The head of the Missionaries of Charity congregation remains unwilling to compromise on its blue-stripped white-cotton sari, the trademark habit of the congregation prescribed by founder St. Teresa of Calcutta, in order to open a home in China.
“We have the green signal to open a house in China. But they are insisting that we should give up our habit. We cannot do that,” Sister Mary Joseph, superior general of the congregation, told the Register in an exclusive interview on Sept. 6 at the congregation’s motherhouse in Kolkata.
Sister Mary, who was elected in March as the fourth superior general to head the congregation with more than 5,000 nuns worldwide serving in 139 countries, said this when discussing Mother’s Teresa’s “dream” of entering China.
In a 1995 Register interview with this correspondent, Mother Teresa disclosed her desire for her congregation to enter China. “Yes, I went to Beijing, and we are going to open a house there by Easter,” she said.
Sister Mary explained the stumbling block to fulfilling Mother Teresa’s dream during an hour-long interview that discussed the circumstances of the Missionaries of Charity (MCs) the quarter-century since the death of their foundress on Sept. 5, 1997.
“We are deeply grateful to God for the blessings during the last 25 years since Mother died,” she said. “It has been a gospel of life carrying on the mandate Mother has entrusted us.”
When asked if the congregation felt dismayed about setbacks like the murders of four MC nuns and 12 others in the Missionaries of Charity home in Yemen in 2016 and their expulsion from Nicaragua, the 68-year-old nun said, “Challenges cannot stop us. We do not feel insecure. We trust in God and keep doing God’s work.”
Regarding the recent hostility from India’s Hindu nationalist BJP-government, trying to cut off the congregation’s funds, Sister Mary responded similarly: “We are not disappointed. Our sisters begin each day the same way Mother has taught us, beginning with daily Mass and adoration, and God takes care of us.”
Since the government tried to block the flow of funds to the MCs, she noted, “There has been tremendous support from the public, coming forward assuring us.” She also cited the support provided by Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of eastern Odisha state.
“Many people came asking, ‘Sister, how can we help you?’ Others brought different items without asking because they all love the work Mother started.”
Sister Mary, a native of Thrissur in southern Kerala state, is the first MC superior general from India. Sister Maria Nirmala Joshi, a Hindu convert from Nepal, was chosen as the first successor during Mother Teresa’s lifetime in 1997. The second superior general was Sister Mary Prema Pierick, hailing from Germany.
Speaking about overall developments in the congregation since Mother Teresa’s death, Sister Mary gave a comparative list of the Missionaries of Charity in 1997 and in 2022.
The figures look steadily progressive and impressive. The total number of Missionaries of Charity houses worldwide has gone up from 594 to 758, and the number of sisters has risen from 3,914 to 5,123 over the last 25 years, along with the congregation branching out to 139 countries from 126 in 1997.
However, Sister Mary noted that the period has witnessed a decline in the number of new entrants. “We are also feeling the effect of declining vocations all over, and it is reflected in the number of new members. We are not worried about the numbers,” she said.
The number of junior sisters, which stood at 1,051 in 1997, has fallen to 321 in 2022. Similarly, the number of novices has gone down to 105 from 441 and the number of postulants down to 66 from 281 in 1997.
By contrast, the contemplative wing to which Sister Nirmala belonged has made steady progress from 97 members in 1997, more than doubling to 201 in 2022, with the contemplative houses also going up from 17 to 25.
Focus on the Poor Continues
Sister Mary emphasized that the changing vocational numbers will not change the congregation’s apostolic focus.
“If we go for luxury, we will not be able to serve the poor. That is what Mother has taught us,” reiterated the MC superior general when asked if the congregation would relax some of its stringent, austere norms for the members.
“We must never lose touch with the life of the poor. Our lives must be close to the poor,” replied Sister Mary about why the congregation has not placed fans for the nuns and novices in the chapel, whereas the “pilgrims side” in the chapel has fans to help cool them in Kolkata’s hot and humid climate.
A “bookworm” in her school days, Sister Mary recalled that she had no intention of entering convent life herself. Contact with two exemplary nuns prompted her to serve as a volunteer at the Christina Home, a center for unwed mothers in Thrissur Archdiocese, for six months; and this in turn inspired her to join the Missionaries of Charity congregation in 1971 at the age of 17.
After spending six months at Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital, Sister Mary came to the motherhouse in Kolkata and was admitted by Mother Teresa to train with other novices at the Nirmal Hriday (Pure Heart) home for the dying, known as “Mother’s first love.”
At this center, next to the popular Kalighat Hindu temple, Sister Mary had a “close encounter of Mother’s love, care and energy for the dying.”
“The smell there was nauseating, and many had serious infection, with maggot-filled sores. But when seriously infected people were brought in, Mother would say: ‘Leave him for me'.”
After her initial training, Sister Mary was sent to the Philippines, Australia and Africa, and then to Poland, where she spent more than two decades — first as novice mistress and then as regional superior. In 2009, Sister Mary was elected as first councilor (assistant superior general), a post she held until 2015, and was elected the superior general by the congregation’s 2022 chapter, which was delayed by the COVID pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than three dozen Missionaries of Charity nuns worldwide.
“Many had expressed concern about ‘What will happen to the congregation when Mother died?’” Archbishop Thomas D’Souza of Kolkata told the Register.
“Providentially, God has taken care, and they are following truly what Mother laid down. Trusting in prayer and the Eucharist, they continue to encounter Jesus in the poor,” Archbishop D’Souza said.
“In the difficult times, they have trusted in the Lord. I spoke to Sister Mary Prema when they were facing problems from the [BJP] government,” he said. “She was cool. Even officers sent to raid MC homes have gone back with greater respect for the work they do.”
As for the declining vocations among the MCs, Archbishop D’Souza noted: “It is a global phenomenon and not specific to the Missionaries of Charity. They still continue with the simplicity and austerity that Mother laid down. Nothing has changed, and they have special place in the heart of the Church and the Lord.”
Added the archbishop, “The number of people visiting the tomb [of St. Teresa] speaks volumes about how the legacy continues to inspire people.”