Editor’s note: The following reflection concludes ‘Brian’s Reflections’ for our 40th-anniversary celebrations. It is the longest, but in Brian’s own words, “It is very close to me”.
Almost fifty years ago, I spent Christmas day with Mother Saint Teresa of Calcutta. It happened this way.
I had been sent by my religious community, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, to study in the United States. I opted to travel the long way round, via Indonesia, India, the Holy Land, Europe, Great Britain, and Ireland – what in those days was called an ‘around the world’ ticket. It was my very first time to visit anywhere outside of Australia. I chose to go to Calcutta because I wanted to witness first-hand what I had always imagined was the hell-hole of poverty in our world. I stayed in a Jesuit community, who were welcoming, but then went about their business. After four days wandering the streets of Calcutta, feeling overwhelmed and helpless, I was totally depressed. On Christmas Eve, somewhat in desperation, I asked some fellow at breakfast how could I meet Mother Teresa. With his directions, I found the convent – with a sign on the gate to tell all that Mother Teresa is OUT. I rang the bell anyway, introduced myself to the sister who opened and simply said that I had hoped to meet Mother Teresa. “Come in,” she replied.
She left me in a bare front room with a couple of chairs. In no time, this tiny, frail, faintly stooped older sister (well, older than me!) walked in, all smiling, with outstretched hands. I felt like hugging her! For a good twenty minutes, Mother Teresa quizzed me – my background, my ministry in Australia, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, what I was doing in Calcutta – finally asking where I was planning to say Christmas Mass. I had no plans. “Come back at 6 o’clock and we’ll say Mass at Premdan.”
“Premdan?” I asked.
“Premdan is one of our homes. The word means, ‘a gift of love’.”
I celebrated Christmas Eve Mass in 1975 on a makeshift altar, slightly raised for better view, in the middle of a large barn-like building populated by hundreds of crippled, maimed, dying Indian men and women, all on low stretcher-like beds, attended by a handful of Missionaries of Charity Sisters. It was a powerfully moving experience for me: Jesus was born again in that barn, and I witnessed it. In my emotional state, I was driven home by some fellow in an old Jeep, with Mother Teresa’s parting words to me: “Come back tomorrow.”
I did indeed go back on Christmas day to find the same Jeep driver waiting to take Mother Teresa and I on a round of visits to five or six ‘homes’ for the sick and dying people whom the sisters had picked up on the streets and in the slums of Calcutta. We sat together on the front seat of the jeep, Mother Teresa in the middle. We spent an hour or so in each home, old buildings, all of which had been donated by various groups in the city. We had ample time together in conversation as we travelled from home to home. As Mother Teresa moved around to greet everyone – I was touched by the personal attention she gave to each person – I walked by her side carrying a large clay pot on my hip, from which Mother took a round sweet treat to give to each person, one by one. Some accepted the gift in their hands, some on their tongue because they had no hands. All of them touched, sometimes kissed the feet of both Mother Teresa and me, as an expression of respect. These poor, otherwise deprived people accepted the gift with such reverence and gratitude, I commented to Mother later when we were in the Jeep, “It was as though they were receiving Holy Communion.”
She said, “Ah, another premdan.”
What a woman, Saint Teresa, and what gift she gave me.
I had no Christmas dinner that year, but 1975 remains the most memorable Christmas in all my years of celebration. Aware that I was due to leave India the following day, I tried thanking Mother Teresa that evening. I didn’t feel ready to leave, and I’m sure my words of gratitude were quite inadequate. When I asked how I could continue to be some support for her work, she said that the best thing I could do for her was to, “Go back home and care for your people in the same way.”