Sunday, September 4, 2016

On a Mission

A beautiful prayer by the Church's newest Saint:
O God, 
we believe you are here.
We adore you and love you with our whole heart and soul
because you are most worthy of all our love.
We desire to love you as the blessed do in heaven.
Flood our souls with your spirit and life.
Penetrate and possess our whole being utterly,
that our lives may only be a radiance of yours.
Shine through us, and be so in us,
that every soul we come in contact with
may feel your presence in our soul.
Let them look up and see no longer us, but only Jesus! 
St. Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1987)               

 Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time   C 
Dr. George Lombardi is an infectious disease specialist who lives and works in New York City.  There’s a story he loves to tell: the unusual story of how he came to meet Mother Teresa. 

It was a Saturday afternoon in late September 1989.  He was in his early thirties, just beginning his practice—in fact, he was unpacking some boxes in his new office when the phone rang.  (His phone never rang: he didn’t have any patients yet.)  An unidentified woman on the other end of the line began to ask him questions about his studies, research, and expertise.  In time, the woman made clear what she was after: Mother Teresa was very sick, and she was hoping Dr. Lombardi would consult on her case.  Next thing he knew, he had spent an hour talking with a medical team in India, listening to the symptoms and giving the best advice he could.  When the conversation was over, he went back to unpacking boxes, assuming his unexpected involvement in the whole affair was now over.

But before long, the phone rang again.  It was the same woman as before.  She told him the Indian doctors had been quite impressed.  She also told him they hoped he would come to Calcutta right away.  Dr. Lombardi told her that would be impossible: he had just come across his passport in one of the boxes, and it had expired three months before.  She told him that would not be problem.  She would pick him up first thing in the morning, and he’d be flying out on the Concord.

She picked him up early the next day and first took him to the New York passport office, where—on a Sunday morning—a State Department official took his picture and, just fifteen minutes later, handed him a brand new passport.  She next took him to the Indian consulate, where—again, on a Sunday—the entire staff, in full dress uniform, formed an honor guard as he was given his visa to enter India.  He was then whisked away to the airport in an old, beat up station wagon with five nuns—five of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity—and crammed together into the back seat.

When Dr. Lombardi arrived at JFK, the five nuns spilled out of the back and began to hand him notes and letters and small packages, asking him to give them to the sisters at the convent in Calcutta.  He tucked them in his luggage, and began to make his way through the airport.  The five nuns followed, hot on his heals.  He asked the woman who’d been arranging all of this why the nuns were following him—in fact, why they’d come to the airport in the first place, since they could have simply had her hand him their deliveries.   “There’s something we haven’t told you yet,” she said.  “Our plan was for you to fly out on the Concord.  But we were unable to get a ticket, so you’re flying standby.   These five nuns are going to approach passengers as they wait in line at the gate, begging one of them to give his or her seat to you.”

The doctor stood back to watch the sister’s scheme unfold.  They first approached a serious New York businessman and began to plead their case.  The man looked at the sisters, then looked at the doctor, and then looked at the sisters again before saying no, he couldn’t help them.  They then approached a second passenger and made an even more impassioned plea.  Within a few moments, he melted, realizing that resistance was futile.  He handed the nuns his boarding pass, they took it to the ticket counter, and Dr. Lombardi was on his way to India.

When he landed in Calcutta, he was immediately taken to the hospital, where he consulted with the team of doctors.  He was next brought in to meet the patient.  Mother Teresa lay on her hospital bed, quite weak as her condition worsened.  She beckoned Dr. Lombardi to come closer.   He thought that she might give him a blessing.  She began by thanking him for coming all that way, and then gave him a rather stern warning.  “I will not leave Calcutta until I am well,” she told him, making it clear she’d never consent to going anywhere else for treatment.  “And you must never embarrass my Indian doctors.  Do not question or correct them in public.  You must cause them no shame.  I need them.  They run my hospitals and clinics.  They care for my poor.”

With Dr. Lombardi’s assistance, Mother Teresa began to get better a few days later—and lived for eight more years.  And to this day he counts it a great blessing that this unexpected encounter brought him into contact with the Missionaries of Charity and their work among the poorest of the poor around the world.

It’s hard to imagine a more determined group of people than those five nuns in the airport.  They were on a mission.  They were single minded about their purpose.  They had a clear goal and nothing, nobody, was going to stand in their way.   Where did they learn such a thing?  From Mother Teresa.  Even as she lay critically ill on her bed, she too was clear about her goal, her purpose, her plan.  She was on a mission and nothing—not even death itself—would deter her.  And where did Mother Teresa learn such a thing?  Well, from her Master and Lord: from Jesus and his Gospel.

What is your purpose in life?  What is your mission?  Where is your life headed?  What is your ultimate goal?  Those are legitimate, essential questions, even if they are questions we do not often ask.  It would seem that the answers would vary a great deal, depending on whom you asked and when you asked them.  If you asked an athlete, he’d tell you his goal was to be the best, to win.  If you asked a student, she’d say her goal was to graduate.  Ask graduates, and they’d tell you their goal was to get a job.  And on and on it goes: to get a promotion, to make good money, to get married, to raise a family, to retire, to travel, to spend time with the grandkids, to stay in good health.  But no one of those is the final goal, right?  There’s always something next.  In fact, they’re not actually goals at all, but many steps along life’s journey.

What is your final goal?  What is your ultimate, hoped-for destination?  Heaven, of course!  And who are the ones who have made it to heaven?  The saints.

The only people who are in heaven with God and his angels are saints.  We don’t often speak of it in those terms, but that’s how a saint is defined: someone who has made it to heaven or is on the way there.  We get thrown off a bit by the Saints with a capital “S.”  As the Church does for Mother Teresa today, it is longstanding Catholic tradition to canonize particular men and women who have made it: Christians of certain renown upon whose prayers we can rely and whose example we ought to imitate.  But these capital “S” saints aren’t the only ones.  It’s what we’re all called to be!  And the work of becoming a saint isn’t something that begins at death; it begins here and now.  While she was still alive, many considered Mother Teresa to be a “living saint.”  When once asked what she thought about this, she answered, “You or we shouldn’t be surprised if you see Jesus in me because it’s an obligation for all of us to be holy.”

That’s why Jesus speaks in such radical terms in this Sunday’s gospel: “Unless you hate mother and father, your family and even your own life, you cannot be my disciple!  Unless you relinquish all your worldly possessions, you cannot be my disciple!”   That language seems rather extreme—and it is.  That’s because the stakes are so high, the goal to which we’re called is so lofty.  Jesus is driving home the point that he himself is our ultimate goal.  The true purpose for which we were made is to love Jesus and make him loved by others, to be like Jesus now that we might be with him forever.  In different circumstances and many varied ways, our common goal is to be saints; our shared mission is to help others become saints.   That’s why Jesus states so strongly that nobody and nothing can be of higher value to us than him—why no relationship, no possession of ours, can be allowed to come between us and him.  And if any good thing becomes such an idol or an obstacle, we must drop it immediately and instead pick up our cross to follow after him.

Mother Teresa used to say, “If I ever become a saint—I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’  I will continually be absent from Heaven—to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”  As on earth, so also in eternity: her mission will not be deterred.  And that selfsame mission goes on, because it is yours and mine, too.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us!


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