India, to begin her training. As a nun, she taught at the convent school in Calcutta and in 1944 was appointed headmistress. Although she enjoyed teaching, she was increasingly disturbed by the poverty surrounding her. In 1946 she experienced what she later described as "the call within the call". She was to leave the comforts of her convent school and live among the poor in the slums of Calcutta.
She began her work with the poor in 1948, tending to the needs of the destitute and starving. In 1949 she was joined by some of her former students from the convent school in Calcutta, and they laid the foundation of a new religious community whose mission was to care for "the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone".
What an inspiration this teacher was to her students, that they would follow her into a life of poverty!
Missionaries of Charity adhere to the normal religious vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, but they take a special fourth vow, to give "wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor". The Sisters live simply without television, radios or items of convenience. It is a rough life, but it is a life of great peace and joy in the Lord!
By 2007 the Missionaries
of Charity was numbered at approximately 5,000 sisters worldwide, in 600 foundations in 120 countries, including hospices for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, orphanages, and schools.
In 1982, Archbishop Carter wrote to Mother Teresa inviting Missionaries of Charity to come to Jamaica; in 1985, Mother Teresa sent four sisters who moved into premises at 59-61 Tower Street, which became their convent and a home for indigent old people. It was small, and was quickly filled up. They obtained food for themselves and those they served from Food For The Poor, but cash was hard to come by; they fell behind with their utility payments, and were in danger of disconnection. Somehow they managed.
On June 30, 1986, Mother Teresa arrived at the Norman Manley International Airport to visit her sisters. She stayed with them on Tower Street among the poor. She could see that the size of the building was limiting and asked that larger premises be identified. There was one good place a few doors away, but it was not available as the Government had earmarked it for another use. Undaunted, Mother asked to see it anyway.
She liked it, and that afternoon she penned a letter to Prime Minister Seaga asking him for use of the building, and offering him her prayers. To the surprise of everyone (except probably Mother Teresa) Seaga granted permission, and the Missionaries of Charity moved their operations to 73-75 Tower Street, where they are presently located.
Mother Teresa was invited to a banquet at King's House by Governor General Sir Florizel Glasspole; she attended, but did not eat, and asked if she could take home the food to give to the poor. This was the nature of the woman canonised last week, an example for Jamaica's young women and men to follow in her love for God and for his poor.
- Peter Espeut is a development scientist and a Roman Catholic deacon. Email firstname.lastname@example.org