Book on Mother Teresa to offer new firsthand account of the Saint
By Thaddeus Jones
A new book scheduled for release in September offers never-heard-before stories and insights into the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta shared by someone who worked closely with her.
American author Jim Towey has been associated with the Missionaries of Charity, the congregation founded by Saint Teresa of Calcutta dedicated to service of the poorest of the poor, for 37 years. He has worked both full-time and as a volunteer in a multitude of capacities for the Missionaries of Charity who serve the poor in 139 countries globally.
In his book, he recounts his time helping Mother Teresa and offers a unique firsthand perspective of the "miraculous woman behind the saint," especially during the challenging later years of her life. Jim Towey served as a trusted advisor and personal friend of Mother Teresa for twelve years. As a lawyer, he also helped her manage various legal affairs which he details in the book.
Towey met Mother Teresa in India in the 1980s when he visited as a United States Congress staff member and lawyer on a mission to the region. Mother Teresa's charisma, dedication and service to the poor that he witnessed profoundly affected him. The experience led him to start offering to help in the soup kitchens of the Missionaries of Charity and later to leave his job and livelihood to become a full-time volunteer for Mother Teresa as a special assistant to her.
Mother Teresa's legacy
September will also mark the 25th anniversary of Mother Teresa's death, and Jim Towey thought it would be the right time to publish his book whose overall theme shows how she believed the greatest need of a human being is to love and be loved. The anecdotes he shares bear witness to her profound sense of mission and shed light on how she tackled the many challenges she faced during her leadership, including the perils of celebrity, and the health issues she dealt with in later life. Her devotion to God and service to the poorest are featured in the stories, as well as how she taught him to be more prayerful, humble, loving God and neighbor without holding back.
Royalties from the book* will be donated to the Missionaries of Charity and other charitable causes aligned with Mother Teresa’s work.
In this interview with Vatican Radio, Jim Towey speaks about the book and his personal experience.
Q: Tell me about the book now that will be coming out in September, “To Love and Be Loved.”
A: The book is really a desire on my part to capture the beauty of Mother Teresa's humanity. Pope Francis speaks a lot about how the Blessed Mother was situated in reality and talked about how her vocation was lived through the day to day activities of her maternal life. And that was the case with Mother Teresa. She became a saint, not in spite of her humanity, but because of it. And the grit and determination, the sense of humor she had, she was real, she was flesh and blood. I think that needs to be captured, because sometimes we turn our saints into plastic statues and we rob them of their humanity, when, in fact, Mother Teresa loved to laugh. She could get angry. She loved chocolate. She cried, you know, she was fully human. That's what made her so beautiful, and I think so available to God's grace working through her, and that's why so many were drawn to her.
Q: Tell me about the first time you met her and then how that led you to where you are today.
A: I met her in Calcutta in 1985. I was at that point in my life quite lost, living an empty life. I seemed very successful. I was working in Congress at the highest levels as a staffer. Because of that position, I was sent overseas on a trip by Senator Hatfield to go and look at refugee camps in Indo-China. I thought since I'm on that side of the globe and since the senator knew Mother Teresa, it would be grand to go and drop into Calcutta and meet her for a day. The only way I talked myself into going into a city that I saw as squalid and so poor was that I said, I'll go in for one day and then I'll go to Hawaii afterwards for five days. That was the bargain I struck. So on August 20th, 1985, I met this tiny little woman, big hands. She turned 75 that week, and yet she bounded into the room like a schoolgirl just full of life and energy. She was everything I wasn't. She was focused, purposeful, and just in love with Jesus Christ. So that meeting was very impactful. She sent me to her home for the dying that afternoon. I thought I was going for a tour. I had no intention of touching anyone there or working, but the sister thought I came to volunteer and I was too proud to admit that I didn't want to touch that man in the bed that had scabies that she asked me to clean. I couldn't say no because I was too proud. So, I went back and cleaned the man, and that changed. Mother Teresa spoke of Jesus and his distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor. That was the day when I touched this body that Jesus touched me back. It led to obviously a great number of changes in my life.
Q: I remember a phrase of Mother Teresa. She said once that it's not we who evangelize the poor, but the poor who evangelize us. In a way, you lived that and saw that.
A: Yes, very true. You know that God uses them to unleash in our lives compassion and love that we had no idea existed. They're very powerful people, really. I've loved Pope Francis's concentration on the need we have for the poor. And, of course, in my book, “To Love and Be Loved,” I try to capture how Mother Teresa said Calcutta was everywhere if you had eyes to see. And she said that the poor were the hope and salvation of mankind. That sounds silly in a world so enamored with power, money, fame, celebrity, and such, to hear these words that the poor somehow have the key to our future. But they do, and if we don't discover this, we continue to have these divisions and struggles. That's why Mother Teresa's message is needed desperately today, and we need to hear Mother's voice.
Q: Tell me about some experiences you had that kind of put flesh on that and that they are the hope for the world. How did you see and experience that in being with her?
A: I saw her interactions with the poor in India and then I would be with her. I traveled some with her. One of the things I saw was she didn't see poverty as simply a material question. You know, certainly there is material poverty, and it's a scandal in a world with so much wealth and abundance. She saw also the spiritual poverty, that terrible loneliness. The reason I chose the title “To Love and Be Loved” for the book was because Mother said that the fundamental need of every human was to love and be loved, and that without this recognition that this was the primary need of individuals, we would often bog down on these other side issues. That spiritual poverty that comes when people don't feel loved, don't feel wanted, don't feel welcomed, that poverty is so great and profound. Mother saw that in the West. You know, I remember driving her around in Washington, D.C., and she would see the alcoholics and commented that they had food, but they were hungering for love and for welcome and recognition, acceptance, tolerance, and forgiveness. These were very important lessons about the fact that poverty has many faces and that Jesus there, in the midst of the lonely, is calling to us for relationship.
Q: Mother Teresa was so well known for going into some of the most difficult situations, whether early on with HIV-AIDS in the US, or in the slums of Calcutta, or the slums of every other part of the world.
A: She introduced me to AIDS patients. She opened the home in Washington at a time when very little was known about the disease, but she didn't flinch. As soon as she could get permission, she opened the first home in New York on Christmas Eve, 1985. Then she opened the home for the dying in Washington, D.C., in November of 1986. I was a night volunteer there. This really introduced me to care for the dying in a way different from Kalighat and Calcutta, and really showed me the beauty of these individuals and also to listen to their stories. When a man's dying, they're very open with you and to feel their rejection by their own family members because of the scandal of AIDS. It really taught me a lot about this pain that they had that I'd never experienced in my own personal life. I knew many great men and women that lived in that home. I worked here three and a half years and met many tremendous people that the world might not count for anything, but in God's eyes were precious. And of course, I'm certain that they were embraced into eternity by the merciful love of the Father because of all they had suffered and lived, and their humbleness and their openness to mercy and the expression of that mercy through the sisters, through Mother Teresa. I watched Mother go from bed to bed. She would connect with them, she would get eye contact, and she would touch them and rub their chest. These men had wasted away. The disease was so different from what it is today. Back then, people died within months. There was no medicine, there was no remedy. She connected with them. She just straddled this world and the next, it seemed, especially as she got older. She knew her days were numbered, so she really seemed to live in both worlds and understood the eternal love of the Father.
Q: Tell me some anecdotes, even a sneak preview of something that people have not heard yet about Mother Teresa and all of her work, something that you were an eyewitness to.
A: There's a chapter on all the legal issues. I provided her legal representation because people tried to use her name. They tried to use her name to raise money or to advance their businesses, so I had to fight that and to help with the opening of the homes. So, a lot of good stories about Mother Teresa's experiences with mammon, the world, and money. The memories I have of Mother, her motherly-ness, her stuffing a banana in my pocket because I hadn't eaten breakfast, and watching her make a peanut butter sandwich for me. She would just put it on the bread, pat the bread down, put it in a napkin and in my pocket and you go eat. She was a mother and expressed her maternity in a very beautiful way. I have stories that haven't been published about her interactions with people like Hillary Clinton, Princess Diana and Ronald Reagan. And of course, some stories with John Paul II. I think the Church is going to turn more intently to the mystery of that relationship between the two of those giants of the 20th century. They truly loved each other. There was a tremendous solicitude. When he was shot on May 13th, 1981, Mother Teresa flew out of Calcutta to come to his bedside. There was this connection. She had such a respect for him and he for her. I remember one moment I captured in the book that talked about how the Pope treated her like she was the pope. There were a lot of stories of her with her sisters. One sister was bitten by a dog and got rabies and Mother spent her dying 48 hours by her bedside as she went through that terrible death. She was a true mother. She laughed. She loved ice cream. She loved chocolates. She took pain medicine when she was sick. The book tells the stories of her last three days in a form never published that tells especially her last day. Then there's a chapter on her critics because the things that are being said about her now by people trying to advance their own causes are untrue and they need to be rebutted, so there's a chapter on rebutting her critics. The book has a lot of stories. Pope Francis talks about the power of stories, and I hope this book is faithful to that.
Q: Going to her last days, there was a book that came out of years ago talking about the dark night of the soul for her at that time. What can you tell us about that time for her?
A: There's a chapter in the book about this darkness of hers. It stunned everyone around her to read after her death, when these letters were being assembled during the cause for canonization, that she had had these doubts, questions, and darkness. We all thought she was getting all these delights from God whispered into her ear. You know, we saw how mortified her life was, how hard she drove herself. I met her, as I said, the week she turned 75, so I knew her the last 12 years of her life. I would see the toll on her, all the broken bones, all the heart attacks, the stroke, the tuberculosis, malaria dozens of times. You can go on and on with the physical challenges that she faced, but we thought God was giving her these lights and inspirations. To read after her death that she, in fact, had nothing but darkness for such a long time, this is a shock to us. I called up Sister Nirmala, her successor, and asked did you know about this? No, she didn't know. No one knew. This was to me even more stunning. It made me love her more because had I gone through that, I'd have been telling everyone about my trials. She told no one but her spiritual directors. She wanted all those letters destroyed. Thankfully, the Church preserved them so that we can appreciate that Mother had doubts about faith, she felt unloved by God and forsaken just as Jesus felt forsaken by the Father. I think God allowed her to experience that so that she could enter more fully into that forsakenness that Jesus experienced when he said that in the garden, Why have you forsaken me? I think Mother felt that and felt that in the lives of the poor, they felt abandoned and forsaken by God, and she was there to bring them the love of God.
Q: Don't you think that makes her even more believable as a saint today because of this experience which is perhaps so human and can regard all of us?
A: Yes, I do. I think it makes her more accessible to people of no faith, too, or people who've left the Church. Mother had a tremendous love for the lost, and some that were lost weren't lost at all. They had been rejected by the Church. She was always a welcoming mother to people that felt that somehow the wounds that they'd experienced through abuse in the Church, that these wounds had a difficulty in healing. Mother felt she converted no one. She said, God does the converting. Her job was to love. Of course, she worked in Calcutta, where Christians were a minority and Catholics a tiny minority. She felt like her job was to help the Catholics be better Catholics and the Muslims be better Muslims. And she left it to God. These questions of eternal life, you know, that wasn't hers to judge and to dispense, and the mechanics of salvation. She simply loved and knew that God loved them and that they were God's children. That's a very important message today with all the divisions, all the anger and the struggles that we see to recognize the primacy of this need to love and to be loved and for our need to express that in our Christian faith.
Q: What do you think she would do today if she were here today? I know this is a tough question, especially in today's very polarized world, where in every institution we have difficulty of listening to or dialoguing with one another.
A: I think she would continue what she had been doing. I think it was a universal message that's also eternal. She would continue to center her life around her love of Jesus Christ, her love of the Eucharist, her solidarity with the Blessed Mother. She'd expressed this by going and serving and loving until it hurts. She always said love until it hurts, give until it hurts. She said a life that's not lived for others is not worth living. A beautiful message we need now today to think of the other. We get so focused on our own plans and our own self-centered view of the world to be thinking of the other, to be reconnected after COVID now, to relate in new ways to people. We've been divided. We've lost our connectivity. There needs to be a rediscovery of our need for our neighbor. I hope that Mother's message in this book ignites in people a desire to reconnect. Technology is separating us so much. This artificial intelligence that dehumanizes. Mother Teresa comes with a refreshing message of our need for each other and the triumph of the person, the dwelling of God in the men, women and children in our lives. We need to rediscover that they're not a thing. They're a person. So, I think that would be a message that she'd be spreading now to love one another. That's what's on her tomb in Calcutta. She chose John 15:12, “love one another as I have loved you.”
Q: Would you say it's important now too, especially since 25 years have gone by since she died? How are you going to try and bring her witness alive, especially to a younger generation that has certainly heard of her, but probably doesn't know as much about her?
A: I think Mother saw in her lifetime the young and their hunger for God. And I think today it's no different. They've seen all the inauthenticity, all the phoniness, they've seen the hypocrisy. They're looking for the real. I was 13 years in academia. It was always a tremendous inspiration to see the hunger of the young people to give generously of themselves. I think they'll discover in Mother Teresa someone they can imitate, admire, and follow, that giving of everything to go and follow courageously God into the slums. I spent a good bit of time in the book talking about how improbable it was for a woman to do what she did. I think young women today will find in her a tremendous example of courage and creativity and how to express their maternity in great ways. She was virgin and mother to the world, very much the most Mary-like person since Mary. I think young people will connect instantly with her courage and her fearlessness. She was fearless. She went to the lepers, she went to the AIDS patients. She went to the high places. She wasn't highly educated. She trusted in God that kind of abandon, that kind of surrender and trust, where do you see it? So, I do think that she's going to appeal. It's our job to help, as the Church must do to help people rediscover the power of the saints to discover that their lives are eternally new and inviting. I do think Mother Teresa is badly needed today, her love and I think she's going to be very significant in this century.
Q: And just a word about some of the criticism that has always been out there. One of the things they would say is that she didn't advocate enough. They would say she was not out there trying to fight the root causes of poverty. What would you say to that?
A: I think she admitted that she wasn't there to do that. That wasn't what God asked her to do. She was there to bandage the wounds, to love, to clean, to heal the individuals God brought to her. She challenged people around her, saying you go do that work. She saw what her role was. She was on the front lines there with the poor. She simply saw those roles as complementary, that within the body of Christ and the different gifts the Holy Spirit gives, that her gift was there to be the healing hands and the maternal hands, the Blessed Mother's presence in the lives of these individuals. So just like when people criticize the level of care at her home for the dying in Calcutta, that's become very fashionable now to substitute 50 years later standards of care that didn't exist back then. You had to be in Calcutta to see what she was doing. She wasn't running a hospital. She was taking them off the streets, cleaning them, and sometimes they didn't live but a few hours and they died like angels. So, she loved them. She welcomed them. She knew them by name. She wasn't there to provide hospital care. So those that criticized should have opened hospitals or gone and worked in them. That wasn't her job. She felt her calling was to welcome them, bring them in and help them to experience the tender love of God for them. That's why I think she didn't apologize at all for the work she did. This was what she could do. She said it was a drop in the ocean, but she felt that the ocean was better for the drop. And it was.
Q: Do you think sometimes that the critics, whether with Mother Teresa or any person, expect them to be experts at everything and addressing everything?
A: Right, exactly. She didn't feel that was her job to solve all the world's problems. She said God doesn't call me to be successful. God calls me to be faithful. She understood that when she met with Castro or she met, you know, with other leaders in the world, she knew that they would try to exploit that meeting for their own purposes. She also knew that to get into the country and get her Missionaries of Charity Sisters into those countries, she needed the approval of these leaders. Thank God that she went into behind the Iron Curtain into the 1980s when she was going places the Church wouldn't go. Pope John Paul II understood that and was asking her to go to these places. She was almost preparing the way for the Church that could finally get into Cuba years later. She got there first. Her mind was on touching and serving the poor people tried to exploit. Critics will continue to try to exploit and misrepresent her life. She didn't feel she was special. She just felt God asked her to do this work and she was going to be faithful.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add, even an anecdote in conclusion?
A: I've loved Pope Francis's message of our need to turn to the needs of our poor and also the rediscovery of the Eucharist and the power of the Eucharist. I've loved his message of our need for our Blessed Mother, and that this is a real relationship lived in reality and situated in reality. Mother Teresa was flesh and blood and grit and determination. She was joy. She was sorrow. She lived a full life and a rich life. I think that the Church exists to invite us to that call of the plenitude of the Holy Spirit, the joy, the fullness of life. I do think that the Pope and his two predecessors who've delighted my life, that there continues to be this urgent call to return to what Jesus Christ asked us to live and to do it fearlessly.
*"To Love and Be Loved" by Jim Towey, Publisher Simon & Schuster (September 6, 2022), ISBN13: 9781982195625