Fr. James Martin talks with Mother Teresa's postulator: The full interview

Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C., a Missionary of Charity, was the official postulator for St. Teresa of Calcutta, who will be canonized on Sept. 4.  He was the editor of the book of her letters and notebooks, Come Be My Light, which, in 2007, revealed Mother Teresa’s struggle with decades of interior darkness. Father Kolodiejchuk is also the editor of a new collection of her writings, A Call to Mercy, published this month by Image Books. In an interview with James Martin, S.J., in May, he spoke of her early mystical experiences and her struggles with the “dark night.” 

James Martin: Father Brian, congratulations on the canonization of Mother Teresa. Can you tell us a little but about the final miracle attributed to her intercession?

Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C.: Yes, thank you. It happened, in Santos, Brazil. And, surprisingly, it happened in 2008, but we didn’t hear about, and no one contacted the postulation office until the end of 2013. By the time we got everything together and made an effort to get all the documents, it was finally approved this year.

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JM: What was the miracle?

BK: It was a man who was around 35 years old and was a mechanical engineer. He had developed abscesses that came from having a bacterial infection on the brain.

That developed into multiple abscesses, which turned into hydrocephaly –water on the brain. So, roughly from September, right after his marriage, he and his wife were praying to Mother Teresa. And yet it kept on getting worse. Then on December 9th, around 2 in the morning, he really got very sick; he had very extreme pain on the brain from all the water putting pressure—because the water couldn’t go down the spine; it was being blocked. So he went into a coma and basically he was on his way out.

Now they wanted to do an operation to drain the water but they couldn’t, for some technical reasons. Finally, he was dying and they had brought him to the operating room, but they realize that they didn’t have the right equipment. So around 6:10 the neurosurgeon walked out of the operating room without any hope.

At the same time, around 6 P.M., his wife, knowing the grave situation, went to her parish about to pray really intensely, again to Mother Teresa. At that time the parish priest came in. So they started praying around 6.

At 6:40, when the doctor came back into the operating room, Marcilio [Haddad Andrino], which was his name, was conscious, without any pain, and then he looked around and asked the doctor, “Well, what am I doing here?”

[Laughter.]

BK: Sometime in that time frame, within that half an hour.

JM: It sounds like a miracle to me.

BK: Yes, if you believe in miracles, it’s pretty solid.

JM: Can you describe briefly what your role was as postulator?

BK: Well, the postulator does all the investigations.  We first started by getting all the medical documents. And then in this case the sisters from Brazil sent to Rome, where I was working, the documentation. I took that to the Congregation for Saints, and they had one of their specialists look at the documentation just to see if it was worth doing the next step, which was the diocesan process. So that came back positive. In June of last year, we did the diocesan inquiry in Santos itself, and then that material came back. Then the whole medical commission of seven doctors looked at the material. And the gist of the miracle wasn’t so much all the documentation, like the clinical part, but rather it was the two brain scans of the 9th of December, when he was really dying, and then they didn’t do the next scan four days later on the 13th. Well any neurosurgeon who looked at it—no neurosurgeon in Brazil, the seven in Rome—said that the scans from the—said it was not possible to go from this state, from this to that, in that amount of time.

JM: One of the things that always surprises people is how the Vatican’s standards for a miracle are a lot higher than most people’s would be.

BK: Oh, yes, they’re very strict. At the same time, I knew of one postulator and he had been waiting for the news and that miracle was refused. So it’s not an automatic thing at all.

JM: Well, Father Brian, I’d like to talk a little about her “dark night,” which so many people are interested in and that you and I have talked about. Can you tell us how that first came to light, how those experiences of hers were first shared?

BK: Sure. Well, thank God the Jesuits had the foresight to save those documents! And so they were mostly Father Van Exem, who was her spiritual director, you might say, or her confessor in Calcutta, during those years of the inspiration and following. Plus Archbishop Périer, the archbishop of Calcutta, who was also a Jesuit, and then also the Jesuits who came later—Father Picachy, later Cardinal Picachy and then Father Neuner. They saved the documents. So we didn’t realize they were there until the work began of collecting the documents even before the actual process began. The Congregation for Saints suggested we start working on the documents and hear witnesses who might not last—who might not be around five years later. 

So when we checked the archives of the Jesuits in Calcutta and the archbishop’s house in Calcutta, these letters came to light, and I remember the first time I read one of them. There were three on this commission—two sisters and myself—and she gave me one of these letters, I don’t remember which one. Then she described this as very special.

So here in Rome I went to the chapel of the house of the sisters where I was in Rome, and I wanted to read this in the chapel, because I had a sense that there was something special. These letters became part of the process itself and once that happened, then it was only a question of time when it would be revealed, either now or, say, 50 years when archival material is revealed. But even when we presented them in the positio, one of the nine theologians who looked at the positio—thelife, virtues, and application of holiness—suggested that they be published. So, actually the archivist of the Calcutta Province had used some of them in an article in Review for Religious, and Father Neuner had also written something just using some of it. So I thought the best thing would be was to give all of what we had on the darkness. So Come Be My Light has everything, minus one or two letters that came after, but Come Be My Light had everything—almost—that we have to describe this experience.

JM: She had never spoken to you about these experiences, is that correct?

BK: Well, there is one thing that she never spoke about and very deliberately. The sisters or even me would ask about the “inspiration”—September 10—and for her she would say nothing, only if the pope in obedience told her to say something. It was so sacred to her. And the same thing, she didn’t reveal her personal things even to the closest sisters around her. So she managed to be a very public person and yet, at the same time, was able to keep this experience hidden.  Father Van Exem told one of the Jesuits in Calcutta, who told one of our priests that Father Van Exem had five boxes of materials.  Mother kept pressuring him to destroy all those things. Now I’m sure that her perspective is different.

Thankfully, they had the sense to keep those because they reveal a very important part of Mother Teresa’s own holiness and an important aspect of the Missionaries of Charity charism. We want to be in solidarity with the materially poorest of the poor, but here she was—she came out to the West, and more and more she would say that the greatest poverty in the world today was to be unloved, unwanted and uncared for. And that was her own experience.

Paradoxically, she was so united to Jesus that he could share with her his greatest sufferings in the Garden, and the sense of abandonment on the Cross, as other saints had. Also, the unique part of that darkness that is connected to Mother Teresa is exactly this. St. Théresè [of Lisieux]’s experience was more in the context of a trial of faith. And in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that was the big question, of faith, and the meaning of atheism. But this modern poverty of being unloved, loneliness, which Mother Teresa was experiencing, that is a kind of spiritual poverty as well.

JM: To be clear, are you saying that even her early mystical experiences weren’t very well known until the letters were published?

BK:  Oh, yes, we didn’t know anything about what was in Come By My Light both the “locutions,” her first letter to Archbishop Périer in January 1947, and a similar one at the end. No one had any idea of that experience, or of the darkness either.

JM: That’s something I didn’t know. Could you briefly describe the kinds of mystical experiences that began her ministry?

BK: The beginning, Sept.10th, which we call “Inspiration Day,” we thought of as a one-day thing, a special call. But we realized that it was only the beginning. Even then, when she wrote, she didn’t say precisely what happened on Sept. 10th. So in that first letter she says what’s going on—she’s hearing very clearly and distinctly the voice of Jesus, beginning on the train on Sept. 10th.  Then she’s going to Darjeeling for her retreat. So that continues. Even in the months later, in every Communion Jesus keeps asking: “Wilt thou refuse?” That is connected to the other thing that no one had any idea of, which is that is she made four years earlier the private vow she had made to give Jesus anything he would ask, or to say it another way, not to refuse him anything. So especially in the second letter where there is more of a sense of dialogue: the first thing Jesus is saying is: “Wilt thou refuse?”

“So, okay, you told me four years ago you’re going to refuse nothing and now I’m asking you to do this. You’re going to refuse?”

JM: Be careful what you promise Jesus!

BK: Exactly! Exactly!

JM: Now, as you understand it, Father, these locutions were auditory, which is rather rare in the lives of the saints. Is that accurate?

BK: They were in the imagination. They weren’t external, like an apparition or anything. But they were very clearly and distinctly not part of, say, her morning meditation. Even she called it “the voice.”  And she said it was very clear, very distinct. And so Father Van Exem was able to use a book by another Jesuit, René Poulin which helped him discern what that experience was.

JM: Now the dark night comes rather soon after her ministry begins. Now we have talked about this privately but, as far as you know, because it is somewhat unclear in Come Be My Light that lasted until her death. Is that your understanding?

BK: That’s my understanding. There’s one moment that’s been recorded in the book, in 1958, when Pius XII dies and, like we still do when a pope dies, the bishop will have a Mass praying for the repose of his soul. So at that Mass, Mother Teresa asked for a sign that Jesus is pleased with the work of the Missionaries of Charity. And at that moment, the darkness is lifted. And so she asked the pope the next month—a real time, again of intense union, as she had written to Father Neuner (as she had written three years later in 1961). She simply says that Jesus simply gave himself to me to the full—although the union, the sweetness of those six months passed much too soon.

JM: That brief period was when?

BK: That is…the locutions started on Sept. 10th and lasted until the middle of 1947. After that, they pretty well stopped.

JM: Oh, no, I meant that brief period when she had the one experience at Mass…

BK: Oh, sorry, it was 1958 for a month.

JM: I wanted to share this with you and wanted to get your reaction: A bishop who was one of her spiritual advisors told me a story. He said he was discussing with her dryness in prayer one day and relating how she didn’t feel God’s presence. The two of them were in Calcutta. And just then, as he was described it to me, a young boy came up and threw his arms around her. And he said to her, as I recall “That’s God’s presence, too.” Which brings me to the question I’ve always wanted to ask you: Do you think possibly that her early formation, in a sense, encouraged her to privilege the interior movements over the exterior signs of God’s presence? Because when I read the diaries and letters I sometimes want to say to her, “Are you looking outside of you?” Is there a sense of that?

(Long pause)

JM: Go ahead…

BK: That’s a good question. One of the comments she makes in one of her letters is that, thinking of especially her prayer time, she says “When I’m on the street I can talk to you for hours.” So there is some sense that all these experiences are more on the level of feelings. For example, she’ll say, “I know my mind and my heart bounce back to Jesus.” So she’s united with him more by will than, say, by pure faith. She sees all around her the whole work is spreading, it’s growing. She’s seeing the fruitfulness of it and she sees people reacting. She’s seeing the generosity of those who are helping her. So for her, that also has to be God’s presence, and God’s work.

JM: So she does see that. On the other hand, I’ve always wondered that maybe her mystical experiences early on were so beautiful, she simply craved them again, as anybody would.

BK: Yeah, that’s the thing. Strangely, people have said “Wo were the spiritual directors, why weren’t they helping her more?” It wasn’t until Fr. Neuner in 1961 gives her an insight and says “This is a spiritual side of your work.” So that lights the bulb, and, as Fr. Neuner said later on, after that she didn’t have much need of writing. So that kind of helped her. It was still painful and difficult, but at least, she had some meaning to it, to be associated with Jesus’ own suffering, and interior suffering especially. She used to comment that she thought Jesus suffered more in the Garden than in the physical suffering on the Cross, and now we have an idea why she was saying that.

JM: Yeah, well, thank God for good spiritual directors.

BK: Right.

JM: Many people, as you know, when the book came out, read that in some of her writings showed that she didn’t believe in God. But for me, her ability to rely on those original experiences was a real radical act of fidelity. Do you see it in that way, a kind of adherence to the original call?

BK: The sense of the call was what kept her going. She’d say I’m sure of the call—more sure than I exist, I’m sure of the call. So I think the sense that Jesus had asked her and that it worked and it was bearing fruit and it was growing—that fidelity, as you say, that call, kept her going. And from 4:40 in the morning when she got up, until late at night she was faithful to even those little things. Once someone asked me, “Was she depressed?” Even before the book came out, I wanted to make sure so I asked a psychologist what he thought and I saw Fr. Thomas Dubay’s book, Fire Within. He has a page where he compares depression and the dark night. So in Mother’s case it was not depression.

JM: As far as you know, there were no other saints that had such an extended period of darkness. Is that accurate?

BK: I asked Father Dubay once in Calcutta when he was giving a retreat, and he said the only people for any length of time near that was St. Paul of the Cross. He had intermittent times of consolation as well. And then he said St. Jeanne de Chantal, which I was surprised, since I didn’t know anything about that. I think Teresa of Ávila had 16 years, and we know St. Thérèse [of Lìsieux] in the last 18 months of her life. But I think there is no one with that extended period of time.

JM: For me it vaults her into the category of one of the greatest saints ever because the other saints did these great works with the poor, but with consolation.

BK: Right.

JM: …and she’s doing it on an “empty tank.”

BK: Right. We around her would think “It’s not easy being Mother Teresa,” with the demands—even on an airplane people are approaching you, wanting to talk, asking for a signature or a blessing. So you would think at least she’s enjoying this rich interior life to keep her going. And then we find out the opposite.

JM: It’s astonishing. I like what you said about her being a model for today as well. It’s interesting that God would give her the graces that were needed for today but also invite her into the suffering that many people today are suffering.

BK: We know that saints are raised up for a particular time, for the times in which they are living. So that’s one of the reasons why Mother had that experience. Was it because of such a widespread phenomenon, such a way of spiritual poverty? Even if you’re materially rich, or in any class of life, it is a really common experience of modern life. We go so fast and family life isn’t the same, so it is much easier to have that kind of experience of loneliness, of being unwanted and uncared for, seemingly.

JM:  By way of closing, can you tell us what it was like to be with her, what she was like personally, and what she meant to you?

BK: Well, I knew her in the last 20 years of her life, so I had the more mellow version of Mother Teresa! [Laughs.] At the beginning, she was always very demanding of her sisters especially. But what was really striking was how really motherly she was. Everyone who knew her even briefly would call her “Mother,” and the sisters would call her “Mother” and so to all the people close to her she was just “Mother.” She really wanted to be that maternal presence—that’s one of the striking things. The other was just how ordinary she was. Sometimes if you didn’t know what she looked like and you were in the convent, she wouldn’t be sticking out in any way, unless you noticed how she would do those little things, like a genuflection, or taking the holy water when you enter—the little things that you could say was a special way she did those things. She was a realist saint with her feet on the ground, very practical, very observant. You couldn’t anything past her. At meal times she would notice what sisters were eating, what sisters were not eating, what was said, what kind of mood you’re in—she was very observant!

JM: Like a good mother!

BK: Exactly, exactly.

JM: Can you describe your feelings about the upcoming canonization?

BK: Humanly speaking, one thing is a sense of satisfaction that its happening after these years of working and waiting. But I think the positive thing is that now throughout the whole church Mother can be more formally prayed to—public veneration, we say. So now even stronger, her example, her message for our own time, can be even greater, stronger, more widespread. Also, the other part of a saint is that they pray for us. So as the very beginning of the book there is a kind of her mission statement: “If I’m going to be a saint, I’m going to be saint of darkness and I’ll be asking from heaven to be the light of those who are in darkness on earth.” So that mission will continue. And that will continue even more strongly now.

JM: Well, Father Brian, thank you for your time. Congratulations and also thanks for all the hard work you did on Mother’s behalf and on our behalf.

BK: Thank you, you’re welcome.

JM: All right, God bless.

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