All over the world the Catholic nuns in their simple white saris with the blue border are instantly recognisable.
Most folk don’t know that they are Missionaries of Charity. To Catholic and non-Catholic alike they are known as ‘Mother Teresa’s nuns’, or ‘Sisters of Mother Teresa’.
These religious are distinguished from any other congregation or religious order in that they do not only vow Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. They make a fourth vow –
to give wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor.
I mentioned in an earlier blog post that, way back in 1982, I took Mother Teresa to visit the house that was proposed as a convent for her sisters. We had visited the local archbishop, Cardinal Gray, earlier. Then, along with a colleague of mine and with Mother’s Superior in Britain, Sr Marie-Celine, we set off armed with the address on a piece of paper to visit the converted council house.
The community of sisters who had been living there and were now moving away, lived a modest life-style and the house was furnished simply but comfortably. Mother Teresa wanted to visit every part of the house. As she went from room to room, she gave instructions to Sr Marie-Celine; “That (pointing to the sofa) must go. That (the tv) – out! This (pointing to the carpeting) lift it and get it out.”
You see, from the moment in 1946 that she had received what she called her ‘call within a call’, ie to leave her teaching post and her beloved Loreto congregation and found a new community, she was completely clear.
She wrote at the time to her spiritual director, a Belgian Jesuit living in India, that the sisters of this new congregation would “live among the poor” and “give free service to the poorest of the poor”.
And in the Rule or Constitutions for her new community she wrote; “The Sisters are to cling to perfect poverty – Poverty of the Cross – nothing but God.”
After our visit to that house in Scotland, as we drove across the country to get ready for the pro-life rally that Mother would address the next day and which I would chair, I quizzed Mother a bit. Wasn’t it a bit drastic throwing out the carpets? And surely it was ok for the Sisters to have a comfy chair or sofa?
“Oh no Jeemy [for that is how she pronounced my name!]. Perfect poverty is our protection. Our sisters must cling only to the Cross and thus they will always be free. And also,” she went on to explain, “the poor must NEVER feel uncomfortable in our houses. They must never feel out of place or ill at ease.”
And so it has continued. In every Missionaries of Charity house that I’ve visited there is that same simplicity and lack of material goods. People always notice that the sisters are constantly smiling, there is always the sound of laughter in their houses!
Mother herself had a good sense of humour. By force of habit and because I respected her so much I was addressing her as ‘Reverend Mother’. “No, no Jeemy,” she corrected me. “I am not reverend. I am just Mother.” I replied immediately, “Alright then Reverend Mother”. She was momentarily taken aback, wondering if I had understood what she had just told me. Then she realized that I was winding her up and burst into laughter!