On Sunday 4 September, Pope Francis canonised Mother Teresa of Calcutta in Rome. Fittingly for one who devoted her life to the works of mercy, her canonisation took place during this Jubilee Year of Mercy at a Mass in St Peter’s Square attended by huge crowds who cheered when Mother Teresa was declared a saint.
On 16 September, Cardinal Vincent celebrated a Mass in Westminster Cathedral, providing an opportunity in our own diocese to gather to give thanks for the life and witness of Mother Teresa. Sisters from the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order, were present in their distinctive habit.
Among the concelebrants was Canon Pat Browne, who had met Mother Teresa on several occasions and shared his memories of those encounters in his homily.
Accompanying her on a visit to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he recalled Mother’s discussion with Mrs Thatcher about people sleeping outdoors in the cold in ‘cardboard coffins’, a term which was first coined during that visit to London. Questioned by the reporters waiting outside No. 10 after the interview about who was responsible for the numbers of poor in our streets, Canon Pat explained: ‘What a scoop they'd have if she blamed Mrs Thatcher! But Mother replied simply; “Who is responsible? You and me.”’
Speaking of Mother’s warmth, Canon Pat said: ‘She had an innocence and a simplicity about her that cut through all the nonsense that is spoken.’
After her death, when it was discovered that Mother Teresa had felt discarded, abandoned and ignored by God, Canon Pat added, ‘we realised, all of us, she is one of us. The same doubts, the same struggles, the same emptiness at times.
‘But she did not waver or give up on her beloved. That is what made her a saint. Even though she couldn't always feel his love or his presence, she was faithful to him and acted as if she could.’
It is this faithfulness which testified to her sanctity and which we can all learn to emulate on our journey towards God, he explained.
After Mass there was an opportunity to venerate the relics of St Teresa.
The full text of the homily given by Canon Pat Browne:
What is a saint? It’s a question I’ve often asked myself.
As a child I found the ones I read about attractive. These heroes of our faith: David in the Old Testament confronting the giant Goliath; Peter in the New Testament losing his courage, finding it again through the patience and mercy Jesus showed him and leading the Church into the future; Ignatius of Loyola, the soldier who formed a new army for Christ, the Jesuits; Dominic Savio innocent and pure; Damien of Molokai who ministered to the lepers till he caught leprosy himself and died from it. I so admired them. I wanted to be like them. But they were all so perfect. Very far from my experience of myself.
But then I met a saint: Teresa of Calcutta. She came into my life on and off about five times over the space of many years. I got to know her. And she gave me hope for myself and my future. To be the saint God has called us all to be. You see I had made the mistake of thinking that the life of saints is always perfect. Yes they may have material and social struggles with the people among whom they live but inwardly they always got it right, felt close to God, had no doubts, and were at peace, or so I thought!
I first met Mother Teresa in Dublin when I was a seminarian and not again till the 1980s. In 1987 she came to London to find a house in the city centre from which she could reach out to the homeless and the poor. I was Cardinal Hume’s Private Secretary at the time. It was a Sunday evening. The Dalai Lama had been to visit that afternoon and now the Cardinal and I were settling down to a bit of supper on our laps in front of the television. The doorbell went and when I answered through the intercom a man’s voice said I have Mother Teresa here. She would like to see the Cardinal. ‘Oh yeah’, I thought. ‘Who is it this time’; and made my way down to the door.
But there she was. She told us why she was in London and invited the Cardinal and me to join her and her sisters the following night in a soup run in and around round Lincoln’s Inn Fields . We did. And as Mother and I walked a street at the back of the Savoy Hotel we came across a homeless man sitting on the ground propped against the hotel wall reading a book. He looked up as we approached. Looked at the book, then looked at Mother. He was reading Malcolm Muggeridge’s book, Something Beautiful for God, a book about Mother Teresa of Calcutta. His face was a joy to see. He thought he was seeing a vision.
The next morning one of Mother’s sisters rang saying Mother was going that evening to Downing Street to meet the Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, and would I go with her.
I never let Cardinal Hume live that one down. I was invited. He wasn't. I often reminded him of that day and we joked about it.
I was privileged to be the only one in the room with these two famous women. Mother Teresa had come to talk to the Prime Minister about the numbers sleeping in cardboard coffins round our city at the time, and about abortion. It was from that visit the phrase cardboard coffins for those sleeping outdoors in the cold was coined. On the issue of abortion I can still see Mother put her two hands together, look into the face of Mrs Thatcher and implore her: ‘If there are people here who do not want the babies, then give them to me. I have many people who would take them and raise them with love.’
As we came out of Downing Street the place was swarming with reporters right up to the door of number 10. They wanted to know who was responsible for the numbers of poor that were on our streets. What a scoop they'd have if she blamed Mrs Thatcher! But Mother replied simply; ‘Who is responsible? You and me.’
I subsequently visited Mother in Calcutta when she was ill and was invited to celebrate Mass with her and the community to give thanks that she felt well enough to return to work the following day
She asked me about my future. I told her I was starting as parish priest in Kentish Town when I got back to London. She promised me she would visit me there the next time she came to the UK. She kept her promise and came to Kentish Town in 1994.
I felt very close to her. She had an innocence and a simplicity about her that cut through all the nonsense that is spoken. Before we went to Downing Street that day we went to Parliament where some young Catholic MPs showed her round and explained to her the history and significance of Westminster Hall. She listened, looked round it and said: ‘What a wonderful soup kitchen this would make!’ She didn’t get it. She had to settle later for a house at Elephant and Castle!
She died in 1997 and the world mourned here. Why? Because she integrated people and brought them into each other’s lives. Did she need those hundreds of volunteers who came to help her in Calcutta? No. But she let them come so that they could share in the lives of the poor and thank the poor for the privilege of serving them. Her words, not mine.
Not long after she died, we learned a lot about her spiritual life.
This woman who, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah had been seduced by God and was madly in love with him, for a long time felt discarded, abandoned and ignored by him. She cried out in her prayers. ‘Where are you? Why do you cut me out? Why will you not let me feel your warmth, your closeness, the comfort of your presence?’ And we realised, all of us, she is one of us. The same doubts, the same struggles, the same emptiness at times.
But she did not waver or give up on her beloved. That is what made her a saint. Even though she couldn't always feel his love or his presence, she was faithful to him and acted as if she could. Hers was pure faith. She spoke from experience when she said ‘You are not called to be perfect, but to be faithful.’ She was.
St Paul might well have been speaking about Mother in her darkness when he wrote in his letter to the Romans ‘that by turning everything to their good God co-operates with all those who love him, with all those he has called according to his purpose. They are the ones he chose…and intended to become images of his Son…and with those he shared his glory.’ (Romans 8)
When we came out of Downing Street that day I remember a reporter saying to her: ‘How do you keep going, given the huge numbers of poor people in the world, there are so many?’
Her answer: ‘I just see one person at a time.’
We can all do this. We might not be able to change the world but we can all change someone's world by the love and respect we show them.
This is very similar to the Little Way that the other Teresa spoke about, Thérèse of Lisieux.
When we live like this, then we are like these two Teresas; maybe we’re not canonised, but we’re saints all the same or well on the way to becoming one.