Becoming Mother Teresa's Collaborator

Author: ZENIT


Becoming Mother Teresa's Collaborator

Part 1Interview With Close Ally of the Calcutta Nun

By Irene Lagan

Today marks the 100th birthday of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, better known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Thirteen years after her death, Mother Teresa’s influence and voice — like her contemporary Pope John Paul II — continue to resound throughout the globe. 

Her life spanned a remarkable period of history. Born Aug. 26, 1910, in Skopje, Albania, Gonxha’s beginnings were obscure, likened in a recent special issue of Time Magazine, to Jesus’ inauspicious beginnings in Nazareth. 

By the time she died on Sept. 5, 1997, modernity’s greatest triumphs were dashed by wars, genocides, the rise and fall of totalitarian regimes, modernism and finally, the rise of the culture of death.

To mark the anniversary of the nun's birth, ZENIT spoke with one of Mother Teresa's close collaborators and allies, Jim Twoey. Twoey is a former White House correspondent and was recently the president of St. Vincent's, a small Catholic college in Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Mary, have recently relocated back to the Washington D.C. area.

Part 2 of this interview will be published Friday.

ZENIT: How did you first come to know Mother Teresa?

Twoey: I was working for U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield, who was a real advocate of strong refugee policy for the country. He sent me overseas to do some fieldwork in Thailand at the Cambodia border. At the time, I was a lukewarm Catholic and saw this figure of Mother Teresa who seemed to be living the Gospel, so I wanted to meet her. Senator Hatfield had a friendship with her, so I thought I’d try meet her in Calcutta with a letter of introduction on my way back from Thailand. 

The only problem was that I did not want to be around the poor, which is impossible in Calcutta. But I talked myself into it by deciding I’d go to Calcutta for one day, meet Mother, then go back to the U.S. through Hawaii and spend five days there. So that’s what I planned.

On Aug. 20, 1985, I walked into the motherhouse for their 5:30 A.M. Mass, and met Mother afterward. She was a delightful, tiny little woman with big, soft hands and incredible focus. It was the week she turned 75 years old, yet she bounded out to meet me with the energy and enthusiasm of a school girl.

After I met Mother, she asked, “Have you been to my home for the dying?” I said that I hadn’t, so she sent me over there to see Sister Luke. I thought I was going to get a tour, but Sister Luke thought I was there to volunteer. So when I introduced myself, Sr. Luke told me to “go clean that fellow in bed 46 who has scabies” and handed me the medicine and the cotton. I was too proud to admit to her that I did not want to touch the poor, and only wanted a tour of the house. So, I found myself cleaning the dying man, then feeding some other dying men.

While I was very happy to get out of Calcutta the next day, I was uncomfortable in Hawaii because the pineapples were healthier than the people I’d just left. And, the hotel’s lawn was being watered while I had just left these people that were fighting to find potable water. So, I was really plunged into this confusion that challenged my understanding of the world and my responsibilities to my brothers and sisters in places like Calcutta.

One of the immediate changes was that I began to work with the poor in the U.S. every Saturday. I did this for years. I was also among the first group of volunteers to work in the AIDS home and ultimately lived in that house. In fact, in the 1980s it was hard to find people to work with those suffering from AIDS, and it was a real joy to accompany so many men and women as they died. It was a real grace.

ZENIT: How did your relationship with Mother Teresa develop?

Twoey: I can only say it was the mercy of God that allowed me to have the relationship with her that I had. It was also just providence of God that I would be on the scene when they needed a lawyer to help with the opening of AIDS homes, with immigration issues and with protecting Mother’s name from those who wanted to fundraise with it. I was available and free; I was single; Mother trusted me, and so off that went. 

Then, I was two years full time with the Missionaries from 1989-90. During that time, I had the opportunity to travel some with Mother, to live in her AIDS home, and to live with her priests in Tijuana, Mexico, where Mother was opening four homes. It was a privilege to watch her and to observe her sanctity and loveliness.

ZENIT: What was it like for you to be in Mother Teresa’s presence?

Twoey: Being in Mother Teresa’s presence was a very stark judgment that she was everything that I was not. She was focused; she was prayerful; her life had such clear purpose. Even though I was a successful lawyer and legislative director of the chairman of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, and had more money and influence than I’d ever had in my life, it was empty. Meeting Mother made me realize that. So, at first I was reintroduced to Catholic practice, which I had lost interest in. I rediscovered praying, adoration, and most of all a beautiful rediscovery of the riches of the Eucharist. 

Really if you look at the Missionaries of Charity, their entire life is centered around the Eucharist. They receive the broken body of Christ in the Eucharist and then go and touch the broken body of Christ in the poor. Their entire prayer life is an effort to maintain that connection and consciousness.

ZENIT: Now it seems that the Missionaries in the U.S. are almost overrun with young people wanting to volunteer. What about Mother Teresa’s message is drawing so many people even today?

Twoey: What’s happened over time is that many young people are discovering that they’ve been sold a bill of goods by the culture. And they are in search of something that is authentic and true. And many have come to find authentic and true experiences working alongside the sisters caring for the sick and suffering.

One time I was driving Mother through one of the poorest areas of Washington D.C.. She was looking out the window and remarked, "It’s so hard to reach your poor here." I think she was recognizing that while the material poverty here is vastly different than that in India, the spiritual poverty is much worse. It’s the sense that so many people in America feel unloved, unwanted, unwelcome. It is hard to reach that. 

She often said in India we can give them a bowl of rice and they eat that day, and that addresses their hunger. But here, in America, the bread of friendship is harder for the poor to digest since they are so broken, so poor and so wounded. That is why that is the focus of so much of the Missionaries’ efforts in the U.S.. They are dealing with AIDS, and the homeless and unwed mothers, but they are really trying to rehabilitate individuals to help them see that they truly are children of God, and they are made to love and be loved. The Missionaries of Charity help them to restore their dignity by helping them know they are welcome in the world and needed in the world. I saw that over and over in the AIDS home and with the homeless: Each one would discover that he or she is a gift and not a burden.

ZENIT: What lasting lessons do you continue to draw on from your experience?

Twoey: With Mother it all began with prayer. So, for me, it first of all began with developing a prayer life. By the grace of God I need daily Mass to survive. I just try to imitate what Mother did. So, there is Mass, the rosary and adoration, along with spiritual reading. Once you have the prayer life, you try to open your eyes to see where the will of God is leading you and who you are engaged with.

For the past 15 years, my life is engaged with my family. My wife, Mary, and I have been engaged in the lives of our children, who for me, are the poorest of the poor. And we’ve gone as a family on mission trips to work with the poor. We’ve gone to Ecuador, Tijuana, and Mexico, as well as worked in soup kitchens and shelters here in America. You certainly want to have an ongoing relationship with the poor, and a recognition of our responsibility to them on both the material and spiritual levels of poverty. So, I’ve tried to follow where the Lord has led. And, he’s taken me to the White House as well as to academia. Now we are back in D.C. and happy to be back with the sisters. My 17-year-old son plays the piano for the sisters’ choir practice. It’s nice to see a second generation involved with the sisters.Part 2Interview With Close Ally of the Calcutta Nun

By Irene Lagan

As the world marked on Thursday the 100th anniversary of the birth of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, it was clear that her legacy is far from fading away.

Following her namesake, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whose doctrine of the “little way” provided direction to people daunted by the austerity of the great spiritual masters and made sanctity seem possible, Mother Teresa taught us how to love the seemingly unlovable, the poorest of the poor.
To mark the anniversary of the nun's birth, ZENIT spoke with one of Mother Teresa's close collaborators and allies, Jim Twoey. Twoey is a former White House correspondent and was recently the president of St. Vincent's, a small Catholic college in Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Mary, have recently relocated back to the Washington D.C. area.

Part 1 of this interview was published Thursday.

ZENIT: Do you think Mother Teresa’s life and work will have a lasting impact on society?
Twoey: I think she will have a greater influence in the 21st century than she had in the 20th century. As the age wave sweeps across America, and you see our elderly and disabled exiled to the margins of society, they will discover in Mother Teresa that she too knew the darkness and the desolation that they are living, and that she can be a guide in finding hope in what would otherwise be a hopeless situation.

Mother was asked once what the worst disease is: leprosy, or AIDS. She said it was neither, that loneliness was worse. That’s going to be the disease of the 21st century. In America alone there are some 78 million baby boomers. And, as that cohort, which did not have a lot of children, ages and retires, many will find themselves alone. Plus, they have been so heavily influenced by the culture of death. So, Mother’s pronouncements of the culture of life will be a source of hope and encouragement, along with her reminder that the poor are a gift to us and not a burden. We need them and they need us.

Also, she had the ability in her own life to find God when she could not feel his presence, and to seek him and love him. These are lasting examples that will heavily influence how people in the 21st century survive loneliness and poverty.

The revelation of her darkness and inner solitude — a surprise to all of us who knew her — will bear a lot of fruit in this next century. I think she will come to be seen as a mystic because of the experience she had with Christ early on in 1947, and having conversations with Christ. All of this is knowledge about Mother's life that is going to be very rich for years and years to come.
I remember what Mother said, "If Jesus puts you in the palace, be all for Jesus in the palace, and if he takes your life and cuts it up into 1,000 pieces, they are all his." There’s eternal wisdom in what she says.

ZENIT: Along with teaching us how to love the poor and those in our midst, Mother Teresa was a strong voice for the culture of life. What lasting impact will this aspect of her message have?

Twoey: I think her fearless witness of the sanctity of life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death has buttressed the conviction of many Church officials and politicians. I think they’ve received great consolation and courage from her words. For those who heard them [her teachings] and did not respond to the unmistakable truth of her words, it reminds you of the seed that was sown on the footpath: They had the opportunity and chose not to accept it.

I think her words will have the same lasting influence that you find in the writings of Augustine and Aquinas in their understanding of theology, or St. Francis De Sales on marriage and family life, and Blessed John Henry Newman on university life. She will join with Francis of Assisi and others regarding the poor and our obligation to the poor and the beauty and liberation of poverty in the consecrated life. 

But I think she will be a great influence to all those who have great interior aridity and dryness. And I think for those who met Mother and didn’t respond, it is like the parable of the rich man who went away sad because his possessions were many. She made an urgent appeal to them and they went away sad.

ZENIT: In working so closely with her, you never knew how much she was suffering interiorly?

Twoey: We had a gathering at St. Vincent’s College a few years ago with many of her closest companions. Her successor, Sister Nirmala was there, her niece Aggi, Sandi McMurtrie who traveled with her, and others. All said the same thing: None of them knew of her inner darkness. We all knew Mother lived a mortified life. Her body was in a state of disrepair: It was a race to see which would give out first, her heart or her lungs. She’d had heart attacks, malaria dozens of times; she was breaking bones year after year.

We knew her life was mortified and all of us assumed she was getting all the sweet consolations the saints get. And when we found out after her life the exact opposite was true — that after her conversations with Jesus in 1947 she was led into a desert she never left, it was a shocking revelation to all of us. It made us all rethink her life, and in the process, to love her even more. We realized that despite the darkness and emptiness inside, she was so cheerful, joyful, energetic. She really was given a share of the poor’s suffering because inside they often feel that same darkness and hopelessness. It characterizes the lives of so many poor today. We knew that her life was hard, but we had no idea that interiorly it was worse. I was in her hospital room in 1996. She had a tabernacle in the room and an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. There was no question where her faith was.

If you read "Come Be My Light" and her letters, it is remarkable that through the rest of her life, she learned how to befriend the darkness: how to seek and find and love Christ in the darkness.

ZENIT: What challenges do the Missionaries of Charity face now, and have they remained faithful to her vision?

Twoey: There’s been no change in the Missionaries’ fidelity to Mother’s vision. In fact, I’ve seen it deepen. These are women and men who knew Mother so closely and have such a personal attachment to her that it is for them a matter of obligation to carry forward the vision and the mission.

Over the years, the Missionaries have fed the poor, treated the sick and suffering, worked with the homeless. Their vow of wholehearted and free service means that they do this for free, and have never charged anyone, including the government, a cent. That’s why Mother was so adamant at the end of her life that the U.S. waive fees for visas. She felt it was an issue of justice. It didn’t happen in her lifetime but Congress passed the religious worker [legislation] after her death. The reality is that America has tremendous debt to Mother Teresa and to the Missionaries.  That doesn’t mean the order is not facing new challenges. For example, when Mother started the order many of the first sisters were girls she taught at the school as a Loreto sister. Now many of the nuns are sick and elderly, so the younger sisters are learning to care for the sick and elderly among them. Many of them can’t go out and do all the work they once did, so they become much more contemplative. That’s an example of an emerging challenge.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

ZENIT International News Agency
Via della Stazione di Ottavia, 95
00165 Rome, Italy

To subscribe
or email: with SUBSCRIBE in the "subject" field

Provided Courtesy of:
Eternal Word Television Network
5817 Old Leeds Road
Irondale, AL 35210


Terms of Use      Privacy Policy