Mother Teresa's unfulfilled wish: to serve the poor in China

Mother Teresa of Calcutta circa 1986 at a public pro life meeting in Bonn Germany Credit Turelio via Wikimedia Commons CNA 5 19 15 Mother Teresa of Calcutta circa 1986 at a public pro-life meeting in Bonn, Germany. | Turelio via Wikimedia Commons.

It's a little-known fact that near the end of her life, Mother Teresa went to China three times in order to establish her order there, but was "heartbroken" when her efforts failed because of the poor diplomatic relations between China and the Holy See.

"Mother Teresa long dreamed of serving the people of China and, after bringing her sisters around the world – including to Russia, the United States and Muslim countries – China became and remained her focus," said Fr. John Worthley, who lived and taught in China for many years and accompanied Mother Teresa on all three of her trips.

"Indeed, Pope St. John Paul II asked her to live her final years as a bridge of love and reconciliation to China from the Universal Church," Fr. Worthley said at a symposium on Mother Teresa held Sept. 2 in Rome.

Reconciliation between China and the Universal Church may not be far off, according to Fr. Worthley. "I am very hopeful that something will happen soon. There's been a lot of good discussion and both sides are getting close to being ready," Fr. Worthley told CNA.

The priest admitted that there are still many obstacles to improving relations between the Holy See and China. He said there are many people who know a lot and "think it's naive to expect something soon." Fr. Worthley is hopeful, however, that it will happen soon, "only because of Mother Teresa's sacrifices."

Mother Teresa wanted "to be with the poor all over the world," but especially China, he said. When she was first founding her order, the Missionaries of Charity, and she received permission to lead the sisters, she was told that "a sacrifice would be offered for the success of the Missionaries of Charity."

A week later, the priest who had guided her through part of the process of founding the order died, and "she considered that a sacrifice," Fr. Worthley explained. "He had talked to her about China, and maybe that was what began" her interest.

Mother Teresa visited China for the first time in 1986, and then again in 1993. The final time she visited was in January 1994. Agreements had been reached for four of Mother Teresa's sisters to serve at a new Wellness Center for the handicapped, orphaned and elderly in Hainan, an island province of China.

But when she arrived in Hong Kong, before she could fly to Hainan, she received notice that entry was not allowed after all. "Mother was heartbroken," said Fr. Worthley. It was "the hardest thing for her."

"Mother had been so sure that this was the time. We gathered in Hong Kong and prayed for hours while appealing the decision. Mother's third and most difficult holy sacrifice for reconciliation was to accept the situation and depart," he said.

"We promised her that we would not cease our efforts until the time eventually became right."

In May, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, said that relations with mainland China "have been and are part of a long path with different phases. This path is not concluded yet, and we will finalize it according to God's will."

In an Aug. 27 speech at the diocesan seminary in Pordenone, Italy, Cardinal Parolin was positive. "Today, as ever, many are the hopes and expectations for new developments and a new season of relations between the Apostolic See and China for the benefit not only of Catholics in the land of Confucius but for the entire country, which boasts one of the greatest civilizations on Earth."

Cardinal Parolin emphasized that the pursuit of good relations with China – including diplomatic ties – are not an attempt at worldly success.

"They are thought out and pursued … only in the measure in which they are 'ordered' toward the good of Chinese Catholics, to the good of the entire Chinese people, and to the harmony of the whole society, in favor of world peace."

Pope Francis has shown great interest in restoring relations with mainland China, and it is no secret that one of his dreams would be a visit to Beijing.

Under Xi, the Holy See's relations with mainland China improved at a diplomatic level. It is noteworthy that Pope Francis has been the first Pope allowed to fly through the country's airspace, during his flights to South Korea and the Philippines.

More in Europe

The Church in China is thriving, said Fr. Worthley. "When you have a country of a billion and a half people," it doesn't take much to make it the largest sector of the Catholic Church in the world. 

"The churches are filled with young people and families … it's just growing amazingly."

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.