St. Teresa of Calcutta was a member of a religious community, Our Lady of Loreto, when Jesus called her to begin the “new work” that would give rise to the Missionaries of Charity.
Leaving the community was “the biggest sacrifice of my life,” she said later. “I suffered a lot when I left my family and my country to enter the convent when I was eighteen. But I suffered much more when I left the convent to begin the new work that Jesus had commanded me to do.
“I had received my spiritual formation from that community. I had become a sister and had consecrated myself to God. I loved the work I was doing at St. Mary’s High School in Calcutta. Leaving what had become my second family cost me tremendously.
“When the door of the convent closed behind me on August 16, 1948, and I found myself alone on the streets of Calcutta, I felt a deep sense of loss and almost fear that was difficult to overcome.”
The Feast of the Assumption. St. Teresa wanted her last day in the convent to be August 15, the Feast of the Assumption. It is a Catholic feast that celebrates one of the most amazing events in history: the bodily assumption of a human being, Mary, the mother of Jesus, into heaven.
According to Tradition and confirmed by faith, Our Lady did not die like other human beings at the end of her earthly existence. While she was sleeping, angels came to take her to heaven, where her body is now. Her body was glorified, a pledge of the resurrection of the body that Jesus promises to all. According to other traditions, Our Lady died like all human beings, and her assumption into heaven occurred immediately after her death. In either case, the mother of Jesus is there in that mysterious dimension that we cannot understand but that faith tells us is real: Our Lady is there, body and soul, like Jesus.
The Feast of the Assumption, which dates back in Christian Tradition from the seventh century, does not refer merely to a pious belief held for centuries but to a dogma of faith. In 1950 the assumption of Mary into heaven was declared a fundamental truth of the Catholic faith that all must believe in order to fully understand the reality of their lives. But even in 1948, all Catholics knew of its importance and profound significance.
St. Teresa, in particular, paid attention to this feast. In her meditations she often lingered over it to understand its meaning more fully. She especially liked to reflect on the fact that it contained very concrete truths about eternal life for the body as well as the soul. No human being was excluded. For St. Teresa, this feast highlighted specifically the ideals that she wanted to realize.
Even the innumerable human skeletons that were swarming around the slums of Calcutta would be resurrected one day. Bodies—decomposing, reeking, covered with sores, skeleton-like, ravaged by leprosy and a thousand other diseases—would enter the kingdom of God glorified and splendid and continue to live in the surpassing joy of well-being and happiness. St. Teresa was meditating on all of this and said to herself, “It is not a fable. It is a reality won by Christ.”
The Catholic Church teaches that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Through his passion and death, Jesus has redeemed human beings—their souls but also their bodies. St. Teresa was preparing to serve people whose bodies were often considered revolting, people who had nothing and were worth nothing in the eyes of the world. However, for a believer these people were still children of God. Jesus was hiding himself inside those ravaged bodies.
What St. Teresa was to begin was the greatest and most concrete testimony of love and faith that anyone could ever imagine. Her mission of helping and loving people rejected by society was a proclamation of the royal dignity of the human being that remains true even if a person’s body is diseased, deformed, or decaying. The body is always the temple of the Holy Spirit, redeemed by Christ and destined for resurrection.
This is adapted from Conversations with Mother Teresa, by Renzo Allegri. For more information about this and other books, please visit The Word Among Us Bookstore at www.wau.org/books.