Editor’s note: Thursday marks the 31st anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision – Roe v. Wade – which opened the door to legalized abortion in the United States and began a political civil war that rages to this very day. The following speech by Mother Teresa speaks to this ongoing conflict and is excerpted from “Amazing Grace for the Catholic Heart: 101 Stories of Faith, Hope, Inspiration & Humor” by Jeff Cavins, Matthew Pinto and Patti Armstrong (Ascension Press 2003).
Introduction to Mother Teresa’s speech: Every year in Washington, D.C., political and religious leaders from across the United States come together for the National Prayer Breakfast. In 1994, President Bill Clinton, first lady Hillary Clinton, and Vice President Al Gore were on hand, sitting at the distinguished head table, in anticipation of honoring a diminutive nun from a far away place well known for her works of mercy to the poorest of poor.
In a city that loves a good debate, this annual event is intentionally non-partisan. Speakers seem to make concerted efforts to avoid controversy. The event is attended by people of all faiths. At this particular breakfast, however, the message was anything but meek, and the speaker’s talk was followed by a prolonged standing ovation from all except the president and his entourage.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, noted humanitarian and 1971 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, spoke of how precious life is and what we can learn from the poor. She unequivocally told those present that it is imperative for all people to stand up for life. Her words possess a power that pierced the hearts of those who heard them in 1994, and they continue to resonate the truth to all who would listen.
Here, then, is a slightly condensed version of her speech:
On the last day, Jesus will say to those at his right hand, “Come, enter the Kingdom. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was sick and you visited me.”
Then Jesus will turn to those on his left hand and say, “Depart from me because I was hungry and you did not feed me, I was thirsty and you did not give me drink, I was sick and you did not visit me.”
These will ask him “When did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or sick, and did not come to your help?”
And Jesus will answer them, “Whatever you neglected to do unto the least of these you neglected to do unto me!”
Let us thank God for the opportunity He has given us today to have come here to pray together. We have come here especially to pray for peace, joy and love. We are reminded that Jesus came to bring the good news to the poor. He had told us what that good news was when he said, “My peace I leave with you, My Peace I give unto you.” He came not to give the peace of the world, which is only that we don’t bother each other. He came to give peace of the heart which comes from loving, from doing good to others.
And God loved the world so much that he gave His Son. God gave His Son to the Virgin Mary, and what did she do with Him? As soon as Jesus came into Mary’s life, immediately she went in haste to give that good news. And as she came into the house of her cousin, Elizabeth, Scripture tells us that the unborn child – the child in the womb of Elizabeth – leapt with joy.
While still in the womb of Mary, Jesus brought peace to John the Baptist, who leapt for joy in the womb of Elizabeth. And as if that were not enough – as if it were not enough that God the Son should become one of us and bring peace and joy while still in the womb – Jesus also died on the Cross to show that greater love.
He died for you and for me, and for that leper and for that man dying of hunger and that naked person lying in the street – not only of Calcutta, but of Africa, of everywhere. Our Sisters serve these people in 105 countries throughout the world. Jesus insisted that we love one another as He loves each one of us. Jesus gave His life to love us, and He tells us very clearly, “Love as I have loved you.”
Jesus died on the Cross because that is what it took for Him to do good for us – to save us from our selfishness and sin. He gave up everything to do the Father’s will, to show us that we, too, must be willing to give everything to do God’s will, to love one another as He loves each of us.
St. John says you are a liar if you love God and you don’t love your neighbor. How can you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbor whom you see, whom you touch, with whom you live?
Jesus makes Himself the hungry one, the naked one, the homeless one, the unwanted one, and He says, “You did it to me.”
I can never forget the experience I had in visiting a home where they kept all these old parents of sons and daughters who had just put them into an institution and, maybe, forgotten them. I saw that in the home these old people had everything: good food, comfortable place, television – everything. But everyone was looking toward the door. And I did not see a single one with a smile on his face.
I turned to Sister and I asked, “Why do these people, who have every comfort here – why are they all looking toward the door? Why are they not smiling?” (I am so used to seeing the smiles on our people. Even the dying ones smile.) And Sister said, “This is the way it is, nearly every day. They are expecting that a son or daughter will come visit them.
See, this neglect to love brings spiritual poverty. Maybe in our family we have someone who is feeling lonely, who is feeling sick, who is feeling worried. Are we willing to give until it hurts, in order to be with our families? Or do we put our own interests first?
I was surprised in the West to see so many boys and girls given to drugs. And I tried to find out why. Why is it like that when those in the West have so many more things than those in the East? And the answer was: “Because there was no one in the family to receive them.”
Our children depend on us for everything: their health, their nutrition, their security, their coming to know and love God. For all of this, they look to us with trust, hope and expectation. But often father and mother are so busy that they have no time for their children, or perhaps they are not even married, or have given up on their marriage. So the children go to the streets, and get involved in drugs, or other things.
We are talking of love of the child, which is where love and peace must begin.
But I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child – a direct killing of the innocent child – murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that a mother can kill her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?
How do we persuade a woman not to have an abortion? As always, we must persuade her with love. The father of that child, whoever he is, must also give until it hurts. By abortion, the mother does not learn to love, but kills even her own child to solve her problems. And by abortion, the father is told that he does not have to take any responsibility at all for the child he has brought into the world.
Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching the people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. That is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.
And for this I appeal in India and I appeal everywhere: “Let us bring the child back.” The child is God’s gift to the family. Each child is created in the special image and likeness of God for greater things – to love and to be loved. This is the only way that our children are the only hope for the future. As other people are called to God, only their children can take their places.
But what does God say to us? He says, “Even if a mother could forget her child, I will not forget you. I have carved you in the palm of My hand.” We are carved in the palm of His hand – that unborn child has been carved in the hand of God from conception, and is called by God to love and to be loved, not only now in this life, but forever. God can never forget us.
From our children’s home in Calcutta alone, we have saved over 3,000 children from abortion. These children have brought such love and joy to their adopting parents, and have grown up so full of love and joy! I know that couples have to plan their family, and for that there is natural family planning, not contraception. A husband or a wife must turn their attention to each other, as happens in natural family planning, and not to self, as happens in contraception. Once that living love is destroyed by contraception, abortion follows very easily.
The poor are very great people. They can teach us so many beautiful things. Once one of them came to thank us for teaching them natural family planning, and said: “You people who have practiced chastity, you are the best people to teach us natural family planning, because it is nothing more than self-control out of love for each other.” And what this poor person said is very true.
These poor people maybe have nothing to eat, maybe they have no home to live in, but they can still be great people when they are spiritually rich. Those who are materially poor can be wonderful people.
One evening, we went out and we picked up four people from the street. And one of them was in the most terrible condition. I told the Sisters: “You take care of the other three. I will take care of the one who looks worse.” So I did for her all that my love can do. I put her in bed, and there was a beautiful smile on her face. She took hold of my hand, and she said one thing only: “Thank you.” Then she died.
I could not help but examine my conscience before her. I asked, “What would I say if I were in her place?” And my answer was very simple. I would have tried to draw a little attention to myself. I would have said, “I am hungry, I am dying, I am cold, I am in pain,” or something like that. But she gave me much more – she gave me her grateful love. And she died with a smile on her face.
Then there was a man we picked up from a drain, half eaten by worms. And after we had brought him to the home, he only said, “I have lived like an animal in the street, but I am going to die as an angel, loved and cared for.” Then after we had removed all the worms from this body, all he said – with a big smile – was: “Sister, I am going home to God.” And he died.
It was so wonderful to see the greatness of that man, who could speak like that without blaming anybody, without comparing anything. Like an angel – this is the greatness of people who are spiritually rich, even when they are materially poor.
And so here I am talking with you. I want you to find the poor here, right in your own home first. And begin love there. Bear the good news to your own people first. And find out about your next-door neighbors. Do you know who they are?
I had the most extraordinary experience of love of a neighbor from a Hindu family. A gentlemen came to our house and said, “Mother Teresa, there is a family who have not eaten for so long. Do something.” So I took some rice and went there immediately. And I saw the children, their eyes shining with hunger. (I don’t know if you have ever seen hunger, but I have seen it very often.) And the mother of the family took the rice I gave her.
“Where did you go? What did you do?” And she gave me a very simple answer: “They are hungry also.” What struck me was that she knew. And who were “they?” A Muslim family. And she knew. I didn’t bring any more rice that evening. I wanted them – Hindus and Muslims – to enjoy the joy of sharing.
Because I talk so much of giving with a smile, once a professor from the United States asked me, “Are you married?” And I said, “Yes, and I find it sometimes very difficult to smile at my spouse – Jesus – because He can be very demanding. Sometimes this is really something true. And there is where love comes in – when it is demanding, and yet we can give it with joy.
If we remember that God loves us, and that we can love others as He loves us, then America can become a sign of peace for the world. From here, a sign of care for the weakest of the weak – the unborn child – must go out to the world. If you become a burning light of justice and peace in the world, then really you will be true to what the founders of this country stood for. God bless you!
– Mother Teresa
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