Twenty-five years after her death in 1997, on September 5, 2022, Catholics honor St. Mother Teresa’s profound and lasting legacy in the Catholic Church. The best way to respect leaders – in this case, one of the most celebrated religious women leaders of the 20th century – is by carrying ahead their messages and deeds. As the saying goes, leaving a message only takes a few minutes, but the impact is everlasting. We are not sure how long it took Mother Teresa to write her last letter to the Missionaries of Charity, but the impact will indeed be everlasting. What matters is Mother wrote it; it was her last spiritual testament.
Spiritual testaments are not uncommon among religious leaders; St. Paul left his testament in the two pastoral letters/epistles addressed to Timothy and one to Titus, giving specific instructions to shepherds on how to maintain the apostolic faith; St. Francis of Assisi wrote The Testament to his brethren before his death in 1226, imploring them to observe what they had promised in The Rule. More recently, Pope St. John XXIII wrote his Spiritual Testament and Last Wishes in 1954, a few years before his death (1963), and St. John Paul II wrote his Last Will and Testament entitled Totus Tuus ego sum (I am completely in Your hands), which he started in 1979 and finished on March 17, 2000, five years before his death.
The case of the last spiritual testament of Mother Teresa might be slightly different in timing, but not in content. She wrote it on the day of her death, and like St. Francis of Assisi she implored her sisters to keep the society’s constitutions.
The last general letter of Mother Teresa to the Missionaries of Charity was written 25 years ago, on September 5, 1997, exactly on the day of her death, from the Missionaries of Charity Mother House in Kolkata. Mother had started her journey home, so she did not have time to sign the letter. Indian-born Sister Nirmala Joshi, who was elected to replace Mother Teresa as the superior general in March 1997, completed the September 5 letter with a hand-written note in English:
Dear Sisters, Brothers, Fathers, Lay M.C., Collaborators,
This is the last letter of our Mother who was ready for her signature. But Jesus came to take away our beloved Mother so suddenly, that it [the letter] remained unsigned. I am sending this to you with great love. This is our Mother’s last message to us, let us take it to our heart. With much love and prayer, your loving sister. Sister. Nirmala M.C. (signed) 1
Mother Teresa starts the letter in her usual motherly style, writing to her “dearest children,” a mother to her loyal children, a love letter of a mother addressing all branches of the Missionaries of Charity, followed by the greeting section wishing love, peace, and blessing on them. There is no “Thanksgiving” section, but she goes directly to the principles which she followed all her missionary life starting with Jesus – all for Jesus through Mary:
I know that Mother says often – “Be only all for Jesus through Mary” but that is because that is all what Mother wants for you, all Mother wants from you. If in your heart you are only all for Jesus through Mary, and if you do everything only all for Jesus through Mary, you will be a true Missionary of Charity.
This is one of the starting rules which permeates Mother’s Marian theology, which she borrowed (most probably) from St. Louis Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716), who expressed this spiritual devotion in True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin. For St. de Montfort, devotion to Mary was the most effective way of consecration to Jesus, giving oneself entirely to Mary in order to belong entirely to Jesus through her. (Part 2, Chapter 3, 121). For Mother Teresa, Mary was a gift, given by Jesus at the foot of the Cross to be Mother to all (Chapter Two, Constitutions of the Missionaries of Charity). Christ trusted Mary, and so do the Missionaries of Charity who trust her in imitation of Christ:
To love her as He loved her;
Be a cause of joy to her as He was;
Keep close to Her as He kept;
Share with her everything, even the Cross, as He did when she stood near the Cross on the Calvary. (Chapter two: Our Patroness, Constitutions of the Missionaries of Charity)
Mother Teresa reflects on the upcoming September 10, 1997, the 51st anniversary of the foundation of the Missionaries of Charity (September 10, 1946), when Mother Teresa, on the train ride from Kolkata to Darjeeling to attend her yearly spiritual retreat, listened to The Voice and experienced her extraordinary mystical encounter with Christ, which changed her life forever. September 10, 1946, marked the beginning of what she called the Call within a Call – the foundation of the Missionaries of Charity.
In her spiritual testament, Mother considers of the upcoming anniversary of the foundation as another beautiful chance of a renewal of the vows to stand by Mary in satiating Jesus’ Thirst:
It is only with Our Lady that we can hear Jesus cry, “I Thirst,” and it is only with Our Lady that we can thank God properly for giving this great gift to our Society… We will never come to the end of the gift that came to Mother for the Society on that day [September 10], and so we must never stop thanking for it. Let our gratitude be our strong resolution to quench the Thirst of Jesus by lives of real charity – love for Jesus in prayer, love for Jesus in our Sisters, love for Jesus in the poorest of the poor – nothing else.
The Voice had practically dictated the constitutions and the mission of the new religious order. How could Mother Teresa refuse what she had been asked to do? The Thirst she had for souls brought her from her native Skopje (now North Macedonia) to Kolkata — now she had been asked to go even farther and satiate the same thirst even deeper. Mother answer was a strong YES! Thus, Jesus’s “I thirst” became the call to action and affection of Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity.
The last paragraph of Mother’s Spiritual Testament focuses on what she refers to as the “gift” she is celebrating – St. Thérèse of Lisieux of Child Jesus, the Little Flower, in anticipation of St. Thérèse being declared Doctor of the Universal Church on October 19, 1997, by Pope John Paul II. She writes:
Can you imagine – for doing little things with great love the Church is making her a Doctor, like St. Augustine and the big St. Teresa [St. Teresa of Avila]!
Mother was closely connected to St. Thérèse of Lisieux in name and spirituality. Gonxhe (rosebud) was Mother’s Albanian name before she took her religious name: Sister Mary Teresa of the Child Jesus, after St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Spiritual intimacy with Mary was a lifelong commitment for St. Thérèse and Mother Teresa. In the spirit of the Missionaries of Charity, the influence of St. Thérèse of Lisieux is distinctive from total surrender to loving trust and cheerful obedience.
Like her namesake, Mother Teresa knew that it was in her nothingness and smallness that she met Jesus. Knowing her smallness was a not weakness for Mother; she considered it a great grace. In fact, self-knowledge boosted Mother’s confidence: having the strength for everything through him who empowers her (Philippians 4:13) was her lifelong motto. The “little way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux – doing ordinary things with extraordinary love, depending on God with childlike trust – is what made Thérèse and Teresa two of the most loved and followed women saints.
Mother Teresa concludes her Spiritual Testament on a joyful note:
So, let us keep very small and follow Little Flower’s way of trust and love and joy, and we will fulfil Mother’s promise to give saints to Mother Church.
Mother is referring to The Teresian Joy: joy in love, and the joy of loving, which is felt deep in the soul, springing from the love of Christ. And if one is in love, then one is full of joy.
Mother Teresa expected to give joyful saints to the Mother Church, as for her a Missionary of Charity must be a Missionary of Joy. By this sign would the world know they were MCs. A joyful sister is like the sunshine of God’s love, the hope of eternal happiness (Constitutions of Missionaries of Charity, Part 3, Chapter 4).
What can one get out of Mother Teresa’s Spiritual Testament?
To be all for Jesus through Mary; do little things with great love; keep very small, following the Little Flower’s Way of Trust, Love, and Joy. This message is a gift that we receive from St. Mother Teresa as we celebrate her life on the 25th anniversary of her entrance into eternal life.
1 Padre Angelo Scolozzi, Una Chiamata nella Chiamata, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2014, 273.
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Saint Mother Teresa – Pray for us.