Mother Teresa's Powerful Message
Interview With Missionary of Charity Father Joseph Langford
By Karna Swanson
If Mother Teresa of Calcutta could leave the world with one last message, she would most likely encourage all who would listen to embrace suffering, especially that of the poor, says Father Joseph Langford.
Father Langford is co-founder with Mother Teresa (1910-1997) of the priestly branch of the Missionaries of Charity, as well as the author of "Mother Teresa's Secret Fire" (Our Sunday Visitor), which reveals the inspiration behind Mother Teresa's work and the details of the call she received from God in 1946 to found the Missionaries of Charity.
As the world prepares to mark the 13th anniversary of Mother Teresa's death (Sept. 5), Father Langford reflects in this interview with ZENIT about what Mother Teresa meant to him personally, as well as the power of the message that the nun transmitted with her life of service to the poor and suffering.
ZENIT: There are thousands of missionaries around the world who work to help the poor and sick. What sets Mother Teresa's call, her mission, and her life apart from others who have given their entire lives to serve the poor?
Father Langford: This has been entirely God's doing; not ours, not hers. It has not been her qualities, nor even of her holiness, since many generous and holy missionaries have gone before her. Not in a thousand years, however, not since St. Francis of Assisi, has God sought to guide us through dark times by so universally raising up a saint — before the Church, the world, other religions, even nonbelievers, and before rich and poor alike.
There are elements of her own life, however, that do set her apart. She lived a tremendous love for God and neighbor, in darkness, for 50 years. Her apostolate — to work alone in the streets of Calcutta, as a religious, outside of her convent — was entirely new in the 1950s and 1960s. But this was entirely God's plan, in every detail. She only did what was asked of her by God. He directed her in all, even in what she was to wear. For his own greater purposes, some of which we might surmise, as with Francis, it has been God who set her on the world stage, and holds her there, as her stature only continues to grow.
ZENIT: For those who never met Mother, could you describe what it was like to talk to her, to be around her, to watch her?
Father Langford: To encounter Mother was to feel the warmth of God, the love, the acceptance of God. People felt God's presence around her … often to the point of tears. When you were with her, even in a crowd, there was an easy and instant intimacy, as though you were the only person in her world. You felt drawn to God, embraced and cherished by God, not unlike what people must have felt around Jesus.
ZENIT: When most people think of Mother Teresa, they think of the nun that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her humanitarian work. What do you think of when you remember her?
Father Langford: A mystic with her sleeves rolled up. But she was first of all a mother, always there for you, always ready to support you, ready to see the good in you, to overlook your faults, to encourage you. She never seemed to tire of hearing from you, or speaking with you.
She was someone who always reserved a special place in her heart for all those who came near to her. That is how she changed my life, without even trying, and set me on a completely different course; and joyfully, I never looked back.
She radiated both the presence of Our Lady, with whom she had a deep, unique, relationship — as I outline in my first book, "Mother Teresa: In the Shadow of Our Lady," (OSV Press) — as well as the presence of her Son, who had sent her to "be his light." She was a doorway into God's heart — from us to him, and from him to us — a pathway that was accessible and observable and inviting to all.
But what comes to mind most in remembering her is not her — but the One who sent her: What does God want to tell us in sending her, in raising her up — about himself, about the way he sees us, loves us? What could be so important for us to know about him that he would anoint the carrier of his message so abundantly, and so publicly? If Mother Teresa was, as she described herself, "a pencil in God's hand, to write his love letter to the world," my constant question was what was the content of that letter written on the pages of her life, if not that first revealed to her on her train ride to Darjeeling, Sept. 10, 1946?
ZENIT: You wrote in your book "Mother Teresa's Secret Fire" about Sept. 10, 1946, the day she would refer to as "Inspiration Day." Mother rarely spoke of that event, but she revealed more about it as she neared the end of her life. What happened on that day?
Father Langford: The grace of Sept. 10 was Mother Teresa's overwhelming encounter with the unimagined depth of God's love. This fire in the heart of God, pointed to throughout Scripture (Our God is a consuming fire), but often forgotten. This was the source of her magnetism, and of all the initiative and the good she did around the world.
She herself gave a name to the secret of Sept. 10: It was the mystery of God's infinite thirst for us. "The strong grace of Divine Light and Love … received on the train journey to Darjeeling on Sept. 10, 1946, is where the Missionaries of Charity [her world-wide work of charity] begins — in the depths of God's infinite longing to love and to be loved."
Speaking of all of us, but especially of the very poor, Jesus had lamented to Mother Teresa, "They don't know me, so they don't want me." In Jesus' plan, then, she was sent first to the thousands who are born, live, and draw their last breath on Calcutta's sidewalks. The poverty and pain of their surroundings — ordained by man, not by the Creator — and the indifference of those who pass them by every day, give no hint, leave no clue that they could be so loved by anyone, much less by the Supreme Being. God, in his wisdom, sent Mother Teresa to show them, in deeds more than words, the immensity of his tenderness and longing for them. And by witnessing Mother Teresa's service to the poorest, the rest of us as well come to understand God's tender longing, not just for the most disadvantaged, but for us all.
"Try to deepen your understanding of these two words, 'Thirst of God'" (cf. John 19:28). The symbol of divine thirst is simple and universal, spanning every time and culture; though it has lost much of its urgency and power in our first world where all is ready at hand to satisfy our needs. But stop and think. As a thirsty man longs for water, so God longs for us. As a thirsty man seeks out the water, so does God seek for us. As a thirsty man thinks only of water, so God's entire being is focused on us. As a thirsty man in the desert will give anything in exchange for water, so God has gladly given all he has, and all he is, in exchange for us. This is the divine symbol entrusted to Mother Teresa on Sept. 10 — so that in an age grown cold she might both remind us of God's yearning, and reawaken our own.
ZENIT: You were the one who Mother Teresa asked to tell others about the events of that day. What have you done to spread that message? What can others do to help in the task?
Father Langford: As soon as her Nobel Prize was announced, I began traveling with the BBC film, "Something Beautiful for God," showing it to audiences of all kinds. Soon, I discovered that people had difficulty connecting the poverty and the radical charity they saw on the screen with their own more comfortable Christian lives. And so I began giving a talk after each screening, explaining that every place was a Calcutta in miniature, and that Mother Teresa was called to carry her message not only to the slums of the Third World, but to the threshold of every hurting heart. That she had brought God's yearning for us to the doorsteps of the whole world.
I explained that there was no need to go to India, nor even across town. There were hidden "Calcuttas" all around them — in their own homes and families, in the blind man down the street, in the unforgiven aunt behind the walls of the retirement home. Nor was it necessary to send a check — to compensate for not serving in foreign lands. God had not sent us a check in our need, but his Son. He gave of himself, without measure — as any of us can, anytime, anywhere. There we are all called to be. There we are sent, as surely as was Mother Teresa. She would tell us to take some step, no matter how small, to serve those around us in their daily struggles. We need nothing special in the way of talent or resources; "we need only begin," as Mother Teresa would say — even in the smallest, most insignificant ways.
Mother's message is both word and deed. People need to understand why Mother Teresa did what she did, and in whose name. We have been trying to produce pamphlets and books to help lift the veil beyond this mystery of charity. In addition to the books, the Missionary of Charity Fathers have prepared a pamphlet with a guided meditation ("I Thirst for You") to help encounter the thirst of Christ for you, and understand its meaning on a deeper level. A high quality, four color version is also available for purchase from OSV Press. Readers can request the Missionary of Charity Fathers for any number of pamphlets to distribute in parishes, among friends and families, in nursing homes, hospitals, prisons, etc., and wherever God leads them and needs them.
Of course, the most direct way to share Mother Teresa's message, and carry God's presence into a barren world as she did, will always be to share even the smallest acts of love with Jesus in his crucified mystical body in the poor and suffering, for "Every work of love brings a person face to face with God."
ZENIT: If Mother Teresa could leave the world with one last message, what would that be?
Father Langford: Be the light of God's love to the world in its present darkness. People cannot resist love. Bring Jesus and his message ("I Thirst for You") to others. Be holy for the God who made you is holy.
Don't be afraid of suffering. Don't turn away from the suffering of the poor because Jesus is there. He is always with them and within them ("Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do it to me").
Don't let your own pain and suffering isolate you, rather let it become a bridge into the pain of others, and even into the pain of the One whose heart was pierced for you on Calvary.
Mother Teresa's message has never been more important, as we face our own personal Calcutta in the economic and political upheavals that face us. In the midst of global uncertainty, people are searching for something more — more lasting, more valuable, more fulfilling, for a greater security, a deeper purpose — for a way to not only survive but to contribute, as did Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta; in a word, to leave a legacy, the legacy of Christ's love alive in my life.
First published by TIJUANA, Mexico, 2 SEPT. 2010 (ZENIT)
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