The Christian Church has a long history of saints who helped the poor, sick, and dying. And like so many others Blessed Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) devoted herself to this vital work. But what sets her apart is the way she not only served people in need, but dignified them. This makes her a model for the first major theme of Catholic social teaching, the life and dignity of the human person.
From the time of her birth in 1910, Agnes Bojaxhiu (Mother Teresa) was trained to respect the dignity of others, even those society ignores. Each weeknight Agnes’ mother invited poor people into their home for dinner and conversation. She especially welcomed women in distress: old widows with no caretakers, homeless women with no roof, and unwed mothers shunned by family and friends. Agnes’ brother later commented that, “[Our mother] never allowed any of the many poor people who came to our door to leave empty handed. When we would look at her strangely, she would say, ‘Keep in mind that even those who are not our blood relatives, even if they are poor, are still our brethren.’”
It was through serving these visitors that Agnes first discovered “Jesus in his most distressing disguise.” She came to value the poor not because of what they could do or produce, not because of their job or credentials, but because they radiated the image of God. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God” (CCC 1700). Thus from the beginning until now, every man and woman bears the divine image and so bears within an inestimable dignity. …
When the priest says the words of consecration, Christ becomes substantially present even though he’s not evident to our senses. Our faith helps us transcend sensory experience to spot the divine image in its most ordinary form.
Mother Teresa knew how crucial this was. Seeing Christ in the Eucharist enabled her to see him in the streets. “If we recognize [Jesus] under the appearance of bread,” she explained, “we will have no difficulty recognizing him in the disguise of the suffering poor.” This is why Mother Teresa could say, “I have an opportunity to be with Jesus 24 hours a day.” Whether in the chapel or the slums, the pew or the hospital, she recognized the Lord everywhere she went because she trained herself each morning at the altar.
I’m not sharing this for any particular reason other than the fact that confronting the poor is something we all do, and I think almost all of us struggle to do well in terms of any willingness to encounter that person as a person rather than as an inconvenience. I know I struggle with that. It helps to imagine our neighbors—of all walks and means—as wearing disguises, to some degree. In thinking this way, maybe we can put our ego to one side.