The following interview with Father Brian Kolodiejchuck comes from a May 10 story on Actualidade Religiosa (Brazil).
Father Brian, superior general of the Missionaries of Charity fathers, is the postulator of Mother Teresa’s cause of canonization. For most of the time he worked on the cause, he was living in Tijuana, Baja California.
Mother Teresa will be canonized on September 4th, in Rome. Why not in Calcutta? Would it not have made more sense?
I understand why the bishops asked, and wanted, to have it in India, it would have been a big event for India, a shot in the arm, so to say, but I think the Holy Father chose Rome because now they went back to the older system where the beatification is in the local place and the canonization is in Rome, because canonization is presenting the person, in this case Mother Teresa, to the whole church.
So in that sense it is more appropriate to have it in Rome.
Did the current Indian government, which is Hindu nationalist, have anything to do with it?
I don’t think so. I saw the other day that there was a delegation of the bishops asking Prime-minister Modi to come and lead it, but I don’t know if that will happen.
There might have been practical difficulties of where to put such a big crowd, and security would have been a challenge.
As it is, I think the Holy Father and Archbishop Fisichella of the New Evangelization, wanted to have it in the Jubilee Year and as one of the major events of the Jubilee Year. Because thinking about her possible canonization, they put the Jubilee of the volunteers and workers of Mercy on that weekend because of Mother’s feast-day the next day. It wasn’t the other way around, they were assuming and hoping there would be the canonization and they made the jubilee of the workers and volunteers. So I think part of the event is that Mother will be, in a sense, the saint of the Jubilee and as the actual apostolate of the Missionaries of Charity are the works of mercy…
How close were you to mother Teresa?
I first met her in 1977 when I was a very young fellow and from there, at her invitation, I joined that first group of the Contemplative brothers and in 1983 I was at the beginning of what is now the Missionary of Charity Fathers. So during those 20 years I happened to be either in Rome or New York and then later in Tijuana, Mexico, so I would see her often. And having been one of the first I would be able to have a chance to see her, and talk to her.
Who asked you to become the postulator?
The postulator is named by the Missionaries of Charity, because he is the actor, the one who is presenting the person and so it was kind of a joint venture of the four branches. The active sisters, the active brothers, the contemplative brothers and the fathers…
Would it not have made more sense to have somebody who was perhaps not so close to her personally? Or was that something which made your work easier?
Actually, at the beginning, when I was doing the course… Because every year the congregation of saints offers a course, and at the beginning one of the sisters and I went and asked who could take on the cause, because I was young and inexperienced, then we went to the Jesuits, to father Molinari and father Gumpel, who are the main men in Rome for this, and they said that it should be one our own, because we were presenting somebody who lived a particular charism, so they said it should be somebody who shares in it, so they really understand.
My obligation was to present as best I can, as objectively as I can, but the actual process was not conducted by me. The diocesan inquiry in Calcutta was done by another episcopal delegate, notary and promoter of justice, and then in the Congregation itself I couldn’t even be in when the witnesses were speaking, because if I was sitting there they might think that since I was going to hear… So it was just the person and the tribunal so they would have maximum freedom to speak.
Mother Teresa had her critics. But it seems that these were mostly in the West. Did you ever see the poor she served criticize her or the work the Missionaries did?
Not among the poor, no. Most of the critics were famously Christopher Hitchens and some others. As we were preparing the official material to be presented, on the basis of which the judgement would be made, we watched the film Hitchens had made, Hell’s Angel, because I wanted to see what the criticism was. And we said there was really nothing there, as long as you know the facts.
So for example he shows Mother Teresa in Tirana, Albania, at Enver Hoxha’s tomb, and says she was honouring him. The fact is that she asked to go to the burial place of her mother and her sister. So that is where she thought she was going, but they took her there first. Then they wanted her to put a flower on his tomb, but she said no, so she stood there and after, when she met his wife, she said she had prayed for her husband. Then she realized what the situation was and asked if she could please go to her mother’s tomb.
A person from Albania, who was also involved in relating this story, said that everybody in Albania knew that was the protocol. So either the facts were twisted around, like that one, or his opinions came from a different perspective. Hitchens says he went to India and Mother was showing him around and he said that he really felt positively about the work until she took him to the children’s home and said that they fought abortion through adoption. So you might not agree, but then it is a matter of opinion.
There was some criticism of the fact that she received money from people who were perhaps not very recommendable. What do you make of that?
When she would know who the person was, then she would refuse. There were cases where she refused… One I think was from a discotheque or something… When she had a sense that it wasn’t well gained money she had the courage to refuse, even if it was a large amount.
One of the criticisms was that she had received money from Duvallier in Haiti, but she didn’t receive any money from Duvallier, the only thing that was given was one one cheque for 1000 dollars from Mrs. Duvallier, the wife. So that is another one which is said, and it’s not even true.
You mention that a dying man once said that all his life he had lived in the street like an animal, yet thanks to her he was dying like an angel… Does this story sum up her mission?
That is another one of the criticisms… Why don’t you have a big clinic? But her purpose was that these people were really the dying in the street and the aim of the sisters is immediate and effective help. Exceptions are for things like leprosy, they have leprosy colony and the people live there, work there… The Saris are made by the lepers near Calcutta, so her aim is what we can give today.
She knew very well that you need to change the structures and work for more social justice, and those things, but her vocation, or the Missionaries of Charity vocation is the needs of today, the person who needs to eat, or who needs shelter, in the present moment.
But this idea of giving dignity to those who were marginalized… Does that sum up her mission?
I don’t know if I’d say it sums it up completely, but that is certainly a very important part of it, human dignity. She would say my brother and my sister, and no matter what religion, no religion, colour… In this sense we are all children of God.
In Portugal we are currently in the middle of a debate about euthanasia, with proponents arguing that this is a necessary measure for people to be able to die with dignity. Few people are as close to misery, suffering and dying as the Missionaries of Charity, with that in mind, how do you respond?
I think Mother would say, as we say, from natural birth to natural death. And there is a way of dying with dignity which is not the easy solution, which would be to “pull the plug”, but it also involves the value of suffering and the Christian meaning of suffering, because that is another criticism that is made, as if she glorified suffering… Not at all! The whole work is to relieve suffering in whatever way, but at the same time I think she had that supernatural sense that if we give meaning to that suffering, then it has value. It doesn’t have value in itself, but from a Christian perspective, especially, it does have value and meaning if it is lived and offered with love.
This idea of giving a meaning to suffering is a language that we are used to as Christians, but she was not working in a Christian atmosphere… Most of the people she served were Hindus, probably some Muslims… Did they manage to relate and understand this aspect?
The work in the home for the dying is to relieve that suffering, and now things are better in Calcutta, so more than half of those who come into the home for the dying don’t die. And there are doctors that come so that immediate, basic, medical care is given. And if they get better then they move to another house the sisters have in Calcutta, or whatever they need to do. So the home for the dying still has the purpose of immediate help for somebody who really is dying or, more and more, the chance to get better.
But is this concept of giving meaning to suffering something they can understand?
I don’t think the sisters go around saying to all the patients to offer up their suffering. No, it’s the relief and helping them to die with dignity and at peace, so for example in New York, when they began work with the AIDS patients, at the beginning there was no hope of living too long… Now it’s different. But one of the important things they did was lots of reconciliation with families. One of the men, he wasn’t dying, he wasn’t dying, until his father came and they had reconciliation and then he was free, so to say, to die. So that is one of the things they do, to die peacefully and with dignity.
Mother Teresa worked in a heavily Hindu society, with a large Muslim minority and only a very small Christian minority. Also, she was an ethnic Albanian, a country which is majority Muslim. What was her stance on inter-religious dialogue?
Mother Teresa had a very great respect for other religions. There was no explicit aim to convert anyone and most of the co-workers, the helpers, in India, or certainly in Calcutta, were Hindus. There was one woman I know who used to go every morning to Kalighat, the home for the dying, for over 25 years. And she was, and is, Hindu. Mother Teresa would say: “It is not for me to convert”, so that her first reaction would be to say to those who were involved, “I hope you become a better Hindu, a better Muslim, a better Christian”. Some of her doctors were Hindus and she would never invite them to convert, it had to be something which came from the people. She’d say she couldn’t, God had to do that work in them.
Pope Francis has criticized aggressive proselitism. Could you say that she was a good example of what the Pope recommends nowadays?
Yes. That is what Pope Francis says now, but it was also what the Church was saying then. Service was given without any consideration of background, faith… It was my brother and my sister. From our perspective, we see Jesus in each person, but there was never a distinction made between those who were of one religion or another.
You have said that there was a special relationship between Mother Teresa and Fátima… Could you explain?
When she was a Loretto sister, in India, then especially in the 40s, there was a special emphasis in the church in general, among the Jesuits in Calcutta who were doing a lot of promotion. At the very beginning, as they began their work, they set up a little shrine to Our Lady of Fatima, and they would go on processions.
Our patroness is the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The daily rosary. In the visions Mother Teresa had (interiorly, in the imagination), Our Lady says “pray the rosary and all will be well”. So there is the rosary, also the sense of living and accepting sacrifices that come with our daily life. So there are many elements which are the same.
In 1947, when she was waiting for archbishop Perrier of Calcutta to give his OK for her to begin her work in Calcutta, in one of the letters she spoke of Our Lady of Fatima and said “we will do Her work in the slums”.
So it was very explicit that they would take the message of Our Lady of Fatima, at least amongst the Catholics in Calcutta, to promote that message.
You told a story about how she once placed an image of Our Lady facing the window on a train trip through Russia, saying that she needed to see outsider, since she hadn’t been there for a while… We associate many things to Mother Teresa, but a good sense of humour is not something that springs to mind…
Oh very much so! She had a very good sense of humour! She wasn’t a great joke teller, but she was able to tell funny stories and if you were in the mother house and there were 300 sisters – and they had recreation together from 8h30 to 9h00 – and so if you happened to be there you would hear all this laughing and giggling and it was really very joyful. Sometimes she would bend over in laughter, so maybe publicly she didn’t give that sense, but when you were one on one, or in a little group, she was very free and they used to enjoy these funny stories.
Mother Teresa’s “dark night of the soul” is something that many people have a difficult time relating to. In fact I remember that when the news broke, some media claimed she had been an atheist… How do you explain this phenomenon she suffered?
I think it was paradoxically experiencing her union with Jesus by not experiencing it. Or maybe better, living her union with Jesus without experiencing the consolation of that union.
She is a woman who is passionately in love with Jesus, for her Jesus is her spouse. Very explicitly, she said, she wants to love him as he has never been loved before. And then – probably women will understand this better than us men – but then to be passionately in love and then is seems that she is rejected, that Jesus is not loving her. It seems that she could not love as she would like to love, and so that is kind of the trial, and there is this aspect of being so united to Jesus that he can share with her his deepest suffering in the Garden of Olives and on the Cross, and his sense of abandonment – we are talking more at the feeling level, because at the same time she would say that she knew that she was united heart and mind – but even if you know it and believe it, that doesn’t make the experience any easier.
And then what is unique more to her is that, when she went out into the West of India, she discovered that the greater poverty is this poverty of being unloved, unwanted, and uncared for, which could be rich people, any class of people can suffer this. And she was living that same sense of being unloved, unwanted… So we live poorly and simply so as to be identified with the materially poor, and now we discover that she was living that spiritual poverty, again, identified with all those who didn’t….
Especially in the last years, whenever she would travel, even in Calcutta, people would be coming every day and in the mother house there is a chapel and a balcony which goes into the offices, that is where she would meet people, one of our priests called it the balcony apostolate.
People would come from wherever they were, from India, or outside, and tell her their stories… There must have been some horror stories… And so she would have been able to relate to those difficulties, because she wasn’t up in the mystical clouds, experiencing this great consolation, on the contrary, so she had that real sense of being identified with those who were suffering spiritually as well.
You quote mother Teresa as saying that she wanted to love Jesus like he had never been loved before. Considering Jesus is first loved by God, as part of a Trinity of love, one could almost say this was blasphemous…
Well, it was something she had heard from Saint Therese, who had the same desire, but it was a way of saying that she really wanted to love Jesus that much, more than Saint Francis of Assisi, John of the Cross, the big saints… To take that really seriously was quite daring. But humanly speaking, she had a strong character… One of the priests I know, who was a psychologist as well, said that the purification, especially before she experienced the union, was so difficult because there was a lot to purify, because she had a strong character.
Would you like to see her become Patron Saint of something? Any idea?
Oh, that’s a good question!
One of the things she was known for, even in life, was for those couples who had difficulty conceiving. So even while she was alive people would come and ask her to pray because they were having difficulty having a child, and she would take a miraculous medal – she liked giving miraculous medals to everyone – she would kiss it and say simply, here is the prayer “Mary mother of Jesus, give us a child”. And sometimes she would even say “You will have a child”. And then, almost always, one year later, people would come back and show her the children.
Maybe another one would be travellers, maybe with John Paul II too, they were both big travellers, but she put on many miles every year. So there are those two at least.
Both of those are examples I associate very much to John Paul II as well. There was a very close bond between them, wasn’t there?
You can see in some of the pictures when she went to visit John Paul II, and they are very human, very tender. He was taller and she was quite short, so he might be kissing her forehead, and she had her hands clasped, because in her own culture, in India, men and women don’t touch in public. So normally, at the very end, she might let us men give her a little embrace, but otherwise if people tried, naturally for another culture, she would back away and give the Indian greeting, “Namaste”, with her hands clasped.
This because she was so well integrated into the Indian culture, or was it part of her Albanian culture as well?
It was amazing how well she understood the Indian culture. One of our priests, who was actually from Canada, he was the superior of our house in Calcutta in those last years, and that was something he explained, that she had a real grasp of the culture.
We are currently in the year of Mercy, of which confession is a central aspect. How important was confession to Mother Teresa?
Very much so! She and we, and the sisters also, have the practice of going once a week. So in the first years she had more of a spiritual director, whom she saw regularly, usually the confessor of the Mother House. But when she travelled she would just go to the regular… They used to have Thursday as their day in, as they’d call it, and so the priest would come at Holy Hour and hear confessions, and she would just take her turn.
She liked to say that we go into the confessional sinners with sin, and we come out sinners without sin.
It was very important to her, and that was one of the reasons she wanted the fathers to begin, because she wanted that priestly aspect which the sisters and brothers couldn’t give them. One is the mass, the other is confession.
This vision Pope Francis has for the Church as a field hospital seems to be so much in line with Mother Teresa’s mission…
Oh yes! Very much so.
What do you think she would have made of his papacy?
Oh I think she would have loved to see this emphasis on the poor, on the peripheries, because in a sense that is where the Missionaries of Charity already are, with the poorest of the poor, and that is one of the effects of the work, even in India – and the World, she would also say – but also in India, is a greater sense of the poor, and she would accept awards only in the name of the poor. She would go and have a chance to speak because this was a way of drawing attention to the poor. So I think she would be very much in line with, and very pleased with, this emphasis on being attentive to and going out towards the poor.
Of all the things you experienced with Mother Teresa, some surely are very personal, but of those you can share, which one struck you most?
There are a couple maybe… My sister is a Missionary of Charity sister and after her final vows she was sent to Poland to be the novice mistress and just a few years later they found melanoma cancer on her skin, in a few places.
Her superior brought her to Rome, where they examined her, and mother was there as well. And at that time I was in with the fathers in New York, and she knew my parents, and there were only the two of us siblings, so she knew she had both of their children, and I think out of consideration for my parents, especially, that she decided that she would take my sister from Rome, change her whole schedule, because going to New York was not part of the plan, and so she changed and came from Rome to New York. Typical of her, if it could be done now it will be done now.
So we picked her up at the airport and went straight to the doctor and one of our postulants who used to work at the hospital there, at one of the major hospitals in New York, and so we arrived and mother met this doctor and said to him: “I have a gift for you. That you make my sister alright”.
So she turned it around, that her gift was that he had a chance to do some good work and please make her sister all right.
Another story is a time we were in San Diego and mother had to go to a clinic and she saw one of the doctors there. And she visited the doctor, who asked her to go and see some of her patients. And she needed to eat, because of the medication she was taking. But the sisters knew that if they told her that she had to stop and eat she wouldn’t have done it. But our superior was also on medication so the sisters said that Father Joseph needs to eat.
So we stopped at a Carl’s Junior, which is like a McDonalds or Burger King type of thing. I was the driver and mother was in the front seat. I and another lay woman went into the store to make the order. I was wearing my clerical collar, and many people in San Diego are Mexican or Mexican American in San Diego, you can live in San Diego and not even speak any English if you wanted too.
So he asked where we were coming from, and we said Tijuana and that I was a priest in Mother Teresa’s order, and he said “Oh, Mother Teresa!”, and I was just thinking, if we had just told him, “By the way, this order is for Mother Teresa, who happens to be in the car over there…”
So we got the food and brought it back and distributed it. And Mother was eating her hamburger and French fries and I guess it was too much, so she asked if anybody wanted more French fries… It was just completely normal… And I was thinking how many people would love to have a chance just to see Mother Teresa and here we are having a hamburger and French fries!
And did your sister get well?
Yes she did. She is cancer free.
It can’t have been easy for your parents…
No. Mother used to say sometimes that we, the children, make our parents make the sacrifice. It’s our call, we respond, but no, it’s not easy, especially in this case, because there are no other children, so there are no grand-children.
No! Thankfully they were very happy. They always told us to do what we wanted to do, and even though it did involve sacrifice for them, they were very happy. Until they couldn’t anymore they would visit us once a year. We couldn’t go home very often, but they came.