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    Saint of the Peripheries

    A new K of C film chronicles Mother Teresa’s life and mission to bring Christ’s love to the poorest of the poor

    By James Day 9/1/2022
    Mother Teresa speaks with an elderly man at the Kalighat home for the dying and destitute in Calcutta (present-day Kolkata), India, in October 1979. Later the same year, she received the Nobel Peace Prize for “bringing help to suffering humanity.” Photo by Jean-Claude Francolon/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

    Cristiane, a former drug addict on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, never met St. Teresa of Calcutta, but she was transformed by her legacy. In a powerful moment of Mother Teresa: No Greater Love, a new feature-length documentary produced by the Knights of Columbus, Cristiane recalls her life in Cracolândia, or “Crackland” — an area where Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity minister to homeless addicts who have been banned even from the slums. The sisters’ witness of love changed her life.

    “We turned into zombies in search of drugs, living as if nothing else in the world existed,” Cristiane says. “The sisters helped me with everything. And the biggest support was hearing ‘I love you’ from the sisters. It’s Jesus who fills all the voids we have inside us.”

    Her story encapsulates the lesson at the core of Mother Teresa’s mission and of the new documentary, which marks the 25th anniversary of the saint’s death. Filmed on five continents, it is an ambitious project, but it has a simple message. As Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly says in the film, “Mother Teresa taught us that there are no expendable people. Everyone has dignity and worth because everyone is made in the image of God.”

    PAST AND PRESENT

    Mother Teresa: No Greater Love takes a multilayered approach to telling the story of its remarkable subject. Dramatic recreations and historical footage of Mother Teresa, from her childhood in present-day North Macedonia, under the Ottoman Empire, to her work in the slums of India, are juxtaposed with the current work of the Missionaries of Charity. At the same time, interviews with a wide array of people who knew or were deeply affected by Mother Teresa punctuate the narrative with insights about her early life, her spirituality and her missionary vision.

    Thus, as viewers are taken on far-flung geographical journeys to witness the Missionaries of Charity at work today — from the Philippines to Kenya to Haiti — they are also led on a historical and spiritual journey in the footsteps of the diminutive saint, who was born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in 1910. The refreshing, nonlinear structure complements the scope of Mother Teresa’s reach and immerses viewers in the work of the Missionaries of Charity in a visceral, unflinching way.

    “We felt early on that this film needed to be more than just a chronological biography of Mother Teresa’s life,” director David Naglieri explained. “We wanted the viewer to gain an understanding of who Mother Teresa was, but also to transmit how her singular vision to serve Christ in the poorest of the poor continues to be realized today through the inspiring work of the Missionaries of Charity.”

    The film offers glimpses of the sisters’ care for lepers, abandoned babies, drug addicts and others crushed by poverty and indifference. Images of suffering and destitution make for diffcult viewing at times, but this is to the credit of the filmmakers. One feels on location with the sisters as they bear witness to the Gospel: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40).

    For Mother Teresa, there was an intimate connection between serving Christ in the poor and adoring him in the Blessed Sacrament.

    “Mother said, ‘I can’t do this work without having the Eucharist every day,’” explained Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, a member of the Missionaries of Charity Fathers and postulator for the cause of Mother Teresa’s canonization. “And that comes across in the film — the connection between Jesus present in the Eucharist and Jesus present in the poorest of the poor.”

    Viewed through this lens, the gripping scenes shot in Rio’s Cracolândia take on even deeper meaning. Moving through the mud streets of the favela in their pristine blue-and-white saris, the Missionaries of Charity share food and words of greeting with drug peddlers and addicts sprawled on the ground. Unperturbed by the squalor, they only see the person in front of them as Christ.

    A Missionaries of Charity sister feeds a child at the order’s home for severely handicapped children in Nairobi, Kenya, in a scene from the new documentary.

    A CHALLENGE TO LOVE

    As director of the Mother Teresa Center in Rome, Father Kolodiejchuk had long received pitches from Hollywood companies seeking to produce a narrative feature film about the saint. Dissatisfised with their proposals, he approached the Knights of Columbus about making a documentary. He had collaborated with the Knights for years and particularly admired the award-winning 2016 K of C-produced documentary Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism.

    While Mother Teresa was a household name at the end of the 20th century, Father Kolodiejchuk hopes the documentary will introduce the saint to a new generation 25 years after her death.

    “We don’t assume any more that there’s a general knowledge of Mother Teresa in the culture,” he said. “I think people don’t realize just what an important world figure she was. Not since St. Francis of Assisi did someone have such an outreach or impact or effect beyond the Church.”

    The Supreme Council — whose relationship with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity dates back many decades — agreed to the project, and filming took place between October 2021 and February 2022, even as the omicron variant of the coronavirus spread around the world. The face masks worn by the sisters in many scenes serve as a wordless reminder that their vocation to love the poorest of the poor never ceases despite lockdowns and social distancing.

    Sister Mary Joseph, superior general of the Missionaries of Charity, hopes that the documentary will sensitize viewers to the suffering of the poor and move them to open their hearts and hands. “The film challenges us to move out of our own petty self-centeredness to a greater generosity of spirit, toward God and our fellow man,” she said.

    This observation is echoed by Supreme Knight Kelly in the film: “When [Mother Teresa] was feeding the hungry or holding the hand of someone who was dying, she was teaching us to have a heart that sees. And if we can do this, if we can see the world and each other more like Mother Teresa did, then the world would be a radically different and I think better place.”

    Mother Teresa: No Greater Love is slated for release in more than 700 theaters across the United States, Oct. 3-4. To learn more about the film and group ticket sales, visit motherteresamovie.com.

    *****

    JAMES DAY is the television operations manager for EWTN’s west coast studio in California and the author of several books, including Saint Michael the Archangel (OSV, 2020).

    Champions of Charity: Mother Teresa and the Knights of Columbus

    Artist Chas Fagan and Patrick Kelly, then executive director of the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, join two Missionaries of Charity to unveil the portrait of Mother Teresa painting commissioned by the Knights of Columbus in 2016. Knights of Columbus Multimedia Archives

    MOTHER TERESA of Calcutta knew she could turn to the Knights of Columbus when she needed assistance with various needs and projects. However, more than financial donations from the Order, she wanted its members, like her own Missionaries of Charity, to serve Christ by serving the poorest of the poor.

    “Send us your Knights and their families. Let them help us with the soup kitchens and our work,” she told then-Supreme Knight Virgil C. Dechant in 1987, after turning down a monthly stipend that she feared would make her sisters too dependent on regular support rather than God’s providence. From these words was born Operation Share, an Orderwide program to collaborate with Missionaries of Charity in their many apostolates.

    Mother Teresa did accept Supreme Knight Dechant’s offer the following year to print the constitutions of the Missionaries of Charity at the K of C printing plant. But her personal approach was again evident: She insisted on delivering the document by hand to Supreme Council headquarters in New Haven, Conn., after which she gave an impromptu speech to nearly 600 employees.

    “This is such a small thing, but I ask: Where does that love begin in your own life, in your own family? You know that families that pray together, stay together,” she said. “Come and see, do not be afraid to share that joy of loving. … Let love begin at home.”

    Mother Teresa spoke to Knights again in 1992, when she accepted the Order’s inaugural Gaudium et Spes Award — its highest honor — at the 110th Supreme Convention in New York City.

    “Holiness is not the luxury of the few. It is a simple duty for you and for me,” she told the delegates. “This is my prayer for you, that you grow in holiness, to want that love for one another and that you share this love with all you meet.”

    Since Mother Teresa’s death in 1997, the Knights of Columbus has continued its support for projects of the Missionaries of Charity, including the printing and shipping of numerous copies of their prayer book and hymnal, prayer cards, and volumes of Mother Teresa’s letters and instructions to her congregation.

    In January 2016, the Supreme Council commissioned a portrait of Mother Teresa, by artist Chas Fagan, as a gift to the Missionaries of Charity. Later that year, it became the official portrait for her canonization, and the Order printed 1 million prayer cards featuring the image.

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