As Mother Teresa's canonization nears, Missionaries of Charity hope for more vocations

People line up to attend the Mother Teresa Film Festival in Kolkata, which opened Aug. 26, Mother Teresa's birthday. (GSR photo / Julian S. Das)

Kolkata, where Mother Teresa lived and worked for more than six decades, is agog with excitement as preparations for the canonization of the world-renowned nun Sept. 4 at the Vatican enter the final stages.

Newspapers in the eastern Indian city have for the past month run regular news items and tidbits on the celebrations going on in the city as well as around the world.

The Calcutta archdiocese and the Missionaries of Charity headquarters created a series of programs to celebrate the canonization. The main event will be Oct. 2, when Netaji Indoor Stadium, the venue for Mother Teresa's state funeral in 1997, will hold a special thanksgiving Mass and a civic program.

Other celebrations include the launch of web television portal Blue Stripes, a painting and drawing competition for schoolchildren, an interfaith prayer service, discourses on Mother Teresa, and a symposium on the humanity of Mother Teresa. Kolkata also organized programs such as a film festival and art exhibit on Mother Teresa. The celebration will end with a cultural extravaganza on Oct. 23.

Sunil Lucas, spokesperson for the canonization programs in Kolkata on behalf of the archdiocese and the Missionaries of Charity, said the celebrations aim to showcase Mother Teresa's relevance in the modern world, especially for the youth.

Since most young people were too small when Mother Teresa died, they may not really know her services to the world, Lucas told Global Sisters Report. The programs will present to them the legacy she left behind, he added.

The programs will highlight the power of a person who dared, struggled and succeeded in changing society's outlook on people who live in poverty, are sick and suffering, said Lucas, president of the Indian wing of SIGNIS, the Catholic church's global association for communication.

Lucas said the celebrations will go beyond Christians to bring the entire city, which is predominantly Hindu, together to celebrate Mother Teresa on the occasion of the canonization.

A photo of Mother Teresa with a burning candle at Mother Teresa's tomb at the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata. (GSR photo / Julian S. Das)

People of other faiths, who already consider Mother Teresa a saint, take any opportunity to celebrate her and remind the world what she has done. Lucas said one-third of the 150 volunteers for the Mother Teresa International Film Festival, which opened Aug. 26 in Kolkata, are youth from other faiths. SIGNIS is organizing the festival in collaboration with the Calcutta archdiocese and the Missionaries of Charity.

Lucas said the film festival will screen 40 films in English, including the 2014 film "The Letters." The films will travel to different regions of India and to at least 30 other countries, he added.

On Aug. 26, Mother Teresa's birthday, Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee unveiled a life-sized statue of Mother Teresa at the home of Archbishop Thomas D'Souza, the archbishop of Calcutta.

Banerjee will attend the canonization ceremony at the Vatican as a guest of the Missionaries of Charity. Arvind Kajrival, chief minister of Delhi, is another Indian dignitary attending the celebrations in the Vatican. In total, India is sending a 12-member official delegation led by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, and hundreds of Indians will head to Rome to attend the canonization.

Usha Uthup, a popular musician and a long-term associate of Mother Teresa's, has been invited both by the Vatican and the Missionaries of Charity to sing during the canonization ceremony. She will perform two songs, including one in English, "The Poorest of the Poor," written on the day of Mother Teresa's death. Uthup sang the song at Mother Teresa's funeral as well as at her 2003 beatification in the Vatican.

Meanwhile, the Missionaries of Charity's motherhouse in Kolkata has begun a novena in preparation for Mother Teresa's feast day, Sept. 5. Members of the congregation hope that sainthood for their founder will revive vocations to the 66-year-old congregation.

Sr. Mary Lysa Arackakunnel, the congregation's assistant superior general, said she believes their founder will continue to intercede for the congregation so it can continue their mission among those who live in poverty.

"The canonization is a big blessing to our congregation because now she can help us much more," Arackakunnel told GSR. She said Mother Teresa promised the sisters that she would help the congregation much more after her death. The Missionaries of Charity consider her their protector and intercessor, the assistant superior general added.

A family takes a selfie with the life-sized statue of Mother Teresa at Archbishop Thomas D'Souza's house in Kolkata. The statue, which was installed Aug. 26, Mother Teresa's birthday, has become a popular tourist spot. (GSR photo / Julian S. Das)
The entrance to the motherhouse of the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata. (GSR photo / Julian S. Das)

The congregation now has 5,160 members in 758 foundations (or houses) in 139 countries. At the time of Mother Teresa's death in 1997, the congregation had 3,914 nuns in 594 foundations globally.

Among the houses, more than two-thirds (516) are outside India, where the congregation began in 1950.

However, the lone novitiate in India has more than 40 percent of the congregation's 128 novices. The rest are spread in four other novitiates in Rome; Washington; Manila, Philippines; and Nairobi, Kenya.

Arackakunnel said fewer women are entering the congregation. As existing members age, the congregation has stopped opening new houses, although it receives invitations to do so from many places, she added.

"The decline in vocations has been very gradual," she said.

At the time of Mother Teresa's death in 1997, an average of 40 sisters made first profession, and about the same number professed final vows every year, said another nun who asked not to be quoted by name. Now, approximately 30 women make their first profession and about 25 their final profession after completing their last year of formation at four centers in different parts of the world.

(Inforgraphic by Brittany Wilmes and Tracy Abeln)

Most vocations in the past had come from Kerala, a southern Indian state. As vocations from there have come to a standstill, the trend has now shifted to eastern and northeastern India, the nun said.

According to her, vocations have declined mainly because of India's one-child policy as well as the hard lifestyle of the nuns.

The sisters continue to serve people who live in poverty in the worst of situations, even in dangerous places. The congregation has a total of 11 martyrs to the church in its history, including four nuns who were among 16 people killed by armed gunmen in Aden, Yemen, on March 4 this year.

Arackakunnel said the congregation's serious approach to prayer life, the blessing from Mother Teresa, and their martyrs will help the congregation reach out to more people around the world.

Arackakunnel said the canonization also will inspire the sisters to grow in holiness, become more committed, grow in zeal and enthusiasm toward wholehearted and free service to those who live in poverty.

[Jesuit Fr. Julian S. Das is the director of Dhyan Ashram Retreat House at Konchowki, near Kolkata. He was the editor of The Herald, the weekly of the Calcutta archdiocese, for three years. He was also the director of Jesuit-managed Chitrabani ("Sound and Light"), founded in 1970 in Kolkata as the first media center in eastern India.]

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