Interview with His Beatitude Moran Mor Baselios Cardinal Cleemis Catholicos, the Major Archbishop of the Syro- Malankara Catholic Church and the President of the CBCI and KCBC during the occasion of the canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Courtesy: CNA/EWTN News. Interviewed by Elise Harris.
Q: We’re here in Rome for the canonization of Mother Teresa. What does this canonization mean for the Church and people of India?
It’s a great moment of joy and satisfaction for the Christians in India and also as a nation for the society in India, that one of our citizens and one of us is being greatly honored by respective bodies in the world. For example, starting with the most valued honor given to Mother Teresa when she was living: “Bharat Ratna” that means, the “Jewel of India.” (editors note: She received the title in March 1980). And then the world community honored her with the Nobel Prize (December 1979), and now for a person from the faith aspect, the highest honor that heaven can confer is sainthood. So it’s a beautiful blend of these two realities: acceptance of the human society, acceptance of the divine, or as we say heaven, that Mother Teresa is a saint. And it’s a matter of great joy for everyone, those who believe from the faith aspect, those who believe from the missionary aspect and those who believe in the service aspect. For everyone it’s a great day of joy and satisfaction.
Q: Mother Teresa’s charity went beyond the bounds of religion, race and culture. What impact do you think she made on dialogue and relations with other religions, especially in the local situation in India?
Mother Teresa changed the mindset of many people because sometimes people were given the understanding, ‘If you’re a Christian talk only to the other Christians. If you’re a Hindu, don’t talk to any other. If you’re a Muslim, stay away from the other people.’ But Mother Teresa found in everyone, as I said, the face of Jesus… And Mother Teresa played a great role in India, not only in serving the poor, but in bringing everyone to fight against poverty. And spirituality brings always this beautiful blend of everything to one reality: for God’s love, you need to come together to share it. For God’s mercy, if it is to be shared, we need to come together. And I still believe all the rulers of our country…they all respected Mother Teresa because of her closeness to the poor everywhere. She was an ambassador of India to every nation, I believe so. She was not only a Catholic nun taking the role of ambassador of love to everyone, also an ambassador of India going everywhere preaching the Gospel of love, preaching the spirituality of her force, to everyone, she never covered up the secret of her life: strength from the tabernacle, strength from the Eucharistic Lord, not only for her, but for all those who were with her. What I mean to say is that this lady brought everyone together, also in India. That’s why at her funeral the whole world came to Calcutta and bowed before this short, small-figured lady with deep respect and payed homage to this lady and said, ‘We salute you because you brought us together.’ All the big countries and their leaders came to pay their respect to Mother Teresa because they found in her something stronger than weapons, something stronger than arms and ammunitions, something which only God can give her. That’s what she kept with her and handed over to us: share love and mercy.
Q: Even recently in India there has been an increased presence of fundamentalism and attacks against Christians. Do you think Mother Teresa’s message and witness are capable of changing the attitude behind some of the persecution that’s happening now?
Yes, I think her message is still working in India, and I’m sure we are committed to it. And the Church in India, we will continue to do the work of mercy and compassion to our own fellow citizens in India. Not only in India, everywhere that we are called to be missionaries…In the country where I come from, India, where people look at it as a fast-developing nation, where should we keep these poor? At the periphery? Or with a special care? Now with the canonization of Mother Teresa it’s once again brought to our mind, heart and intellect that we need to take care of these poor ones who have no one to believe, to hold on. That is what Mother Teresa tells us even at the time of her canonization: when we say ‘Mother Teresa of Calcutta, saintly lady, pray for us,’ she would say, ‘I pray for you, but you take care of the poor one of the Lord.’ And this is the message that we all have to take along with us after the canonization, and we, the Church in India, are committed to it.
Q: Did you ever meet her personally?
Yes. In the ‘80s when I was a seminarian I met her and I looked at her, because even at that time she was called a saint. She was a very saintly figure. Now…I’m humbled to say that being the president of the bishop’s conference in India, that the seminarian in 1980 who touched her out of devotion, be present here close to the Holy Father while he is declaring that she’s a saint, is something of a spiritual gift to me from above. I value it very much.
Q: What stood out to you most about her sanctity? What was most striking?
I found in her, her spirit of being available. Not in a sociological way, no. Now you see everywhere this blue-bordered sari…she’s present now through her sisters everywhere. She’s present now through the works of compassion and mercy. And I must say there’s a close connection between the spirituality of Pope Francis and Mother Teresa. And John Paul the saintly Pope loved her so much, and she loved Pope John Paul very much. They had close communication.
Q: You actually touched on one of my next questions: the similarities between Mother Teresa and Pope Francis in terms of their style, their missionary style. You touched on this, but can you expand on the similarities between their approach to evangelization, being a missionary and the human person?
Jesus told us through the disciples, those who were close to him, he said as the last commandment, ‘Go and tell everyone what I have told you.’ That’s the Gospel, no? Go and tell everyone the Gospel…Pope Francis in his very approach, in his sermons, in his interactions, in his very behavior itself, expresses the core of the Gospel, reveals who Jesus is…And the same love is brought to us by Jesus, and this is the core of the Gospel and Pope Francis is saying: Show it, exhibit it, transmit it. You religious, you diocesan priest, you bishops, you cardinals, you faithful, you people who have not yet found a space in your heart for the Church, come, let us try to exhibit who really Jesus is. Let us celebrate the core of the Gospel, the joy of the Gospel, through the family. And Mother Teresa did it even before Pope Francis as a Supreme Pontiff asked for. A total life dedicated to the poor, leaving aside all the secular life in the convent, born in Albania, traveled to India…And we need such gestures, such symbolic life still in the world…she took seriously the commandment of Jesus: go and preach the Gospel. And therefore there is a connectivity because what Mother Teresa did and what Pope Francis is asking us to do now again and again. There is a beautiful link, connectivity, closeness, because it is one and the same.
Q: So you would say their concept of mercy is very much in-tune?
The concept of mercy brings us together. Who doesn’t need mercy except God? We all need mercy because mercy is the one virtue, or the grace, that consoles us, comforts us and strengthens us that we can continue our life with peace and serenity.
Q: Are there any celebrations or events in India to celebrate the canonization?
We will have a day of thanksgiving in Calcutta arranged by the Archdiocese of Calcutta, and also by our sisters in Calcutta. We all will be participating, and we’re all there on October 2. And we’ll have of course a thanksgiving Mass there. And on the very same day of the canonization day here, on September 4, our Apostolic Nuncio Salvatore Pennacchio, will celebrate a Mass at her tomb in Calcutta. And most probably on October 19, we’ll have another thanksgiving celebration in the capital city of New Delhi to come together as a nation, again acknowledging the multi-faceted personality of Mother Teresa and her service. And as I mentioned, the need of being conscious of sensitivity to the poor. And we will have a day with the officials of the government of India and with the public of our citizens in Delhi. And certainly there will be celebrations in all the dioceses, 171 dioceses in India. On a day which is close to the thanksgiving day event, they will have a thanksgiving event in each diocese. On September 4, all our churches in India will have a special day of prayer and subsequent celebrations according to their convenience. The Church in India is very jubilant over this great occasion for this daughter of our homeland.
Q: How many have come from India to be here?
The government of India has been gracious enough to send a delegation of 15 people with the leadership of our Minister of Foreign Affairs including ministers, members of Parliament, also a few other important persons. And also the Chief Minister of West Bengal, that is the place where Mother Teresa worked, and the Chief Minister of Delhi, and two ministers from Kerala. They all are here and so many other delegations…And to my knowledge about 40-50 bishops from India are participating in the event, and for us 50 is a good number to come to Rome to celebrate. And also many people from different dioceses are coming to Rome to be part of this historic moment…