An undated image of Mother Teresa of Calcutta (CNS photo by Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)
Leo Maasburg is national director of the Pontifical Missionary Work in Austria.
For several years after his ordination in 1982 he accompanied Mother Teresa of
Calcutta on many journeys to destinations ranging from Moscow to New York. He
was interviewed in German for Catholic
in late August. The English edition of his book Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait
was released by Ignatius Press in September.
you to Mother Teresa of Calcutta? How did you become a collaborator in the
apostolate of her Missionaries of Charity?
Msgr. Maasburg: A Slovak bishop
who had been friends with Mother Teresa since the World Eucharistic Congress in
Bombay (now Mumbai) introduced me to the Blessed. During one of my first visits,
Mother Teresa wanted to know whether I owned an automobile and, since I did
have one, she immediately assigned me my first “job.” After she had become
better acquainted with me in this wayand I with her sistersshe asked me (at
that time still a newly ordained priest) to conduct a week of spiritual
exercises for her sisters. Astonished and terrified, I asked what I should talk
about. The answer came promptly: “About Jesus, of coursewhat else?”
What did you
learn about missionary work by visiting Mother Teresa’s communities in
Msgr. Maasburg: During the years
when I was privileged to accompany Blessed Teresa on many journeys, I was
studying missiology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. It was very
interesting to study theory in Rome, the center of the Church, and to
experience the practice more or less at the same time in a wide variety of
mission territories. I think that despite all the differences between the
theoretical and the practical approach, the goal was the same: to teach and to
show Jesus, who is love, to believe in him and to live out that love.
completely captivates me, now as then, is the close connection between the
presence of Christ in the Eucharist and his presence in his “distressing
disguise of the poorest of the poor,” as Mother Teresa used to say. Blessed
Teresa clearly showed her sisters and us helpers that the most fully developed
and most profound way to preach the Gospel is to love the poorest. Regardless
of religion, skin color, or ideology, love is the only preaching that is
understood worldwide by all people of good will.
something about your travels with Mother Teresa to the New World.
Msgr. Maasburg: Mother Teresa
did not begin founding houses for her sisters outside of India until 1965. She
recognized that besides material poverty there was a much deeper poverty that
is much more difficult to remedy, namely loneliness, abandonment, the apparent
uselessness of the lives of many older persons. Mother Teresa called these
people “throwaways of society,” and soon she and her sisters tried to devote
their time, their care, their attention and love to them in the New World, too,
and above all in the industrialized countries.
the New World, in New York for example, Mother Teresa founded in 1985 the first
house for terminally ill AIDS patients. Even she could not heal their bodies,
but she wanted to touch the minds and souls of these individuals with her
tactful and completely non-judgmental love. In each of them, too, Jesus was
present in his “distressing disguise of the poor.”
founded houses in the Soviet Union when the work of missionaries there was
still severely restricted by law. How did she and her sisters adapt their
apostolate in an officially atheistic nation?
Msgr. Maasburg: The first house
of her sisters that Mother Teresa opened in Moscow in 1988 could be called a
third step in recognizing a “distressing disguise.” Not knowing or being
allowed to know the faith, never to have heard or experienced the worldwide
proclamation of Jesus’ love, was for Mother Teresa the greatest poverty people
could live in. After all, they were all created “to love and to be loved.” Just
a few days later, on Christmas Day in 1988, Mother Teresa brought four sisters
to Armenia, which had been struck by a terrible earthquake. She asked me to
accompany her sisters so as to assure them of daily Mass and the spiritual
support that they urgently needed for their new task. This task had been
defined by Mother Teresa as “giving humble love and service.” We had been
assigned to a children’s hospital, which was severely overcrowded by the
earthquake victims. The service consisted of consoling the children, and the
parents and relatives if any were left, and also of constantly cleaning all the
toilets and floors. After a few months the sisters opened a little house of
their own in which they took in disabled children, victims of the earthquake,
who had no one left who could care for them. There they were “the poorest of
the work of the Missionaries of Charity in Austria today. Has the international
character of this congregation of consecrated women religious facilitated their
outreach to the many immigrants and refugees who have arrived in Austria in
Msgr. Maasburg: There is only
one house of the Missionaries of Charity in Austria, and that one is located in
a red-light district in Vienna. As everywhere, the sisters attend to the most
urgent needs that they find. In Vienna it is the immigrants, the elderly, and
the lonely who no longer have anyone to care for them.
the sisters speak languages that they learned on earlier assignments. The
Slavic languages are especially helpful, since to a large extent the immigrants
come from Eastern European countries.
language of the Missionaries of Charity that is understood best and everywhere,
though, is their friendliness and their cheerfulness, even in difficult
Teresa bring the Missionaries of Charity to any predominantly Muslim countries?
Msgr. Maasburg: Yes, there are
houses in many predominantly Muslim countries, for example in Egypt, Morocco,
Lebanon, and Yemen. In 1973 the MC sisters were invited to Yemen. “We can come
only if we have a priest who celebrates Mass for us daily, because without that
we cannot live,” was Mother Teresa’s answer. The government of that country, in
which there had been no priest for centuries, agreed. The sisters were allowed
to bring a priest with them. Years later a government official remarked, “The
presence of the sisters has kindled a light of love in our country.”
Were you asked
to testify in the cause for the beatification of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta?
What can you say from first-hand observation about her heroic practice of
Msgr. Maasburg: Yes, I was asked
to answer questions about the life and virtues of Mother Teresa, and so I could
contribute in a very small way toward capturing the image of this great saint
of our time for the future.
I always found so extraordinary about Blessed Teresa was that she was so
normal. She had no celebrity mannerisms whatsoever, nor did she demand any sorts
of privileges for herself. Between visits with presidents and kings she used to
work quite normally in whatever house she was staying in, whereby she usually
sought the lowliest jobs like cleaning toilets and lavatories.
the same time, though, she kept her goal in view at every moment: to spread
Jesus’ love as clearly and as far as she could. And for all her modesty and
“normality” there were at the time of her death 594 houses that she had
founded. She seldom spoke about foundations, however. Whenever there was a new
foundation, she would say, “We have given Jesus a new tabernacle.” It was
always her goal to make Jesus present: in the Eucharist and in her love for the
poorest of the poor.
my opinion, one absolutely heroic practice of love of neighbor was her
discipline in speaking. In the seven years during which I was often around her
and could discuss many matters with her, I never heard her say even one single
negative word about someone. “They were so good to us…” was an expression she
frequently used to nip in the bud any attempt to place blame or pass judgment.
She used to call negative language “talking darkness,” and she saw it as her
duty to reignite the light of hope right away by referring to some positive
aspect. Thus, for example, when someone asked, didn’t she see the corruption in
Calcutta?, she replied, “I know there is corruption, but I know also that there
is good, and I have chosen to see the good.”
trained lay volunteers to work with her sisters in serving the poorest of the
poor in Calcutta. Is mobilizing the laity an express purpose of the
Missionaries of Charity? What forms does this collaboration take in other parts
of the world?
Msgr. Maasburg: Thousands of
volunteer coworkers help in Mother Teresa’s houses to alleviate the suffering
of the poorest, not only through material assistance, but also by their
personal involvement. Young people from all nations and continents meet in
Calcutta and other houses of the sisters so as to spend a few weeks or months
of their free time meeting and serving Jesus in “the distressing disguise of
the poorest of the poor.”
over the world, people who are themselves seriously ill or disabledthe
so-called “Suffering Coworkers”pray and make sacrifices for the spiritual
healing and sanctification of the poorest. Like a plow, the foundations of
Mother Teresa prepare the ground for the poor and the sick, but also for the
“strong,” who by serving the poor discover that they themselves need God’s
Missionaries of Charity continued their rapid growth in membership since the
death of their founder in 1997?
Msgr. Maasburg: At the time of
Mother Teresa’s death there were 594 houses, or “tabernacles.” Today there are
more than 765 houses of the sisters. The number of active and contemplative
sisters has surpassed 5,000. Despite these statistics, the growth of the
Congregation may have slowed somewhat.
What are the
major opportunities and challenges today for the missionary work of the
Catholic Church in Austria?
Catholic Church in Austria is a wealthy Church, financially and culturally. I
think that the great challenge in a relativistic world is no more and no less
than fidelity to the Catholic faith that we profess in the Creed and can witness
to in our love for the poorest.