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An Interview With
Father Sebastian Vazhakala
From American Catholic Radio:
On September 5 we celebrate the life of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997). This year is the first feast day since her beatification October 19, 2003. It’s easy to conjure up images of Mother Teresa and her sisters, the Missionaries of Charity, with their simple white habits marked with blue stripes on the headpiece. Most of us are probably not aware that she helped to found several other communities.
One of those is a men’s contemplative branch (the others are listed in Mother Teresa's Foundations). The man who joined Mother Teresa in cofounding that community was her close friend for over 30 years. Father Sebastian Vazhakala became a priest following the Lord’s call that he heard in Mother Teresa’s apostolate.
After founding the men’s community with her, he himself founded a related lay missionary group. As superior of the Missionaries of Charity Contemplative Brothers, he was one of six people who sat on the carriage carrying Mother Teresa’s body the day of her funeral.
His ministry these days is in Rome, Italy. When he’s not tending to the missionaries, he walks the streets seeking out and serving the poor. He founded a shelter, Casa Serena, to provide shelter for these streetpeople.
He has written a book, Life With Mother Teresa, which will be published in America by St. Anthony Messenger Press this month. During a recent visit at our editorial offices, we talked with Father Sebastian about the forthcoming book and about his life with Mother Teresa.
Following a Calling
Young Sebastian Vazhakala first heard Mother Teresa in March 1966 at a college lecture at St. Albert’s College, in Ranchi, in a state neighboring Calcutta’s. By November of that year, he had made his way to her motherhouse in Calcutta and found a way to meet her.
“One of the first things that attracted me then was not the person of Mother Teresa, but the kind of life that she was living—what she described to us—and the apostolate she did,” he says. He told her how impressed he was with her “social work” and told her he wanted to help.
“She said, ‘We are not doing social work; this is God’s work.’ And then she explained to me then, back in 1966, what she meant by doing God’s work: ‘Because whatever we do to the least of my brothers—that is Jesus’ saying—you do to me. So our work is, ‘I was hungry, you gave me to eat. I was thirsty, you gave me to drink. I was naked, you clothed me. I was homeless, you took me in.’”
That Gospel passage struck home. “She was giving everything freely but wholeheartedly,” he recalls. “Some days things which are free and we don’t like, we give freely to others. But her way of doing was to give the best to others! Not what you don’t like, but perhaps what you like most. She would say to me, ‘Give even when it hurts.’”
Over the next 30 years Father Sebastian worked side by side with Mother Teresa, but eventually branched out on his own, under Mother Teresa’s direction. He continually was inspired by her approach to people. “She was not living just today, she was living the present moment,” he recalls.
He remembers one of those “present moments” particularly well. A man was brought to the Home for the Dying whom Father Sebastian recognized as one who had been there several times before. “I told Mother Teresa, ‘Mother, there’s no use taking this man. After a few days, after he gets a little better, he’ll go.’ So she looked at me and she said, ‘Brother Sebastian, the question of whether he was here yesterday, or the day before, is not important. Does this man need your help now?’ I said, ‘Yes, Mother.’ ‘Then do it,’ she said.”
Father Sebastian worked directly with Mother Teresa in Calcutta from 1966 until 1977. She wrote 81 letters to him, all of which he saved. Those letters, written in English, are the heart of his book. He had assembled copies of the letters and his own reflections, also in English, into a small blue binder and carried them with him for sharing with his partners in ministry. “It is a sharing of my experience with Mother that can help many people to change their attitudes, their mentality, their way of seeing things and doing things,” he says.
It was an Italian who first convinced him that the letters should be shared more widely. The letters, and an introductory text he wrote, were translated into Italian and first published in 2003. Seeing the letters and his thoughts being published widely, now in English, provides a way to spread Mother Teresa’s understanding of the gospel.
“This book, I believe, will help many people to come closer to God,” he says, “closer to the poor people.” Through the book, people will understand and appreciate Mother Teresa’s “charism in the spirit,” he says.
Message for America
One proof of Mother Teresa’s sanctity is the universality of her message. Father Sebastian remembers that Mother Teresa saw a different challenge in the West than she had encountered in India, but one that the gospel clearly addressed. “Mother Teresa firmly believed that the poverty of the West is more hidden, more spiritual, more difficult,” he recalls.
He was sent to the United States to start a novitiate (a place to train new members of his group) in Los Angeles, back in 1976. “For the first month I simply cried, because I couldn’t find any poor places!”
Eventually, though, he found poverty, so different from that in India. “I realized that the poverty of the West and of America is deeper. In Calcutta it was extremely easy to feed a man with a plateful of rice. He was extremely happy, and grateful to you and to God. But in Los Angeles you could give people everything you had, and still they would not be happy, these so-called poor people. So in Los Angeles I found a real poverty of the spirit.”
Father Sebastian could feel something very deep missing in the poor people he encountered in the United States, a poverty that crosses the class lines in our culture. “There is so much more loneliness and depth of—I don’t know what—there is something that is missing!” At the same time, he knows that everyone in the world desires peace, wants to love and be loved. “But people are so busy!”
He sees a way out through the Church at its fullest. “I believe that, first of all, we need living examples. That would mean getting involved in the activities of the Church. And more sharing, because this culture is very rich, in every sense.”
In spite of our wealth, Father Sebastian sees a hunger for God in the people he meets. He implores Americans to share our faith widely. “I’m very convinced that we need to explain to people what is the truth,” he insists, telling people the teaching of the Church, what is right and what is wrong.
He also sees a need for Catholics themselves to understand our own faith better. “What strikes me most is that we religious and priests have all sorts of courses—formation, renewal courses and all. We need courses for married people and Catholic laity,” he says. “Today more than ever there is a duty for everyone to be holy,” he adds, echoing the “Universal Call to Holiness,” a key theme of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.
Contemplation in Action
Being actively engaged in social ministry may not strike people as the work of a contemplative, but action combined with contemplation was central to Mother Teresa’s vision for her followers. Father Sebastian is emphatic in reminding people that his community members are “contemplatives in the heart of the world,” an expression often associated with Mother Teresa. “That doesn’t mean that you sit in the chapel 24 hours a day, but that you’re in continual contact with God,” he explains.
He uses the analogy of a lightbulb. “There’s light in this room because the bulb is in contact with electricity. A contemplative is a person who is in contact with God for 24 hours—whether you are on the street, whether you are in this room, whether you are in the church.”
When asked if this is something for priests or religious only, he becomes animated. “No, not at all! Just the opposite! One who is in contact with God can be anyone on the street, in the Church.”
That’s where the Eucharist comes into play, an important point in light of our “Year of the Eucharist” which Pope John Paul II has announced to begin next month. He echoes his cofounder: “I believe that every believing, practicing Catholic is a walking tabernacle and a living Gospel,” Father Sebastian says.
“Many people may not read the Bible, but they can read you and me. We become a walking tabernacle, because a tabernacle is what Jesus is. In every Christian, Jesus is there. Let them look up and see no longer us, but only Jesus.”
The Sainthood of Mother Teresa
God wants to show us who he is, not just tell us, says Father Sebastian. “Mother used to tell me, ‘It is easy to understand the greatness of God, but the humility of God is more difficult.’ Therefore today, more than ever, we need people who understand the humility of God, and are ready to serve one another.” As he speaks now, he moves into a reverie, as he repeats many of the spiritual insights that he learned from his time with Mother Teresa and internalized through his own contemplation and action.
Like the bird, he says, we cannot fly with one wing only: “It is not enough to be simply contemplative or simply active. We must balance it.” The two wings we use to fly, he says, are the twofold commandments that Jesus gave us: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as you love yourself. “With these two wings we fly to God. And when we die and go home to God, he’s not going to ask us how much money we have in the bank, or how many churches we built, but how much love we put into it.”
We have many opportunities to do these two things, he insists. Like Mother Teresa, he says, “Our vocation is to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.” He sees something for everyone there—whether that person is cleaning the house, washing the dishes, cooking a meal, “even helping a discouraged person make a telephone call.”
Step up to the plate first, he says. “Instead of waiting for the other person to come to me, I will go to the person. Take forgiveness: If I argue or quarrel or fight with somebody, or perhaps I don’t talk to him anymore, let me be the first to take the step.”
Forgiveness is a critical need today, he observes. “We speak about war here and war there. But war is within us. The war is going on in me! And it comes out of me. It’s like a fire. A little fire is there, and if I don’t put that fire out, soon it’s everywhere. So instead of spreading hatred, we spread peace.
“Mother used to tell me, ‘Don’t waste your time in blaming or accusing, but spend your time in doing what you can.’ What you can do, I cannot do. What she can do, I won’t be able to do. But we can all do something beautiful for God.”
This man, who was one of 100 people who testified in her canonization proceedings, has no doubt that Mother Teresa is a saint. “To recognize her holiness is a simple duty, I believe. It will help many people,” he says. Many in Calcutta don’t even see the value of spending time and money on the canonization process, because they already see her as a saint.
But Father Sebastian sees a bigger picture. “We recognize her officially so that all can put her statue or picture in the church and take her as a model of love, who loved God with all her heart, soul, mind and strength, who loved her neighbor more perhaps than she loved herself.”
She will be recognized as a patron of charity, he says, in “working with the poor, a mother and teacher in charity. You know, she was full of love.” That’s what makes a saint, he says, living with God all the time. “Like a water tank, with one hand she received the grace of God, with the other hand she gave it to others. And she said. ‘When I die and go home to God, I can help you better.”
Father Sebastian concludes by recalling one of his favorite memories of Mother Teresa. He tells of an early incident through which he learned that common sense can be the way of compassion.
He was working in the Home for the Dying in Calcutta in 1967, caring for people and helping them to eat. Mother Teresa told him that, after feeding them supper, he must help them to smoke a cigarette. “I could not believe it! I thought, I’ve made a mistake or something! I said, ‘Mother, you want me to give a cigarette to these people?’ She said, ‘Yes, because many of them would like to smoke more than to eat.’ Then I realized that the closer you are to God, the closer you are to human needs.”
He says he would have expected a nun, serving the poor, to have prohibited smoking. “But she was very understanding of what they needed, more than what she liked. She said, “These people are going to die. Let them have a choice of having what they want. On the street they lived like animals, without anything that they wanted. Now they must die like angels in love and in peace.”
He realized that she saw these people through the eyes of compassion. They were dying, and the cigarette was going to bring them joy. “I keep that experience with me today, because I realize the closer I am to God, the closer I can be to people’s needs.”
That is the gift of contemplation, a gift that Mother Teresa wanted to share freely with everyone.
Father Sebastian Vazhakala’s book, Life With Mother Teresa, will be published by St. Anthony Messenger Press in September. It contains 16 letters from Mother Teresa and one from Brother Andrew to him. The book can be ordered online at http://catalog.americancatholic.org or by calling 800-488-0488.
You can hear this interview with Father Sebastian on the Internet at www.FranciscanRadio.org (Episodes 13 and 14) or perhaps on your local Catholic radio station. It’s part of St. Anthony Messenger’s newest project, American Catholic Radio, a half-hour program for the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Communication Campaign.