Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. — Romans 12: 13
Recently Pope Francis canonized arguably the world’s best-known contemporary religious figure, Mother Teresa, the “Saint of the Gutters.” Born in Macedonia in 1910, Agnes Bojaxhiu would come to symbolize hope for the masses, making Kolkata and the Missionaries of Charity synonymous with selfless love. Catering to the poor and forgotten, the sick and the dying, she embraced AIDS sufferers, prostitutes and orphans equally, reminding us what constitutes true charity.
When she died on Sept. 5, 1997, she left a hole in the world that will never be filled. Ironically, for all of the love and compassion we associate with Mother Teresa, those who knew her rarely describe her as a warm and fuzzy person. Everyone fortunate enough to have met her describe a passionate but ferocious individual, one who had little time for bureaucracy, niceties or diplomacy. She could dress down a bureaucrat, business tycoon, or a U.S. president without hesitation. A friend once told of a meeting where the world’s top CEOs pulled out their chequebooks after one of her presentations. “I don’t want your money,” she purportedly informed them, “I want you to go back to your community and make a difference.” And so they did.
Our own professor of religious studies and theology, and CWL chair for Catholic studies, Dr. Michael Duggan, was fortunate to meet Mother Teresa and, on one occasion, have an extended conversation with her. While doing his doctorate studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., he taught classes to Mother Teresa’s sisters at Gift of Peace, their home for the friends of Jesus who were elderly and homeless. It is no doubt one of the reasons Dr. Duggan remains so passionate about social justice issues here at St. Mary’s University in Calgary.
In his wonderful new book, The Idea of Canada: Letters to a Nation, Governor General David Johnston praises the passion and influence of Mother Teresa, especially her ability to encourage charity. Certainly her gift for generating financial support for her missions is legendary; but so too is her message of hope and love for the unwanted and forgotten. It is here that we see the true focus of her passion and commitment. As Johnston puts it, she reminds us that every effort we make, no matter how small, “can reshape someone’s life, if not the world.”
Mother Teresa insisted that we should find joy in giving. And she reminded us that even the least among us — indeed especially the most unfortunate — “is Jesus in disguise.” Perhaps my favourite quote from our new saint is this one: “I’m a little pencil in the hand of a writing God, who is sending a love letter to the world.” No postscript needed!
Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.