When Mother Teresa left the Loreto and started up her own thing, she was working with the poorest of the poor. It was really going out into the streets in Calcutta and picking up people who were completely destitute, literally off the rubbish dumps. A lot of them were elderly people and a lot of them were dying, and there was no way that they were going to survive. And it was just a question of trying to show that they were loved at that stage and they had someone to care for them.
This message affected me personally very strongly when I first started as a priest working in Earlsfield in South London and in Woolworth. In each of those parishes we had huge homes for old folk. They were in both cases Victorian workhouses that had been converted to use as homes. They were just these huge dormitories with dozens and dozens of beds and there was only about that much between one bed and the other. There was a little locker and that was the only thing of your personal things you put in the locker and then there was another bed.
And people went there, basically to die, in those days- when they could no longer live in their own homes. It could’ve been because they’d lost their money, or drink, or their own little problem. And the next thing they’d be picked up and taken to one of these workhouses and the misery. I was there as a chaplain looking after these people. And sometimes you’d get someone who had six children and they hadn’t heard from any of their children for years and years and no one came when they died. No one came to their funeral. I mean I had to bury them and they were on their own.
I did this when I was newly ordained and that affected me a lot. But it was understandable because they were people who weren’t used to writing letters. And their children might’ve emigrated America or somewhere else, and then didn’t keep in touch, or keep addresses, or send Christmas cards. So you’d get these old folk and they were abandoned.
So what Mother Teresa was saying about Calcutta and what was happening – I could see it very strongly in our society. And actually she was very conscious of this because she was aware of the fact that in our more, perhaps, developed countries where we have a national health service and various kinds of homes. There they get a bed and get fed and there’s heating. So there’s a tendency with people to say, oh well we don’t have to worry about our grandma or grandpa because they’re being looked after by the state, the national health has taken over, they’re looking after them, and that relieves us of having to do anything about it – and that is quite wrong. But that is, I’m afraid, a very very true factor in our society. And it’s very true today.
You don’t get that strength of care and also friendship and support in our society, it is a great weakness. She was very very conscious of that. And so she wanted to do something in London when she saw the number of people sleeping in the streets, and the needs of these people in what you might say a very wealthy city like London, like Paris and there are other parts of the world where she has done a lot of work. The needs are very serious, but they’re different sorts of needs.
So I was very affected by the things she said about loneliness and the need to care and support to give, and not to think of the state as taking over all that side of human life.