The legacy of a saint is two-fold. First and foremost, a saint points us to God. A saint (who is nothing more than a sinner who refused to give up) shows us that holiness is possible in this hot mess of a world we live in. Second, a saint’s life illustrates for us that holiness does not exist only for cookie-cutter people, stamped out on some sort of heavenly assembly line. Every saint is holy in their own way, reflecting an aspect of God that is eternally unique.
As the world awaits the canonization of Mother Teresa this Sunday, we reflect on her legacy. One of the unique aspects of Mother Teresa’s life is that she was called to work in Kolkata, a city in India that teems with poverty, entrenched in rigid social standards. She founded an order of nuns from whom she demanded much, all based on a heart for serving the poor.
It is a mistake for us to look at any saint and say, “That’s what God wants me to do too!” God has a unique plan for each of us. While He does call women to become Missionaries of Charity, He does not call them to be replicas of Mother Teresa. Indeed, when she was approached, either in person or via mail, by people who wanted to come and work with or join her order, she often told them, “Find your own Kolkata.” That is, there are people in need of our help regardless of where we are, and we should start there.
That being said, there were and are many who volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity around the world. What is that experience like? Reporter Anna Capizzi tells of the volunteer life.
Renee Roden, a student from Notre Dame, said her two month stint began with a barrage of sights, sounds and smells that is the city of Kolkata. Other volunteers expressed this:
Navigating through the chaotic, dusty streets thronged with people, “poverty hits you in the face, right along with discomfort,” said Eloisa Greenwald, a missionary with Catholic Christian Outreach, who volunteered for three weeks in 2015.
Volunteers find it difficult to see so many families and individuals sleeping along the road and “even more difficult to understand the greater complexities of poverty” and not become “desensitized,” said Jenna Ahn, who spent two summers volunteering.
The volunteers begin their day the same way the Sisters do: rising at 6 a.m. for Mass, and then a simple breakfast before heading out into the city to work. Ahn’s day was spent like this:
The volunteers split into groups and travel to the different homes the sisters have throughout the city. Each home has its own apostolate, a specific purpose.
At Shanti Dan, the home for women and girls with disabilities, Ahn spent mornings with the girls “singing, dancing, mediating, working on nonverbal modes of communication, learning colors and numbers, watering plants in the garden.”
“Over two years, the girls at Shanti Dan taught me so much more about love and acceptance than I could ever repay,” said Ahn.
Other volunteers assist with manual labor. To do laundry by hand “hit me hard,” Greenwald said. “You’re getting right in the dirty of things — carrying buckets of water, wringing out loads.”
As one might imagine, the experience can be overwhelming for people accustomed to the rather pampered life of the developed world. Yet, Mother Teresa’s legacy is that we never forget those who live on the margins, in the shadows, those who cannot care for themselves, who are deemed “unworthy” by others. Mother Teresa (and by extension, the Sisters she founded) was tough and practical, plain and prayerful. She knew want God wanted of her: to care for Christ in His most distressing disguise amongst the poorest of the poor. This, if we act upon it, will be her saintly legacy.