Msgr. 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 World Report in late August. The English edition of his book Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait, was released by Ignatius Press in September.
Who introduced 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 way—and I with her sisters—she 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 course—what else?”
What did you learn about missionary work by visiting Mother Teresa’s communities in India?
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.
What 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.
Tell us 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.
In 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.”
Mother Teresa 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 poor.”
Please describe 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 recent years?
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.
Often 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.
The language of the Missionaries of Charity that is understood best and everywhere, though, is their friendliness and their cheerfulness, even in difficult situations.
Did Mother 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 Christian virtues?
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.
What 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.
At 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.
In 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.”
Mother Teresa 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.”
All over the world, people who are themselves seriously ill or disabled—the 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 healing.
Have the 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?
Msgr. Maasburg: The 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.
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