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September 7, 1998  HOME | NEWS | SPECIALS

'We have never forced people to convert'

Sister Nirmala Sister Nirmala, superior general of the Missionaries of Charity, confesses it has been a busy week for her. With Mother's birthday and her first death anniversary separated by less than ten days -- there was plenty on her hands.

A year after the passing away of their legendary founder, Sister Nirmala's task has not been an easy one. As the mantle of a famous order now rests on her shoulders, she knows she has the huge responsibility of carving the future of the society. She also knows that a watchful world is observing her.

In the quiet sacristy of Mother House, Sister Nirmala spoke to Archana Masih, in her longest interview yet, about her association with Mother Teresa, her days in the order and the future of the Missionaries of Charity.

How has the past year been for you? How easy or difficult has it been to take on the mantle from Mother Teresa?

It has been a real challenge. It is difficult if I look at myself -- you know. The vastness of the responsibility, vastness of the work -- it is difficult. Then I look at God. He gives me the strength. But we need challenges, don't we?

Do you think people and the order have greater expectations from you because you have taken on the post from a very legendary figure?

I don't know what they expect. I think they have the right to expect from me. I definitely pray to God to give me more strength.

What are the goals you have set up for the Missionaries of Charity?

To continue in the footsteps of Mother. To follow the candle that God has given thousands of our nuns. With greater love. Greater service. Greater fidelity.

Do you plan to expand its work in countries it is currently based in?

Yes, we have already sanctioned 17 new homes. Some have already been opened. I think four of them are in India. One was opened on Mother's birthday this year.

Mother had expressed a desire to start a home in China before her death, has there been any progress on that?

Yes that was Mother's wish, and we have to pray for it. That will happen in its own time and Mother has to arrange it from heaven. She has to pray that her special wish is fulfilled.

Do you feel Mother's presence in the Home?

Sure, all the time. All the time. We feel it in our prayers, our hearts. We feel her guidance and love constantly. Mother has gone and yet Mother has not gone. Mother is with us.

What are the new areas you would like to open your mission in?

We want to start in new places. Mother had wanted to open homes in Burma, Indonesia, Laos ... god willing Vietnam. China, of course. This year we have sanctioned it in Kazhakastan and Djibouti -- in Africa.

I understand that two sisters, ordained in 1996 and 1997, have taken on the responsibility of running the mission in Yemen after three nuns were killed there in July?

Yes, the two sisters were the younger members of our community there. At the time of the shooting they were studying Arabic in Sanaa. We thought because of the incident these two juniors would be very frightened and might want to return. But they were not. They said they wanted to continue the work, so they are looking after the mission with three other seniors.

What is it that gives these women such courage even though they know they may confront death?

Love for God. Love for Jesus. He is our example. He gave his life for us. The sisters love God. They love the people they serve. It is better to die serving God and loving his people than live without the love of God.

What was the situation of the mission when you visited Yemen after the incident?

I was there for ten days. They were all very shocked. They didn't say much about what had happened, but there were all very courageous. When I asked them if they wanted to remain there, all of them raised their hands. We got a lot of support, prayer, sympathy from the people and government. Sisters and people around the world were with us in our grief. So they have been courageous and want to continue. The poor people who thought we would go away are happy that we are still there.

What kind of women join the Missionaries of Charity?

They have to be Roman Catholics because this is a Roman Catholic organisation, and there has to be a call from God. In that call we receive the blessing to live our life day by day. For every day is prayer. Every day is faithfulness to the life that is given to us. The new nuns also have to be healthy in mind, body and spirit.

Do they join very young?

They have to be 18 and above.

What if women from other faiths want to join the MoC because they want to do something for humanity?

They can be volunteers.

Or they have to convert to Catholicism before they join?

Yes, if she has to be a sister, she has to accept the faith.

If she remains a volunteer, can she get a habit?

No (Laughs).

In the four decades that you have been here, has their been a change in the profile of the girls who join the order?

It has become more international. First there were only Indians but then girls started coming from Germany, USA etc. Now we are all over 123 countries.

How many new girls have joined in the last year?

There are 180 in this batch.

Are you satisfied with the number?

I would like to have more (laughs). There are many many invitations from bishops all around the world to open centres. So the more nuns we have, the more we can spread our work.

What according to you would be a good number then?

1,800...(laughs). We need four sisters to start a house and we have so many invitations. So we need more sisters and holy sisters. Not nam ke vaste (namesake) sisters.

Are there times when nuns join and later realise they don't have the required dedication to do this kind of work?

Yes, it happens. It happens. But we give them a chance. Some we know at the beginning, otherwise we keep them as pre aspirants (aspirancy is the first stage). This could be longer than six months, according to the need. After this stage they are more sure, even we are more sure. After this they continue into other stages.

So every aspirant has to go through a pre-aspirancy period?

Mostly. During this time those who don't know English are tutored. The grace of God is told to them. It is after this that they can go into the next stage. But if they are meant for other things, they have to go back. At every stage they have a free choice. If they return we tell them God had another plan for their lives. At the end of the sixth year, those who really want to be a MoC for life -- they join.

How many are sent back like this?

Quite a lot. I can't say the exact numbers. Especially as generations are growing now, more will be sent back. There is such a difference between the older and the present generation.

Last year, after Mother Teresa died, serious doubts were expressed about the order's survival. Commentators felt donations would dry up in her absence, that noviciates may be hard to come by. Did you ever share these doubts?

Never. Never.

What gave you the confidence that this will not ever happen?

The confidence arose from the truth that this is God's work. We have never done this work for ourselves. Mother knew this was god's work. So if we remain faithful to God he will help us with noviciates, money and courage. He has done it. He is doing it. Never in my mind, never have I doubted this.

But you must be reading, hearing about this criticism, didn't it ever bother you?

No, because people don't know and this is the way the world thinks. We cannot stop them. They have to see for themselves.

Do you think donations and novices have fallen since Mother's time?


So can the commentators be rest assured about this?

Yes they can be assured. The world should pray for us that we can work faithfully for the cause of our Mother and the people. As long as we are faithful, we will be helped.

Did Mother Teresa ensure that no matter what happened, the MoC would continue to get the worldly sustenance it needs to grow?

If we are faithful to our God and our work. If we are not, we will face problems.

What do you see as her enduring legacy?

Love for God. Love for people.

Right wing Hindu organisations have accused your organisation of being involved in conversions. How do you react to the charge?

We don't worry about it. We must do our work to the best we can. And yes, our work must convert people's heart. Our work shows God's love. That love has to change the heart of people.

Change the hearts of people to see Christ?

To see God in their lives. To see human kindness. To love God. To love one another. To ask pardon for sins and become proper human beings. We, together with Mother, believe that people of whatever religion should believe and live their religion to the best of their ability. And if God wants to give a person the Christian faith, it is his choice.

Even I was a Hindu. Nobody made me a Christian. If anybody had told me to become a Christian, I would never have become one. It was the grace of God that touched my heart and I became a Christian. This conversion is only his responsibility. Nobody can make somebody -- be somebody.

So can you say with absolute conviction that the MoC have never indulged in proselytisation -- in conversions?

Like forcing the people?


Never. Never. We serve people of all religions, all castes. They don't have to become Christians to get our help. No.

Do you have many people expressing their desire to convert to your faith?

Some do, not many.

What do you do when someone wants to accept your faith? Do you give them some kind of training?

We initiate them in prayer. Those who really desire, we give them books to read. The really sincere ones ask us questions.

Do you foresee trouble ahead for the MoC in an India slowly being overcome by the forces of Hindutva?

I am not looking into the future, but up till now we have faced no problems.

Sister Nirmala interview, continued

Photograph: Jewella C Miranda