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Jesuit Philosopher Recounts Time with Mother Teresa


For millions of people Mother Teresa was a living saint and a cultural icon. For Saint Louis University's noted philosopher John Kavanaugh, S.J., she was a very real person who had a direct and dramatic effect on his life.


As the world marks the 10th anniversary of her death this week, Kavanaugh, a professor of philosophy at SLU, recounts his experiences working with Mother Teresa in the mid-1970s during his formation as a Jesuit.

The year was 1975, and it was time for Kavanaugh to spend year in prayer, service and humble ministry. He traveled to India where he hoped to get a new perspective on his own life while learning firsthand more about poverty around the world.
John Kavanaugh, S.J., professor of philosophy, talks with Mother Teresa in 1975 during his month-long humble ministry in Calcutta, India.

After arriving in Bangalore, where he would spend much of the year, Kavanaugh was asked to select a site to spend his month of humble service. Although Mother Teresa had yet to reach the iconic status she had at the time of her death — she won the Nobel Peace Prize four years later — Kavanaugh still was very familiar with her ministry and work.

He wrote to Mother Teresa about spending a month at her House of the Dying in Calcutta. Wanting to be fully immersed in the experience, Kavanaugh asked to live with the Brothers of Charity, who like the Missionary Sisters of Charity, live a rigorous life of poverty.

"She told me she wanted me to live with Jesuits not with the brothers," he recalled. "She said the last Jesuit who had stayed with the brothers had died," immediately ending Kavanaugh's desire to live the really frugal life of the brothers.

So in December 1975, Kavanaugh flew to Calcutta. Mother Teresa met him at the airport and made quite a first impression.

"She was small, but kind of like a dynamo," he said. "She was very business-like, very intense and fast moving."

The House of the Dying was a former temple converted to a home for women and men found dying on the streets. Among them was a Bengali man whom Kavanaugh's transport picked up on his first day of work. As part of his service, Kavanaugh would wash and feed these "patients," most of whom would never leave the facility alive.

It was during this period that Kavanaugh saw Mother Teresa in action. She had arrived home after a short trip, and as usual, her first stop was the House of the Dying. She immediately went to a man who was very close to dying. For days, workers had not been able to get him to eat. He had hardly opened his eyes.

Kavanaugh says his year in India — especially a month working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta — was a transforming experience.

"She sat right down next to this man and took his face in her hands," Kavanaugh said. "His eyes opened, and she was able to engage him in a way we had been unable to do."

There was something else remarkable about the scene. It reminded Kavanaugh of something he had witnessed while saying daily Mass at the Sisters' motherhouse.

"When Mother Teresa started feeding (the dying man), it struck me that it was just like the way she received communion."

Kavanaugh said this moment, which probably was like countless others in her life, spoke to Mother Teresa's powerful connection to the poor and her ability to identify with the marginal.

Kavanaugh says his year in India—especially a month working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta—was a transforming experience.

"She had said she wanted to help people by taking on their suffering, including their feelings of abandonment and absence of love," Kavanaugh said.

This may help explain why she struggled with her own faith for decades, as revealed in the new book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, which features letters she wrote to spiritual advisers.

News of Mother Teresa's spiritual turmoil didn't shock Kavanaugh, who once sought her counsel as he pondered his future. He wasn't sure if he should return to America to become a university professor or if he should stay abroad and work with the poor. Kavanaugh asked her to pray for clarity.

"I was surprised when she said she wouldn't pray for clarity," he said. "She said what I needed was trust."

Kavanaugh responded to her that he assumed she had always had clarity; that she always had known what she was supposed to be doing.

"She said that she never had clarity; that all she had was trust."

For Kavanaugh, knowing that Mother Teresa spent years in what theologians call desolate prayer, makes her selflessness and life of service even more awe inspiring.

"It takes away that plaster notion of a saint," he said. "It really shows her profound humanity and her profound identification with our Lord and human suffering."

Ultimately, of course, Kavanaugh decided to return to America to teach. He has been a professor at SLU for 30 years and currently teaches undergraduate courses in medical ethics. In the 1980s, Mother Teresa asked him to serve as the Missionary of Charity's first confessor following their founding in St. Louis.

Looking back, Kavanaugh said that year in India — especially that month working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta — was a transforming experience.

"The most indelible thing about Mother Teresa was her insistence that the greatest need in life is greater trust, that the absence of love is the greatest poverty and that the Eucharist is not only the center of our worship, but also the center of our concern for the poor.

"Those are three sustaining things in my life, even at the present."



Clayton Berry. "SLU Jesuit Philosopher Recounts Transforming Time Spent with Mother Teresa." Saint Louis University September 4, 2007.

Reprinted with permission of the author, Clayton Berry, and Saint Louis University.

The Author

Clayton Berry is the Director of University Communications at Saint Louis University.

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John Kavanaugh, S.J. (Ph.D., Washington U.-St. Louis, 1971) is Director of the Ethics Across the Curriculum Program at Saint Louis University. Ordained a priest in the Society of Jesus in 1971, he obtained a doctorate in Social Philosophy from Washington University in St. Louis. He has frequently published on issues of consumerism, intrinsic value, and ethics of life. He is the author of Human Realization: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Man (1970), Following Christ in a Consumer Society (1981), Faces of Poverty, Faces of Christ (1991), a three book series entitled The World Embodied: Meditations on the Sunday Scriptures - Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C, (1996-98). His newest book is entitled Who Counts as Persons: Human Identity and the Ethics of Killing (2001). A regular columnist for America magazine, he is also an award winning syndicated columnist.

Copyright © 2007 Saint Louis University
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