Mother Teresa. Wikimedia Commons

The Pearls the Lord Collected

Exactly a century ago, Mother Teresa from Calcutta was born, the little sister who blossomed a great work founded on Christ. We spent a day in one of her houses to discover how those rejected elsewhere are embraced and treated as “precious treasure.”
Paola Bergamini

“Remember to leave your shoes outside the chapel door,” Sr. Marina whispers to me. It is 6:15 am. I am looking for the chapel, but all the doors look the same in the corridor of this former hen-house given in 1974 by the Benedictine monks in the nearby Church of St. Gregory al Celio, Rome, to the Missionaries of Charity. I am here because August 26th will be the centenary of the birth of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and we want to do something for the anniversary. Much has been written about her, but what is really of interest to us? I phoned my friend Marina, a journalist who has known the sisters for a long time (she adopted a sick child coming from one of their orphanages in Calcutta) to ask for help–or rather, an article. She took me completely by surprise by saying, “No. Come here to Rome, to the convent at the Celio, where the sisters put people up. You can see today who Mother Teresa was, her charism, in what they are doing and how they live and work. Do it for yourself.” I did my homework, reading articles and books, thinking that I could save time, but…

I followed my friend who was moving toward the door halfway down the corridor. I left my shoes there and went in. The chapel is a small room with small smooth mats, a couple of chairs, an altar, a tabernacle. On the wall alongside the crucifix is written, “I thirst.” Nothing else, neat and bare–essential. The sisters enter silently, take their prayer books, and sit on the floor. They are wearing white saris bordered with blue, as Mother Teresa wanted, because that is what is worn by the women of Calcutta who clean the streets, the last of the last, to serve the poorest of the poor. Holy Mass is celebrated with prayers in English, the official language of the Congregation. The sisters come from all over the world. While I am cursing myself for not having wanted to learn English properly, the sister next to me hands me a book and shows me the page so I can follow. She would follow me patiently the whole time I am there.

Rome like Calcutta
At the end, Sr. Maria Pia is waiting for us outside, an Italian responsible for twelve convents in Italy. We had spoken on the phone, and she was not very happy with the idea of having me come. “The newspapers often twist what we say or do. They don’t understand; we are not made for talking. Of course, we know Traces–someone bought us a subscription–and we have great esteem for Fr. Giussani. But no interview, just a few photos. You can stay with us.” Not a very bright start, I thought. Then she embraces Marina and asks about her child. I shake her hand; she is so small, she seems to be a girl. She has been in the Congregation for 30 years; she was 27 when she decided to enter which she explained she did because “I had read a book about Mother Teresa. I was working as a secretary and was quite content living in the Italian Marches region. The Lord called me.” A few words and a smile that gives you peace, but does not leave you in peace. She brings us into a room where breakfast has been prepared for us. Marina said, “They are like that! everything is done perfectly, in every detail.” Then she wished me a good day and went off to work. Around 8:00 am, some sisters begin to go out, two by two. Sr. Maria Pia explains: “Some of us go to visit families or poor people, others to follow up administrative matters for the elderly people we put up here. Now we’ll go to the welcoming center, annexed to St. Gregory’s Church.” She walks briskly with short steps, as if she doesn’t want to waste time. We pass through a gate and a woman comes toward us, asking, “Sister, is today the day you give out clothes?” “Yes, just a minute, and we’ll be with you. Every Tuesday, we give out clothes to the gypsies, and on Sundays food parcels for the needy families.” “Where does it all come from?” “Providence. We have never wanted for anything. People know us and spontaneously give us clothes and other things–all we need.” She smiles. In the house, there are 50 men that the sisters met at the Termini railroad station, or on the street or in other poor conditions–people “of no fixed abode,” who have nothing, in Rome just like in Calcutta. When we go in, they say hello. “It is they who choose to come here. We wash them, give them a place to sleep, something to eat, and medical treatment. Some stay here a few days then go off, and later come back. Others have been here for months or even years. Many are alcoholics, and some have mental problems. We try to trace their families when we can, or to get them legalized if they are clandestine immigrants. Often they can hardly remember their own names. We have few rules, but they have to be kept.” Everything is clean here inside, and in order, like in the convent. Now it’s breakfast time. A prayer is said before sitting down. A sister reads a piece of the Gospel and then comments on it: “You are the pearls that the Lord has collected. You are, we are, loved and cared for by Him.” I think people normally give them a wide berth, and are afraid of them. Here, instead, they are pearls, and they are treated as pearls, with dignity and decorum–a precious treasure, because they are His. Now I understand the episode Fr. Giussani liked to recall about Mother Teresa, when she was asked, “Mother why do your sisters do what they do?” She replied, “They love Jesus. They transform that love into living actions. Our vocation is not to serve the poorest of the poor; our vocation is to belong to Christ.”

We walk around the corridors, while the sisters wash and clean. There is hardly a sound. “There are many volunteers who come to help us, even doctors. They offer their help freely. In the hospitals, they know us and help us,” Sr. Maria Pia continues. In the pharmacy, a lady is filling out forms. “I try to get help from the National Health Service for those who qualify for it. I’ve been coming here for many years to help the sisters, every day. I can’t help it.” And Sr. Maria Pia smiles.

Are you happy?
On the top floor is the office of the postulator where testimonies and various other material is collected and archived for the canonization process. Mother Teresa was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2000. Here Sr. Elijah is at work. She is the exact opposite of Sr. Maria Pia, like a river in flood. Why is she called Elijah? “We choose the name we take. Elijah is a grand figure, don’t you think? I find it suits me.” How did you come to make this choice? “My family is not one of practicing Christians. At first, when I sensed that this was my vocation, I tried to resist. I said, ‘Jesus, I’ll show you that I can’t, it’s too much for me.’ But God is faithful; to be happy, it’s enough to follow His will.” You can’t get another word out of her mouth. Marina is her assistant. She is not a volunteer, but a guest in the house. When the two sisters move away, she tells me, “I have made a lot of mistakes in life, and five years ago I ended up in a dormitory in via Ratazzi near the railroad station, where I met the sisters. I came here, and then I left. Now I don’t want to go away again. I feel good here. I help any way I can. The sisters have a soul that you can’t describe. They are unique. When they get angry, it’s for your good, like mothers. You know, whoever does not have a mother finds one here.” Sisters who are like mothers. Motherhood is an embrace you can give if you have been loved and wanted: a precious pearl.

It’s Lunchtime
We go down to the dining room. After a few minutes, I am serving the pasta. No one asked me to do it, but I could not stand there doing nothing. The guests help each other: one serves water, one pushes the trolley around. There is no confusion. A sister stands in front of a guest sternly: “It’s two days that you haven’t eaten vegetables; it’s not good for you.” Some of them laugh. Nothing escapes them. At the end, one of them gives a hand with the washing up. Nobody asked him. In the kitchen, I stop to talk with a sister from Africa. In my broken English, I ask her if she is happy. And she said, “Yes. And are you happy?” “Yes.” “Why?” I was not expecting it–I am the one asking the questions. “Perché…because I’m mother,” I stuttered. She smiles. “Yes, but you have a talent, you are a writer.” The sister beside me translates. “The Lord gave it to you. You know, until recently, I was in Kazakhstan. Do you know Fr. Edo? He used to come with his young friends to help us.” Yes, I know Fr. Edo and his charitable work.

With Sr. Maria Pia, I go back to the convent for lunch. She tells me that there are five other houses in Rome. I ask her about Mother Teresa, whether she had known her. “Yes, when she came here, she would serve just like the rest of us. Once, when she was already old, she wanted to come with us around the city, and it was raining. We were worried that she would get tired. When we were climbing the steps of the subway, we realized that she had collected all our umbrellas so as to leave our hands free.”

We lunched in a room decorated with posters, with photos of the children who had been adopted–about 2,000 of them. Some time ago, they had been told to remove the prerequisite for religious marriage for those asking to adopt children. The convention was at risk. They were quite resolute, saying that it was not even to be discussed. (They got away with insisting on what they wanted, as always.)

I Am with you Always
At 2:40 pm we are in the chapel for the recitation of the Rosary and Eucharistic adoration. I am there, too, with Sr. Elijah who passes me a leaflet with the prayers. I whisper the Hail Mary so as not to disturb. I remember those words of Mother Teresa that I read someplace: “In some moments, I cannot do anything but repeat Hail Marys mechanically.” Their songs, different from those I usually hear, have an infinite sweetness, and they are whispered. Just looking at them you know for Whom they do everything, that these are the basic moments of their day. It is so clear that there is no need for explanation, but I am stubborn enough to ask Sr. Maria Pia, “What is Christ for you?” “I won’t answer that question. If you want, write down the names of the people you want us to pray for in the following days. Now it’s time for you to go.” For the first time, she calls me by my first name, and then she takes me to the door where there is an image of Christ with the writing, “I am with you always.” She embraces me warmly. For her, Christ is everything.