ROME— Although it’s not always evident when one sees a picture of her, Mother Teresa was, at 5′ 0″, to say the least, physically diminutive.
Yet her legacy, including close to 5,000 religious sisters, homes for the poor, the disabled, and the elderly on every continent, an order of priests, innumerable volunteers, and hundreds of thousands of lives saved from charitable medical care, feeding the poor and abortions that were prevented, make her a moral and spiritual giant in the eyes of a broad swath of the world.
It’s only fitting, then, that the person tasked with the job of making the Catholic Church formally declare her a saint would be a man two heads taller than she was.
Father Brian Kolodiejchuk first met the soon-to-be-declared saint when he was 21, and he and his parents visited his sister, herself a member of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, in Rome.
While here, he saw the tiny nun pin a cross on a priest and six laymen, after which she told him she’d like to pin one on him too. Soon after that, Kolodiejchuk entered the Missionaries of Charity brothers and was eventually ordained a priest.
Technically called a “postulator,” this Canadian, who divides his time between Rome and a Missionaries of Charity house in Tijuana, Mexico, is the chief promoter of Mother Teresa’s sainthood cause.
Among other things, he’s the person behind 35,000 pages currently sitting in the Vatican archives recounting her life, her virtues and her reputation of holiness, all prepared as part of the cause.
This makes him the most qualified person to talk for instance about how famed Italian Saint Padre Pio delayed the Sept. 4 canonization for almost 13 years, about the five decades of spiritual darkness Blessed Teresa of Calcutta suffered through, and about her views regarding the role of women in the Church.
“For the most part, her actions were simple things all of us can do,” he said. “You don’t have to go to Calcutta to help the poor. Right where you are, you can find them.”
In terms of her attitude toward contested issues in the Church, Kolodiejchuk said the soon-to-be-saint was fairly “traditional,” neither romantic for the past nor looking ahead to a “Vatican III” and whatever new reforms it might bring.
Ahead of the Sept. 4 canonization of Mother Teresa, Crux spoke with him at the first house she established in Rome in what was back then one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and which remains today part of the “existential peripheries” of the city, as Kolodiejchuk called it.
What follows are excerpts from that conversation.
Crux: When Mother Teresa died, in 1997, Pope John Paul II lifted the mandatory five-year wait to allow for the canonization cause to begin right away. After a miracle was attributed to her intercession, she was declared “blessed” in 2003, which is 13 years ago. A second miracle was needed for her to be declared a saint. Why did it take so long?
Kolodiejchuk: When people would ask me “when will Mother Teresa be canonized?” I used to say, “when it’s a good moment for the Church.”
We had one case of a possible miracle, very soon after the beatification, in the United States, where a family started praying for the health of an unborn child, who had water in his brain. It would have been a good ‘pro-life miracle.’ The morning of the C-section, they did the tests, it all indicated he still had water in the brain, they were ready to take him into the incubator, but he was born normal, which doctors couldn’t explain.
And we were ready to present it as a miracle through the intercession of Mother Teresa, except that the mother-in-law, who was Italian, wrote me a letter saying “I’m so happy, I prayed for a year for the intercession of Padre Pio!”
Once that connection was gone, that case had to be dismissed. The miracle for Marcilio [a Brazilian man who, through the intercession of Mother Teresa, miraculously recovered from life-threatening brain abscesses] happened in 2008, and I didn’t hear about it until September 2013.
Why is this the right time for the Church?
Because it’s the Holy Year of Mercy.
As you saw in the book A Call to Mercy: Hearts to Love, Hands to Serve [which Kolodiejchuk edited] the works the Missionaries of Charity do are exactly the works of mercy, and Mother is a very good example for living them because she’s from our time, and she’s an example we can imitate because she did ordinary things.
There were some extraordinary ones, like stopping Hindus and Muslims fighting, saying, “Don’t you realize you’re brothers?” Yet for the most part, her actions were simple things all of us can do. You don’t have to go to Calcutta to help the poor. Right where you are, you can find them. Even in our own families.
[It’s no coincidence] that the country with more houses of the Missionaries of Charity after India is the United States.
In many cases, declaring a person a saint is a way for the Church to highlight the life of someone who could prove an inspirational witness. Yet it wasn’t necessary in this case, where everyone knows who she was. Does the “formality” of declaring her a saint change anything?
St. John Paul II and Mother Teresa are exceptional, in the sense that they had such a wide demonstration of holiness in their lifetimes and throughout the world. Normally it’s after a saint dies that people start to know who that person was. It used to be a slow process, but that’s one of the things the Second Vatican Council asked for [to speed things up], because a saint can prove especially inspirational for a certain period.
The process has changed a lot too. It used to be a lot more legalistic, almost a trial with arguments in favor and against someone’s sainthood. John Paul II wanted it to be more about the witnesses, and more scientific.
With Mother Teresa, we had to collect the documents and the testimony of the witnesses. We had got an exception [to the normal five-year waiting period] at the beginning, but the steps were all done, and even more so. For example, a typical cause will have an average of 50 witnesses, and we had 130. So we didn’t try to cut corners. It would have been pretty stupid. It was so recent, so fresh, we had a lot of people we could talk to. Their memories were fresh, [and] the documents in the archives were easy to access.
It was worth doing the process as thoroughly as we could, because now we have all this material, like 35,000 pages, with 17 volumes on witnesses. And they’ll be available for the general public in about 50 years, which is the average waiting time with most general archives.
You definitely didn’t cut any corners…
Well, no. You clearly can’t say: “So Inés, did Mother Teresa have a deep spiritual life?” and then you answer, “Yes.” That’s clearly not enough. For each virtue, you have questions to draw out the characteristics of that virtue.
Mother Teresa, as you said, lived sainthood in the “small things:” helping the poor, the infirm, fighting to prevent abortions. Yet it still seems way too hard to imitate her…
If you take it all together, it’s heroic. It’s quite extraordinary. Who would do so much, while going through those many years of darkness as she experienced? If she hadn’t been so humanly mature, she would have been crushed by that experience.
To create what she created, out of God’s will, but through 50 years of spiritual darkness…
That spiritual darkness is, for me, the single most heroic aspect of her life. Because we assume that it mustn’t have been easy to be Mother Teresa, she was always “on.” Even when traveling, at the airport, the personnel would ask her to sign something … She was always on.
So you’d assume that she was at least enjoying this consoling relationship with Jesus, who gives her energy and consolation. And then we find that it was quite the opposite.
She could have been tempted by the treasures of this world, with the first-class tickets she’d receive, magazine covers and everyone wanting a picture with her…
A “normal” person would say, “This is very attractive, I’m on the news, the cover of Time magazine, wow, this is great.” But she was very shy.
So why the darkness?
One of the secondary purposes of that darkness, I think, was to keep her humble. In one of the letters she writes: “All that acclaim and adulation doesn’t touch me, because I want Him, and I don’t have Him.”
Do you want to know how much she didn’t like taking those photos? For her, each one of them was a soul out of purgatory! A lot of people in heaven are probably happy all those pictures of her were taken.
Some people find in the flaws of the saints something to relate to. Did she have any?
Sure… She went to confession at least once a week! And they were sincere confessions. Think about it this way: when you have a little spat with your spouse, it has an impact on you that’s very different than that of having the same problem with someone you don’t know who you ran into in the street. The same things have a different meaning, depending on how close you are to them.
For a woman like Mother, so passionately in love with Jesus, those little things we think are not important, take on a different importance.
She had that private vow, where every year in retreat she used to offer something to Jesus. And she offered Jesus to “say yes to whatever you ask” or, put the other way around, “never to refuse you anything,” under pain of mortal sin.
Which means, if she deliberately, knowing it was God’s will, refused to do something, even if that matter is not great, for her it’d be a mortal sin.
She would have confessed sins of weakness, like losing her patience or her temper, but never deliberately, consciously that sin…because I don’t believe she ever said, “Yes, this is what God wants, and I refuse it.”
One of the sisters, at the end of her life, when Mother was living in Calcutta and under a lot of pain, went near her room and overheard Mother saying, “I have never refused you yet, and I’m not going to start now,” which is to say that she remained faithful to that vow of never consciously refusing to do something she believed God was asking her.
And sometimes, there would be really challenging decisions to make.
Did she have a temper?
Not so much a temper, but she could scold. (Though she had a soft spot for the men [in the order], so we didn’t suffer that!) She had a very supernatural vision of the priesthood, and was very aware of the human weakness in the priesthood, but she still had a supernatural vision of it, and very high expectations.
For instance, she’d be scandalized if a priest celebrated Mass but didn’t give a homily. Maybe some other priest would try to get away with it, but not us!
There’s a lot of discussion today about the role of women in the Church. What would you say was her vision for it?
In many of these things, Mother had a rather traditional view. I remember, because it was a big deal, that she once gave an interview to someone, and the journalist, perhaps on purpose, misinterpreted her putting in the headline: “[Mother Teresa says] Mary would have made a good priest.”
And she had said something like that: “Who would have been a better priest than Our Lady but, that’s not how Jesus wanted it.”
Yet it was twisted, and people were saying Mother Teresa is in favor of female ordination, and we had to clarify it.
So women’s ordination, no, her views were very traditional in that sense.
But she herself is perhaps the example of something St. John Paul II spoke of, the “feminine genius.” You have women like St. Therese, St. Catherine of Sienna, Edith Stein, all of whom had an influence that doesn’t depend on that ecclesiastical power.
What about women deacons?
Well, let me put it this way. If the Church were to say, women deacons are fine, she would have said, “The Church said it’s fine, then fine by me.”
It cuts both ways: she wouldn’t go beyond, nor look behind either. She wasn’t stuck in the past, nor anticipating Vatican III.