Coming from a family where I’m the third generation that was born and raised in the United States, we grew up with an appreciation, pride, gratitude for this nation. My Grandpa Jim Trippodi, (my name sake) who’s family had come from Italy would talk about America on a pretty regular basis as the “greatest country in the world.” That wasn’t a statement said with blinders or rose-colored glasses. He was a World War II veteran, had lived through the Great Depression. So he was very realistic in his assessment – and never said it was “perfect” or “free from all sin.” Comparatively speaking though, and he was pretty well versed in the differences from country to country – when he explained the potential, the opportunity, the freedoms that we enjoy and the generosity of our country as opposed to many other nations, it was hard to argue with him (and usually not a good idea… anyway).
That’s why it was somewhat jarring the first time I heard St. Mother Teresa’s very different take on things. She was being interviewed by a reporter who had gone to visit her and the Missionaries of Charity, the religious community she had founded in their outreach to the poor and dying in Calcutta, India. For decades she had seen abject poverty, lived and worked in the slums, and what she told the reporter that was so shocking was her assessment that, it is us who live in what’s described as “the West” or “First World Nations” that are really poor.
“The spiritual poverty of the Western World is much greater than the physical poverty of our people,” she explained to the reporter. He couldn’t help but notice that as she was saying this, a fan was trying to alleviate the unbearable heat of that Indian city which had him thinking of an incredibly comfortable office building where he normally worked or even the local homeless shelters that care for the poor in our country which would seem like a luxury hotel in comparison to where he found himself at that moment. The future saint continued: “You, in the West, have millions of people who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness. They feel unloved and unwanted. These people are not hungry in the physical sense, but they are in another way. They know they need something more than money, yet they don’t know what it is. What they are missing, really, is a living relationship with God.”
In the decades that have passed since I first stumbled upon that theme of Mother Teresa, which was something that she discussed numerous times in a number of talks, lectures, and interviews – the truth of what she said rings even more true now than it did back then. Despite all the advances we’ve made… or the fact that consistently, the U.S. is listed as the most or one of the most generous of countries in the world in the “World Giving Index” – this poverty, this hunger seems to be growing to famine like conditions.
What gave Mother Teresa the ability to speak with such clarity and authority was that she had not become some Social Justice warrior or CEO or COO of some philanthropic organization. Her acts of charity were rooted in her love for Jesus and her relationship with Him. She worked day to day to “serve him” in caring for him as she looked at the poorest of the poor as having the face of Christ himself. She knew that the things, the needs of this temporal world are in fact temporary. She attended to their physical needs, their physical hungers because she was wanting to spend eternity with Jesus Christ. That was her motivation. That was what differentiated her from probably a lot of other humanitarian efforts that were bigger and fed more people on a regular basis. But it’s also why Mother Teresa left a lasting memory that still inspires and challenges us almost 2 decades after her death. I remember her words more than any director of the different charities or organizations I’ve encountered over the years.
Because Mother Teresa didn’t take this chapter of the Gospel that we’ve been hearing from all week – the Bread of Life discourse – and morph it into talking points where they taking “hunger” and “bread” out of context to spin it into discussions on “hunger for justice” and that we need to be worrying about those without “their daily bread.” Those are legitimate needs and issues that need attention. But not at the expense of what is being said here. Mother Teresa knew that at the heart of this Gospel, is the message that Jesus hungers – thirsts – for us… and that deep within, deep inside each and every human soul there is that hunger and thirst for God as well that only Jesus, who is the way, the truth, the life can fill. A hunger for love that is genuine, sincere, eternal… A thirst for life that is free of pain, suffering, fulfilled…
The reason we suffer in some ways greater than those we describe as “poor” is that with all of our comforts and luxuries – we can numb those hungers and thirsts on a pretty consistent basis to the point that we become blind to those needs… until moments of real crisis, tragedy when those numbing agents no longer suffice.
Those who are poor, who have gone without those things are able to receive the generosity of people like Mother Teresa (or her sisters who have followed her since) and recognize the beauty in their selflessness and sacrifices. They witness that this joyful service of theirs points to these deeper eternal realities that Jesus’ promises us when we receive His gift of the bread of life, His very self.
May we be humble enough to recognize this true hunger and thirst ourselves. Finding in Jesus the only thing that will satisfy those needs. Realizing, sharing this good news is the only thing that truly matters.