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Why didn’t Mother Teresa push for conversions?

Mother Teresa, that troublemaker, is still causing a fuss. To accompany her canonization, some folks are sharing quotes from her, not in admiration but in dismay. They say that she didn’t care enough about spreading the Gospel. They say she claimed she was serving Christ, but where was the push to catechize and convert?  While tending the suffering bodies of the poor, she left their souls to rot.

Here are a few quotes meant to bolster this criticism:

From a statement from the postulator of the cause for her canonization:

When I asked her whether she converted, she answered, ‘Yes, I convert. I convert you to be a better Hindu, or a better Muslim, or a better Protestant, or a better Catholic, or a better Parsee, or a better Sikh, or a better Buddhist. And after you have found God, it is for you to do what God wants you to do.’

Stated another way, from A Simple Path by Mother Teresa:

I’ve always said that we should help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim become a better Muslim, a Catholic become a better Catholic.

And here’s a quote from the Constitutions of the Missionaries of Charity:

We shall not impose our Catholic Faith on anyone, but have profound respect for all religions, for it is never lawful for anyone to force others to embrace the Catholic Faith against their conscience.

(Note, in that final quote, the words “impose” and “force.” This will be important later.)

Let’s clarify: the Church has always taught that there is no salvation outside the Church — or, as the Catechism says:

Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.336

It’s not just preferable to be Catholic; it’s essential. The Catholic Church is the most direct and indispensable route to Christ.

The Catechism goes on to explain that

847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.337

Now here’s where it gets a little more involved. The Catechism also says:

843 The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as “a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.”332

It is likely that, for those who are baptized members of the Church and for those who have been seeking goodness and truth in other religions, this “preparation for the Gospel” will only culminate at the hour of death, when Christ chases away all shadows and reveals Himself to each of us, asking us to make our choice once and for all.

God can save all men, God wants to save all men, and it’s entirely possible that God will save many more men than we would, if it were up to us. When a man strives for goodness and truth, then God sees, understands, and accepts his service. How could it be any other way? The Church was made for us, because we are small and in need; but God is not confined by her walls.

All right, but even if this is the case, and even if it’s possible to find salvation without being a baptized member of the Catholic Church, why wouldn’t Mother Teresa try harder to bring people out of the “shadows and images” of other religions that only hold some small portion of the truth? Why didn’t she try harder to get that Hindu or that Buddhist to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord?

A better question: How could anyone try any harder than she did?

What did she do? She showed the face of Christ to people every single day of her life, as directly as any human being can do. She revealed the truth that God is love, and that all works of love are works that give glory to God. She revealed the truth that God made and loves all human beings, unlike some of His creatures who allow themselves to scorn or coerce each other.

And she revealed the truth that love is a choice — that God is a Father, not a slavemaster, and that He does not compel, threaten, or force. She revealed the truth that God gives us free will, that He makes us each an unspeakably generous offer, and then He allows us to take it or leave it.

These are all core truths of the Gospel which Mother Teresa taught to everyone whose sores she cleaned, whose feet she bathed, whose bodily excretions she mopped, whose abuse she endured.

If you’re a convert, or if you left the Faith and then came back, ask yourself this: what was it that brought you back? Was it someone pushing hard or threatening? Was it someone compelling, imposing on you, forcing you? Was it someone telling you that you had no choice but to be Catholic? Was it someone withholding love or attention or care or tenderness, so as to get you to do what they thought was best for you? Is that how your heart was opened?

Or was it a glimpse of love? Love directed at you, where you are, as you are, in a language you understand?

This is how true conversions happen: not when we (as Josef Ratzinger said) get “Catholic” stamped on our passport. Not when we’re terrified or tricked or guilted or argued or shoved into sitting down and shutting up in the pew. We can fulfill all of our obligations as Catholics for decade upon decade and still be closed off to God. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. It’s not real faith, and it’s not from God. Hearts like these remain unconverted.

A Catholic who only remains inside the Church because he’s never thought much about it, or because he thinks it’s the best way to work the system, or because he thinks he’s better than everyone else, or because he thinks God is out to get him if he leaves, or because he thinks it means he can tick off his sacraments from the comfort of his polished pew, and to hell with all those unwashed Hindus? — this is someone who does not know God, no matter what his spiritual “passport” says.

At the hour of death, it would be better to be a faithful Hindu than a Catholic like this, who wouldn’t recognize Jesus if He bit him. Or called to him. Or disguised Himself as the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the homeless, the imprisoned, the dead.

It’s better to know and love what Christ is like, even if you do not yet know His name.

If Mother Teresa was content to show Christ’s love to Hindus and see them depart still Hindu, then it’s because, as Ratzinger says, “Assent to the hiddenness of God is an essential part of the movement of the spirit that we call ‘faith.'” Mother Teresa did everything that was in her power to show the love of Christ to the needy. Her unthinkably strong faith allowed her to leave the rest up to the hiddenness of God.

 ***
NOTE: Simcha Fisher is not a trained theologian. Simcha Fisher is a housewife who has been keeping her ears and eyes open for forty-one years, and who thinks she has begun to understand a thing or two about Jesus. If she errs theologically, it a sincere error, and is not motivated by a desire to drag souls to perdition. She is willing to hear honest arguments showing her specifically where she has gone astray. Thanks.

Image by Funky Tee via Flickr (licensed)

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