Recently, a friend asked me which of the thousands of interviews I have done over the years had impacted me the most. That was an easy one to answer. It was with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the “Saint of the Gutters,” who died on Friday, September 5, 1997.
The memorable interview took place in 1975 after I had received a phone call at my London, England, newspaper office, asking if I would be free to fly to India to interview a lady called Mother Teresa at her headquarters in the Missionaries of Charity home in central Calcutta.
I had first become aware of Mother Teresa after viewing “Something Beautiful for God”, an inspiring BBC TV documentary made in 1970 by British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, who had gone to Calcutta to film her work. Having been an agnostic up until then, the experience turned his life around and he became a follower of Jesus Christ and was soon affectionately called “St. Mugg” by the British media.
Years later, Mr. Muggeridge did me the great honor of sending me a lovely letter thanking me for co-authoring a book called “Uganda Holocaust” (with Ray Barnett) which he said had really “moved and inspired” him.
But back to 1975: Mother Teresa’s words still live with me today and so, as we reflect on our present world of pain and suffering, I thought I would share with you my meeting with this extraordinary woman who was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (AG-nes GOHN-jah BOY-yah-jee-oo) in Skopje, Macedonia, on August 27, 1910. Her family was of Albanian descent. She certainly did a huge amount to alleviate the pain and suffering of her time.
At the age of twelve, she felt strongly the call of God. She knew she had to be a missionary to spread the love of Christ. At the age of eighteen she left her parental home in Skopje and joined the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish community of nuns with missions in India. After a few months’ training in Dublin she was sent to India, where on May 24, 1931, she took her initial vows as a nun.
From 1931 to 1948 Mother Teresa taught at St. Mary’s High School in Calcutta, but the suffering and poverty she glimpsed outside the convent walls made such a deep impression on her that in 1948 she received permission from her superiors to leave the convent school and devote herself to working among the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta.
Although she had no funds, she said that she depended on “Divine Providence”, and started an open-air school for slum children. Soon she was joined by voluntary helpers, and financial support was also forthcoming. This made it possible for her to extend the scope of her work.
On October 7, 1950, Mother Teresa received permission from the Holy See to start her own order, “The Missionaries of Charity”, whose primary task was to love and care for those persons nobody was prepared to look after. In 1965 the Society became an International Religious Family by a decree of Pope Paul VI.
A giant to the have-nots of life
Mother Teresa with some of her people
When Mother Teresa first came into the tiny room where we were to conduct the interview, I soon realized that that although she was small in stature — she stood only 4-foot-11-inches tall — she was a giant to the have-nots of life that she ministered to during her six decades on the subcontinent of India, as well as others around the world. Her friends were the starving, the dying, and the poor.
As a young reporter, I immediately warmed to this gentle woman who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, for she had seen more poverty than anyone I had ever met. Speaking in the founding, festering slum where she made her simple home, I was surprised to hear her express pity for the “poverty-stricken West.”
“The spiritual poverty of the Western World is much greater than the physical poverty of our people,” she told me, as the fan whirred above us, trying to alleviate the unbearable heat of that Indian city.
“You, in the West, have millions of people who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness. They feel unloved and unwanted. These people are not hungry in the physical sense, but they are in another way. They know they need something more than money, yet they don’t know what it is.
“What they are missing, really, is a living relationship with God.”
Mother Teresa with Princess Diana
Mother Teresa cited the case of a woman who died alone in her home in Australia. Her body lay for weeks before being found. The cats were actually eating her flesh when the body was discovered. “To me, any country which allows a thing like that to happen is the poorest. And people who allow that are committing pure murder. “Our poor people would never allow it.”
And the teeming millions of the poor of the Third World have a lesson to teach us in the affluent West, Mother Teresa declared.
“They can teach us contentment,” she said, her leathery face gently smiling. “That is something you don’t have much of in the West.
“I’ll give you an example of what happened to me recently. I went out with my sisters in Calcutta to seek out the sick and dying.
“We picked up about 40 people that day. One woman, covered in a dirty cloth, was very ill and I could see it. So I just held her thin hand and tried to comfort her. She smiled weakly at me and said, ‘Thank you.’ Then she died. She was more concerned to give to me than to receive from me. I put myself in her place and I thought what I would have done. I am sure I would have said, ‘I am dying, I am hungry, call a doctor, call a Father, call somebody.’ But what she did was so beautiful. I have never seen a smile like that. It was just perfect. It was just a heavenly gift. That woman was more concerned with me than I was with her.”
Mother Teresa, who had a wonderful way of making you feel you were the most important person in the world when you were talking to her, told me of another incident.
“I gave another poor woman living on the streets a bowl of rice,” said Mother Teresa. “The woman was obviously starving and she looked in wonder as I handed it to her. “She told me, ‘It is so long since I have eaten.’
“About one hour later, she died. But she did not say, ‘Why hasn’t God given me food to eat,’ and ‘why has my life been so bad?’
“The torture of hunger and pain just finished her, but she didn’t blame anybody for it. This is the greatness of our poor people.”
Mother Teresa added: “We owe a great debt of gratitude to those who are suffering so beautifully. They teach us so much.”
Mother Teresa being presented by Ronald Reagan the Congressional Gold Medal in 1997 as Nancy Reagan looks on
She also told of her battle against abortion in Calcutta. “We have sent word to clinics, hospitals and police stations, not to destroy babies, but to send them to us and we will give them to families who want them.
“At birth, we arrange for adoption also to foreign countries, as well as in India.”
And she had harsh words for abortionists. “Life is a God-given gift and who has the right to destroy life?” she said. “God’s life is in that human body.
“I believe abortion is a reason why there is so much trouble in the world today. People have ceased loving God, and they think they can do without Him.”
When I flushed as I asked Mother Teresa her age at that time, she told me: “There is no need to be embarrassed. I’m 64.”
She added with a twinkle in her eye: “I’m getting old now aren’t I? But it’s a wonderful thing to be able to spend all those years doing something beautiful for God.”
This incredible Catholic nun, revered for her tireless dedication to the world’s most wretched, died on Friday, September 5, 1997 surrounded by grieving sisters of her order. She was 87 and she left this earth having done many “beautiful things” for God. What an example she was to all of us and that was the one interview I will never forget!