The nuns’ work for ‘the poorest of the poor’


In the Roman neighborhood of Celio, there is a church dedicated to San Gregorio Magno overlooking the Circus Maximus on the grounds of what was once the family property of Pope Saint Gregory the Great. Today it is the home of a community of Camaldolese Benedictine monks, whose monastery includes a fascinating collection of herbal “pharmaceutical” elixirs and oils which the monastic community there has made for centuries. If someone points out where to find it, an unexceptional door in the garden to the left of the church entrance leads to the motherhouse of the Missionaries of Charity in Rome.

I recently visited with a group of students from Loyola to discuss the work the sisters do for the poorest of the poor across the world and in Rome in particular. Many of the city’s homeless and itinerant peoples come to the nuns for food and help with medical services. In fact, a slightly confused man was wandering in the garden near the bronze bust of the famed foundress as we approached and we helped him to find the bell. (We also happened to be there at the one time of the week they take care of community business and are closed to visitors. They let all of us in and met with us anyway).

In this out of the way complex, the sisters have memorialized the simple room where the future saint stayed whenever she came to Italy. Of the countless relics (some of dubious origins) which are spread throughout the 900 churches of Rome, the single drop of her blood in a reliquary in that humble abode struck at least one of my students as the most profound spiritual moment of our class. The simplicity of the chapel and surroundings is in many ways literally more breath-taking than the opulence of the Baroque churches all around it. I, for one, continue to wrestle with the utterly serious and life-long commitment to Lady Poverty that is embodied by those women in that place.

The renowned Albanian nun is not without her critics. Some saw her work and its celebration in the West as incursions of the ubiquitous colonialism that defined such a large swath of Indian history for long periods in preceding centuries. Others in the medical community were ambivalent about the care her community provided in the past — though even the most zealous critics admit that the nuns of today have continued to increase their commitment to hygiene and advancements in palliative care in recent years. Mother Teresa’s long stretches of ‘anything-but-spiritual-joy’ have been well-documented.

Yet, there is undoubtedly something about the humble yet persistent efforts of this diminutive Nobel Prize winner that have continued to speak to the world, especially in her advocacy for the dignity of the most forgotten and “invisible” people on the planet. I know that Vatican authorities are expecting enormous crowds for her canonization ceremonies, and have planned a week of festivities and ceremonies around it.

As she once put it, “Our work consists in a difficult task. We are accessible to the poor and abandoned 24 hours a day. We refuse help to no one. The young people who asked to join this congregation understand the difficulties they will encounter, but they will face them with generosity because their souls are full of love.”

Put theologically, the nuns carrying on Mother Teresa’s work see in the face of the poor “alter Christus,” another Christ — a term with both Franciscan and sacerdotal overtones. They posit that it is in encountering the forgotten, so often described as the “widow and orphan” in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, that we come to know without mediation the One sent to bring glad tidings to the downtrodden, liberty to the captives, and comfort to the afflicted. Their work continues to embody Jesus’ commitment to stand in solidarity with those whom society has deemed untouchable or insignificant.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D, teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.