What was it about St. Mother Teresa that gave her such broad appeal? Did she say something new about the Catholic faith, offer people some sort of entertainment, or appeal to them with her physical beauty? Anyone with even a superficial awareness of her life would know it was none of those things.
Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen vividly described the modern thirst for witnesses like Mother Teresa in his book, Remade for Happiness. He wrote, “When you see people crowding into theatres, charging cocktail bars, seeking new thrills in a spirit of restlessness, you would conclude that they have not yet found pleasure, otherwise they would not be looking for it.” One could easily add to this more modern distractions like texting, messaging friends on Snapchat, browsing Facebook, or watching the latest viral video.
The appeal of St. Mother Teresa to people of faith, and of no faith, was that she was a flesh and blood disciple of Jesus Christ. She helped restore meaning and a sense of purpose to both the volunteers who came to help her and to the sick and dying she served. In an age glutted with information but with few models for how to live, Mother Teresa showed people how to follow Christ. She fulfilled the truth of Blessed Paul VI’s teaching in Evangelii Nuntiandi (41), “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”
Her life, and the times we live in, present the clergy, catechists, and all lay Catholics with a particular challenge: to not just convey information but to transmit a way of life that connects people with the person of Jesus. We must realize that Jesus said, “Come follow me,” and not “Come listen to me.”
In some ways, we are in a similar situation to that of the early Church, when the Apostles and their successors focused on teaching people how to live, in addition to passing on the teachings of Christ. “The Didache,” the first-century document believed to be written by the twelve Apostles, provides a good example of this. Throughout its sixteen chapters one finds instructions to the Christian community on how to respond to those who persecute you, what behaviors are sinful, how to discipline children, how to pray after Communion, and how to offer hospitality to fellow Christians.
With our society awash in information, and families and relationships becoming more tenuous, Catholics must be present and ready to offer another way of living. In the words of Pope Francis, we must be willing and able to “accompany” those who are lost in a world that has rejected the existence of truth and God.
“Today more than ever,” the Holy Father writes in Evangelii Gaudium, “we need men and women who, on the basis of their experience of accompanying others, are familiar with processes which call for prudence, understanding, patience and docility to the Spirit, so that they can protect the sheep from wolves who would scatter the flock” (171).
The art of accompaniment begins with establishing a friendship that conveys to the person that they are loved and are made to love others. Without this foundation, the initial proclamation of the Gospel—that Jesus Christ loves them, died for them, rose from the dead, and desires a personal relationship with them—will likely fall on deaf ears. This is especially true for fallen away Catholics, who think they already know the faith and have rejected it.
However, forming missionary disciples cannot stop with authentic friendship and the kerygma. It must also answer questions like: “How do you pray? What is the meaning and purpose of sexuality? How do you live as a Christian in a secular society and workplace? How do you evangelize?” In the context of an authentic Christian friendship—much like the rabbi-disciple relationship of Christ’s time—these essential aspects of being a missionary disciple can be meaningfully addressed and received.
In this way, missionary disciples are able to respond to what Lumen Fidei calls the loss of the “sense of God’s tangible presence and activity in our world” (17) by testifying that they have encountered the love of God and that he has transformed their lives. To borrow from Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est, their meeting with Christ “gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (1).
As the Church looks to transmit the joy of knowing Jesus to others, forming them into missionary disciples, let us be attentive to the profound hunger of so many for an authentic way of life that only Christ can give.
Most Reverend Samuel J. Aquila is the Archbishop of Denver.
Art Credit: Public Domain image from Pixabay.com.
This article originally appeared on page 16 of the printed edition of this April-June 2017 issue.