Anjezë (Agnes) Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born in Albania in 1910. Growing up, she was fascinated by the stories of Catholic missionaries, and thought she very well might enter religious life herself. When she was 18, Agnes entered the Sisters of Loreto, taking the name Sister Teresa in honor of St. Therese of Lisieux.
Eventually, Sister Teresa ended up teaching at a convent school in Kolkata, India (formerly known as Calcutta), where she served for nearly 20 years. While she enjoyed the work, Teresa became increasingly troubled by the poverty, hunger, and violence that surrounded her in the city.
Traveling by train to a retreat on September 10, 1946, Teresa experienced what she would later refer to as “the call within the call.”
“I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order,” she said. “To fail would have been to break the faith.”
She shifted her ministry to begin working with the poorest of the poor in Kolkata, and started a new religious order called the Missionaries of Charity in 1950. Without knowing it, she had changed from Sister Teresa to Mother Teresa, and the rest is history: She built up a community of sisters that accompanies thousands of the most poor and vulnerable people around the world, extending the compassion and care of Jesus to those who are so often ignored or forgotten.
On Sunday, September 4, Pope Francis will canonize Mother Teresa at a ceremony at the Vatican, giving her yet another name change: Saint Teresa of Kolkata.
I love that image of a “call within a call.” Teresa’s religious vocation did not end, but its contours changed. I try to listen for those calls in my own life. My primary vocation is as husband and father, but how might God be calling me to live out those vocations more deeply and faithfully as an employee, neighbor, or friend? Do I have the trust that Teresa had to try something new that’s worthwhile but risky? Mother Teresa’s witness is compelling, but so very challenging.
At the annual Romero Lecture sponsored by Camden’s Romero Center Ministries a few years ago, social ministry expert and founder of JustFaith Ministries Jack Jezreel led the audience through a thought experiment. “If you can imagine Mother Teresa standing in front of the room, I picture most of us looking admiringly at her, applauding,” he said. “Meanwhile, we’re looking out of the corner of our eye for the exit, backing up slowly, so as not to be too noticeable – all the while applauding. We admire her, but we want no part of her.”
Mother Teresa’s ministry makes us uncomfortable, Jack said. She and her sisters worked with the desperately poor and dying. She did not a run a back-to-work program; there were no traditional success stories. To most of the world, how she spent her life makes no sense. Why would we want to be a part of that?
Some people, Jack said, are able to pass up society’s version of “the good life,” cross over the boundary and enter into the reality of Teresa, the experience of universal caring that embraces the needs of all. “If somehow we can cross the boundary and engage in the mystery of faith and love, what opens up is a whole new world, a whole new vocabulary, a whole new set of touchstones for life’s living,” he said. “Once people make it across that boundary for the first time or the second time, they do not want to go back to the old ways.”
A move might like this might seem overwhelming or just flat-out impossible. We’re busy with all sorts of obligations and activities. But sometimes, taking just a small step in the direction of compassion can provide the spark the Holy Spirit needs to transform us into disciples who are empowered to live as Mother Teresa lived.
On Saturday, September 10, you’re invited to take a small step together with Catholics from all over the diocese as we spend a day in service to the community to celebrate Mother Teresa’s canonization. We’ll gather for opening Mass in Collingswood and Atlantic City, and then head out to serve with community groups like Catholic Charities and local nursing homes, food banks, and shelters. Disciples of all ages are encouraged to attend; visit www.camdendiocese.org/motherteresa to learn more and to register.
The date of the service day just so happens to be the 70th anniversary of Mother Teresa’s hearing her “call within a call.” What a fantastic occasion to participate in her legacy of love in action. And who knows – maybe you’ll hear a call that day, too.
Questions about the event? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.