Angels of Mercy
The canonization of Mother Teresa by Pope Francis brings to mind the shared life and vision of both these great persons as angels of mercy.
Writing in Time Magazine, Elizabeth Dias, brings out the close similarities between them. Both devoted themselves to the poor and drew attention to those whom society has cast to the margins—Teresa is known as a saint of the gutters and Francis as a pope of the slums. At their cores, they share a purpose in their public service and personal spirituality: to act as channels of God’s mercy.
It is impossible to think of Mother Teresa and Pope Francis without remembering their service to the suffering, especially the poor. From the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has sought to bring the poor to the world’s attention, fighting for their rights in halls of power from the U.S. Congress to the United Nations. Like Mother Teresa before him, he fights the “culture of waste” that favors production over human life. During a one-day visit to Mother Teresa’s homeland of Albania in September 2014, Pope Francis visited a center for disabled and needy children. And when he kissed the face of a disfigured man in Saint Peter’s Square, a photo of the moment captured the world’s imagination. His actions routinely call to mind the words of Mother Teresa: “I see God in every human being.” She added: “When I wash the leper’s wounds, I feel I am nursing the Lord himself. Is it not a beautiful experience?”
This shared mission of compassion for the suffering is deeply rooted in the saints who have shaped Pope Francis and Mother Teresa’s respective lives. They share a special devotion to Mother Teresa’s namesake, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux of the Little Flower, a 19th-century French nun known for her simple spirituality. Mother Teresa found in the Little Flower inspiration to do the ordinary with deep love, and both women spoke openly of their experience of finding faith in darkness, not just light. Pope Francis has also found inspiration in Saint Thérèse—whenever he has a concern, he once said, he turns to her in prayer, asking her for a rose as a sign of God’s presence and calling in his life. And in 2015, Pope Francis made Teresa’s parents the first married couple to be jointly named saints, writes Dias.
Just as Pope Francis is devoted to Mother Teresa’s namesake, Mother Teresa was devoted to his. Every day after she celebrated the sacrament of communion, she prayed a prayer attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century patron saint of the poor, who a pioneer for peaceful Christian-Muslim relations. In 1219, during the Fifth Crusade, Francis traveled through enemy territory to meet with Sultan Malik al-Kamil of Egypt, a nephew of the great warrior Saladin. Both of them met as equals seeking peace during a time of great strife.
The constitution of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity states a profound respect for all religions and notes that it does not impose Catholic faith on others even as its sisters reach out. Mother Teresa talked about how people of all religions belong to the same family. “There is only one God and He is God to all,” she wrote in her book A Simple Path. “I’ve always said that we should help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim become a better Muslim, a Catholic become a better Catholic.”
Here too the Pope is walking in Mother Teresa’s footsteps. Albania, the nation with which Mother Teresa identified by origin, is a majority Muslim nation. When Francis visited in 2014, he spoke of persecution not just of Christians but also of their Muslim brothers and sisters. Francis has washed the feet of Muslim migrants. He brought Syrian Muslim families back with him on his plane to Rome from a refugee camp in Greece. He even welcomed the influential Sunni religious authority Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb of Al-Azhar to the Vatican in May 2016, and the two discussed shared commitments to peace and to the rejection of violence and terrorism. “The meeting is the message!” Pope said.
In a global environment where fear often rules, these are more than gestures. Pope Francis is continuing the theology of encounter that was the core of Mother Teresa’s message, notes Dias.
It is a vision for the future that pushes the Catholic Church to its best. Pope Francis spoke early of his vision of the church as a “field hospital after battle,” to heal wounds and warm hearts toward God. “I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess,” Francis said in 2013. “The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the Good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel.”
For millions, Mother Teresa was that example, decades before Pope Francis captured the world’s attention. Hers was a mercy, like the Good Samaritan’s, that pushed boundaries.
Although their missions overlapped, Pope Francis and Mother Teresa met only briefly. In 1994, Mother Teresa was invited to audit a meeting of the bishops at the Vatican. She sat, Francis recalled later, right behind him during the sessions. “I admired her strength, the determinedness with which she spoke, never letting herself be fazed by the assembly of bishops. She said what she wanted to say,” Francis said. Then he added, joking: “If she had been my superior, I would have been scared!”
That commitment to mercy at all costs is a reminder of what Pope Francis wants for his church. Thus is Mother Teresa could be called the “Mother of Mercy,” Pope (=Papa, Father) Francis could be seen as “Father of Mercy.” The Jubilee year reminds us that God is the God of Mercy.
[Taken from Smart Companion, Sept 2016]