Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu on Aug. 26, 1910, was very private about her own upbringing. Accounts of Mother Teresa's life report the bare essentials of her early years because she was reluctant to talk about them. In a 1960 letter to her biographer, Eileen Egan, she wrote, "In the book you are writing— please omit anything about me personally. I want you to leave me and my family out." She did not talk in detail about her home life in Skopje, Macedonia, or the effect that the premature, tragic death of her father had upon her family.
Nonetheless, we do know that she had wonderful parents as well as an older brother and sister, and that her family was plunged into poverty when her father died in 1919. The relatively comfortable childhood she enjoyed ended for her at the age of nine.
But this reversal of fortune seemed not only to draw the Bojaxhiu family closer together, but also to engrave upon Agnes' heart an awareness of the beauty of the sanctifying vocation her parents were given. And while Agnes eventually chose to pursue the religious life and serve as a missionary in the faraway land of India, she never forgot the transformative effect of a family that prayed together.
THE FAMILY'S LIFELINE
In later years, Mother Teresa would often meet young couples and impress upon them the necessary linkage between family life and prayer. When my wife Mary and I were engaged, we waited until Mother Teresa visited Washington, D.C., in December 1991 to give her our first wedding invitation. As it turned out, she could not attend, but she did send dozens of sisters from her religious order. In the parlor of her home for AIDS victims she took our hands and said, "Be one heart full of love in the heart of Jesus through Mary. Pray together and you will stay together."
Mother knew that prayer was the family's lifeline — that appealing to God had to be a matter of first resort. Her initial visit to the United States — 50 years ago this October — was to Las Vegas of all places, where she delivered a compelling message to thousands gathered for a convention of the National Council of Catholic Women. Her talk focused on the role of the family and the laity in the proclamation of the Gospel.
The order Mother Teresa founded, the Missionaries of Charity, does not simply preach this message — the sisters help people to practice it. This past May, I visited Calcutta and was impressed to see an army of sisters fanning out across the city to help families and children, teaching them the importance of prayer in the home. Mother knew that supplying poor families with rice and medicine was not enough Rather, she worked to feed their spiritual hunger and to heal their souls. It was as if the lessons from her childhood home became a missionary mandate. As she said so often, "It all begins with prayer."
LEARNING TO PRAY
For married couples in North America facing the pressures of balancing work and home life, praying can be difficult, if not elusive. I once asked Mother Teresa to teach me how to pray. We were walking in a poor area in Tijuana, Mexico, and I luckily found myself alone with her for a moment. When she heard my question, she stopped, as if to add emphasis to what she was about to say, and replied, "The only way to learn how to pray is to pray." She then added, you are too busy to pray, you are too busy."
Mother knew that families that were too busy to pray together would eventually be too busy for each other or for their children, leading to inevitable breakdowns. She had an intense love for to the Holy Family as an example, she urged couples to make their homes "another Nazareth."
Indeed, Mother Teresa's early life experiences and her admirable parents taught her that the vocation to family life was a high calling. In an age that seeks to redefine the family and questions the institution of marriage, it is fitting during this centennial celebration year to recall Mother's love of family life and her simple wisdom.
JIM TOWEY worked for 12 years as U.S. legal counsel to Mother Teresa of Calcutta. A member of Father Hugon Council 3521 in Tallahassee, Fla., he served as director of the Whitc House Officc of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives from 2002-2006 and as president of St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., from 2006-2010.
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