I REMEMBER standing next to her at the Luneta Park in Manila when Pope John Paul II beatified Lorenzo Ruiz of Manila and his companions. I was a young college student then at San Carlos Seminary, contemplating becoming a priest.
She was a diminutive nun wearing a sari and sandals, exuding holiness, kindness, compassion, and simplicity. I read about her then: her love for the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India. I’ve seen pictures of her feeding the homeless and the sick, carrying malnourished babies, and traveling to the United States to tell Americans of many of their fellow citizens’ poverty—not in material things, but in love, joy and faith.
I already knew her then as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the founder of Missionaries of Charity, which serves the most destitute and vulnerable members of the society and is comprised of individuals who live in poverty themselves.
In Mother Teresa’s words, its mission was to care for “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout the society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.”
Today, I’m thrilled to realize that I already met a canonized saint in person. Even then people called her a “living saint” because of her heroic deeds of charity and radical life of poverty and holiness.
This Sunday, September 4, the whole Church rejoices in Mother Teresa’s canonization as a saint. Pope Francis will finally make her a saint only 19 years after her death, and after he recognized a second miracle attributed to her involving the healing of a Brazilian man with multiple brain tumors.
Mother Teresa revolutionized the world with her intense love for the poorest of the poor. Even non-Christians admired her and her religious order for their work in hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis; soup kitchens; orphanages and schools. Consequently, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1979.
She was unstoppable on her mission to reach out to the poor around the world. In 1982, she rescued 37 children who were trapped in a front line hospital in Beirut by brokering a temporary cease-fire between the Israeli army and Palestinian guerrillas. At that period she also expanded her efforts to Communist countries. She traveled to Europe to assist victims of earthquake and hunger. By 1996, she was running 517 missions in more than 100 countries.
Mother Teresa, however, would be the first one to renounce any worldly and ecclesiastical recognition. All her works belonged to God and the poor. As she said: “By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, A Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.”
Referring to the treasures of the Church, Mother Teresa would say that the poor are her riches. “They are our treasures. They are Jesus. Each one is Jesus distressing disguise,” she would tell everyone who visited her mission in Calcutta.
How appropriate it is to celebrate the canonization of Mother Teresa this Sunday when the Gospel talks about giving up everything to follow Christ.
“If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple,” Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Luke. Mother Teresa absolutely lived the words of Jesus until the end of his life.
Mother Teresa, however, never advised all people to leave their homes and families to serve the poor. For her, this is a special calling, “a calling within a call.” In fact, she told people that “love begins by taking care of the closest one—the ones at home.” She said that “the way to help heal the world is to start with your own family.”
As we celebrate Mother Teresa’s sainthood, let her words ring in our hearts: “Spread love everywhere you go: first of all in your own home. Give love to your children, to your wife or husband, to a next-door neighbor…Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile, kindness in your warm greeting!”
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From a Filipino immigrant family, Reverend Rodel G. Balagtas was ordained to the priesthood from St. John’s Seminary in 1991. He served as Associate Pastor at St. Augustine, Culver City (1991-1993); St. Martha, Valinda (1993-1999); and St. Joseph the Worker, Canoga Park (1999-2001). In 2001, he served as Administrator Pro Tem of St. John Neumann in Santa Maria, CA, until his appointment as pastor of ImmAaculate Heart of Mary, Los Angeles, in 2002, which lasted 12 years. His term as Associate Director of Pastoral Field Education at St. John’s Seminary began in July 2014.