Becoming Mother Teresa's Collaborator (Part 1)

Interview With Close Ally of the Calcutta Nun

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By Irene Lagan

WASHINGTON, D.C., AUG. 26, 2010 ( Today marks the 100th birthday of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, better known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Thirteen years after her death, Mother Teresa’s influence and voice — like her contemporary Pope John Paul II — continue to resound throughout the globe. 

Her life spanned a remarkable period of history. Born Aug. 26, 1910, in Skopje, Albania, Gonxha’s beginnings were obscure, likened in a recent special issue of Time Magazine, to Jesus’ inauspicious beginnings in Nazareth. 

<p>By the time she died on Sept. 5, 1997, modernity’s greatest triumphs were dashed by wars, genocides, the rise and fall of totalitarian regimes, modernism and finally, the rise of the culture of death.

To mark the anniversary of the nun’s birth, ZENIT spoke with one of Mother Teresa’s close collaborators and allies, Jim Twoey. Twoey is a former White House correspondent and was recently the president of St. Vincent’s, a small Catholic college in Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Mary, have recently relocated back to the Washington D.C. area.

Part 2 of this interview will be published Friday.

ZENIT: How did you first come to know Mother Teresa?

Twoey: I was working for U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield, who was a real advocate of strong refugee policy for the country. He sent me overseas to do some fieldwork in Thailand at the Cambodia border. At the time, I was a lukewarm Catholic and saw this figure of Mother Teresa who seemed to be living the Gospel, so I wanted to meet her. Senator Hatfield had a friendship with her, so I thought I’d try meet her in Calcutta with a letter of introduction on my way back from Thailand. 

The only problem was that I did not want to be around the poor, which is impossible in Calcutta. But I talked myself into it by deciding I’d go to Calcutta for one day, meet Mother, then go back to the U.S. through Hawaii and spend five days there. So that’s what I planned.

On Aug. 20, 1985, I walked into the motherhouse for their 5:30 A.M. Mass, and met Mother afterward. She was a delightful, tiny little woman with big, soft hands and incredible focus. It was the week she turned 75 years old, yet she bounded out to meet me with the energy and enthusiasm of a school girl.

After I met Mother, she asked, “Have you been to my home for the dying?” I said that I hadn’t, so she sent me over there to see Sister Luke. I thought I was going to get a tour, but Sister Luke thought I was there to volunteer. So when I introduced myself, Sr. Luke told me to “go clean that fellow in bed 46 who has scabies” and handed me the medicine and the cotton. I was too proud to admit to her that I did not want to touch the poor, and only wanted a tour of the house. So, I found myself cleaning the dying man, then feeding some other dying men.

While I was very happy to get out of Calcutta the next day, I was uncomfortable in Hawaii because the pineapples were healthier than the people I’d just left. And, the hotel’s lawn was being watered while I had just left these people that were fighting to find potable water. So, I was really plunged into this confusion that challenged my understanding of the world and my responsibilities to my brothers and sisters in places like Calcutta.

One of the immediate changes was that I began to work with the poor in the U.S. every Saturday. I did this for years. I was also among the first group of volunteers to work in the AIDS home and ultimately lived in that house. In fact, in the 1980s it was hard to find people to work with those suffering from AIDS, and it was a real joy to accompany so many men and women as they died. It was a real grace.

ZENIT: How did your relationship with Mother Teresa develop?

Twoey: I can only say it was the mercy of God that allowed me to have the relationship with her that I had. It was also just providence of God that I would be on the scene when they needed a lawyer to help with the opening of AIDS homes, with immigration issues and with protecting Mother’s name from those who wanted to fundraise with it. I was available and free; I was single; Mother trusted me, and so off that went. 

Then, I was two years full time with the Missionaries from 1989-90. During that time, I had the opportunity to travel some with Mother, to live in her AIDS home, and to live with her priests in Tijuana, Mexico, where Mother was opening four homes. It was a privilege to watch her and to observe her sanctity and loveliness.

ZENIT: What was it like for you to be in Mother Teresa’s presence?

Twoey: Being in Mother Teresa’s presence was a very stark judgment that she was everything that I was not. She was focused; she was prayerful; her life had such clear purpose. Even though I was a successful lawyer and legislative director of the chairman of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, and had more money and influence than I’d ever had in my life, it was empty. Meeting Mother made me realize that. So, at first I was reintroduced to Catholic practice, which I had lost interest in. I rediscovered praying, adoration, and most of all a beautiful rediscovery of the riches of the Eucharist. 

Really if you look at the Missionaries of Charity, their entire life is centered around the Eucharist. They receive the broken body of Christ in the Eucharist and then go and touch the broken body of Christ in the poor. Their entire prayer life is an effort to maintain that connection and consciousness.

ZENIT: Now it seems that the Missionaries in the U.S. are almost overrun with young people wanting to volunteer. What about Mother Teresa’s message is drawing so many people even today?

Twoey: What’s happened over time is that many young people are discovering that they’ve been sold a bill of goods by the culture. And they are in search of something that is authentic and true. And many have come to find authentic and true experiences working alongside the sisters caring for the sick and suffering.

One time I was driving Mother through one of the poorest areas of Washington D.C.. She was looking out the window and remarked, «It’s so hard to reach your poor here.» I think she was recognizing that while the material poverty here is vastly different than that in India, the spiritual poverty is much worse. It’s the sense that so many people in America feel unloved, unwanted, unwelcome. It is hard to reach that. 

She often said in India we can give them a bowl of rice and they eat that day, and that addresses their hunger. But here, in America, the bread of friendship is harder for the poor to digest since they are so broken, so poor and so wounded. That is why that is the focus of so much of the Missionaries’ efforts in the U.S.. They are dealing with AIDS, and the homeless and unwed mothers, but they are really trying to rehabilitate individuals to help them see that they truly are children of God, and they are made to love and be loved. The Missionaries of Charity help them to restore their dignity by helping them know they are welcome in the world and needed in the world. I saw that over and over in the AIDS home and with the homeless: Each one would discover that he or she is a gift and not a burden.

ZENIT: What lasting lessons do you continue to draw on from your experience?

Twoey: With Mother it all began with prayer. So, for me, it first of all began with developing a prayer life. By the grace of God I need daily Mass to survive. I just try to imitate what Mother did. So, there is Mass, the rosary and adoration, along with spiritual reading. Once you have the prayer life, you try to open your eyes to see where the will of God is leading you and who you are engaged with.

For the past 15 years, my life is engaged with my family. My wife, Mary, and I have been engaged in the lives of our children, who for me, are the poorest of the poor. And we’ve gone as a family on mission trips to wo
rk with the poor. We’ve gone to Ecuador, Tijuana, and Mexico, as well as worked in soup kitchens and shelters here in America. You certainly want to have an ongoing relationship with the poor, and a recognition of our responsibility to them on both the material and spiritual levels of poverty. So, I’ve tried to follow where the Lord has led. And, he’s taken me to the White House as well as to academia. Now we are back in D.C. and happy to be back with the sisters. My 17-year-old son plays the piano for the sisters’ choir practice. It’s nice to see a second generation involved with the sisters.

[Part 2 of this interview will be published Friday]
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