I first heard about Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity sisters in the early 1970’s, when I saw the film, “Something Beautiful for God,” a work of Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990), the British journalist. The film was a documentary about Mother Teresa (1910-1997) and her Order, released in 1969. A book followed shortly after, having the same title as the film and also by Muggeridge. It was illustrated with still photos from the documentary.
Both book and film helped in bringing Mother Teresa of Calcutta to the attention of people in the west. Muggeridge later claimed Mother Teresa’s influence as fundamental in his becoming a Catholic at the age of 79, in 1982, along with wife Kitty (1903-1994). Malcolm died in 1990, four years before his wife. After “Something Beautiful for God,” many books, documentaries on the life and work of Mother, now Saint, Teresa of Calcutta and her sisters have been released, as well as adaptations of her life to motion pictures.
Begun in 1950, the Missionaries of Charity Congregation has grown to be an international community of nearly 5,000 sisters in 760 houses in 134 countries. An apostolic and active Order, especially dedicated to assisting the poorest of the poor, Mother Teresa established a contemplative branch of sisters in 1976 in New York.
The contemplative Missionaries of Charity also help the poor, while at the same time have more personal prayer and silent adoration than the active sisters. Neither group is “better than the other.” They just have slightly different styles of religious life. Today the contemplative branch has communities in the Bronx, New York, San Diego, California, India and Rome.
Not as well known are the Missionaries of Charity Brothers, a men’s branch of Mother Teresa’s family. The brothers began in 1963 and today number around 400, with 42 houses, including India, Kenya, South Korea, France, Guatemala and the United Staes. Like the sisters, the men are devoted to the common life, prayer and assistance to the needy, taking various and sundry forms.
The Missionaries of Charity Contemplative brothers and priests were founded on March 19, 1979, by the Father Sebastian Vazhakala, already a Missionary of Charity, from Kerala, India, and a close collaborator of Mother Teresa of Calcutta for many years, until her death in 1997.
The contemplative branch of Missionaries of Charity brothers is based in the suburbs of Rome, near Largo Preneste. Along with prayer, especially expressed in perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the brothers and priests engage in works of mercy, mainly offering food and shelter at night to poor men in the area, food distribution for all in need and the ministry of presence for those who wish to speak to a religious.
On a cold but sunny day in December last year, a group of us monks went to visit Father Sebastian and his community for part of a morning. We were warmly welcomed and shown their house of hospitality and the brothers’ living area. The large chapel they use for daily Mass is also used by Catholics of the Syro-Malabar Rite of the area for their Sunday Mass at 10:00 am. A smaller chapel is where the Missionaries of Charity brothers pray the Divine Office and have Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The buildings of the brothers are very simple, with adequate living conditions, clean and tidy, though far from luxurious.
In addition their common and private prayer, the Missionaries of Charity contemplatives are generally “at home,” to receive the many who come for help throughout the day and for lodging at night. They can accommodate between sixty and seventy men each night. Supper is offered to their guests in the evening and those staying over are expected to leave the following morning.
There is obviously much to be done to maintain the brothers’ facility, in the way of maintenance and meal preparation for those who come as guests. Along with the six to eight brothers usually in residence, there are lay volunteers who assist with the cooking and cleaning.
Some of the younger brothers at the house are taking philosophy or theology courses at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas in Rome, run by the Dominicans. That is where I also studied, from 1985 to 1988. Student brothers take the train or bus into the center of Rome for classes and return in the afternoon to their community.
A small congregation, the contemplative branch of brothers now number about thirty, residing in five different houses around the world. In addition to Rome, they have communities in India, Albania, Ghana and Israel.
We Benedictine monks who visited the community of Missionaries of Charity contemplatives in December were impressed by their fraternal welcome and obvious care for their facility and the people they serve. It is clearly a place of “prayer and work,” which of course is something near and dear to Benedictines too.
Father Sebastian, founder and superior of the congregation, is now seventy-five, and thankfully in good health. Before long, he will be handing the baton of leadership on to a younger member of his family. It will be a time of transition and challenge, no doubt, but hopefully inspired by the good zeal of Saint Teresa of Calcutta and her intercession, the little band will carry on in faith, hope and love.
During our visit we enjoyed hearing Father Sebastian recount the story of the founding and growth of his community, with the usual ups and downs of any religious community in its formative years. Fortunately Father Sebastian and his brothers were close to Saint Teresa of Calcutta from the time of their founding until her death in September of 1997. Authorities in the Vatican were also good guides for the beginning and growth of the Missionaries of Charity Contemplatives.
Though short, our time at the brothers’ house in Rome was enjoyable and we hope can be repeated, as well as having the brothers visit us at our Curia Sant’Ambrogio in the centro storico (historic center) of Rome, and our “Benedictine Flagship,” at Sant’Anselmo on the Aventine Hill, not far from Sant’Ambrogio.
We in the religious and monastic life today recognize the importance of “sticking together” and maintaining bonds, to the greater honor and glory of God, and the strengthening of our consecrated life in the Church today.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us!