Mother Theresa on Eucharist, Priesthood, and Celibacy

Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who will be canonized tomorrow, was quoted by Fr. George Rutler in a Good Friday sermon in 1989 as follows:

Not very long ago I said Mass and preached for their [the Missionary of Charity’s] Mother, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and after breakfast we spent quite a long time talking in a little room. Suddenly, I found myself asking her – I don’t know why – “Mother, what do you think is the worst problem in the world today?” She more than anyone could name any number of candidates: famine, plague, disease, the breakdown of the family, rebellion against God, the corruption of the media, world debt, nuclear threat, and so on. Without pausing a second she said, “Wherever I go in the whole world, the thing that makes me the saddest is watching people receive Communion in the hand.”

mother theresaThe Mother Theresa of Calcutta Center in California has issued this clarification:

Mother Teresa would not have contradicted the Church. On the mode of receiving Holy Communion, she wrote to her sisters: “This is like the permission of the Bishops given some years ago for receiving Holy Communion in the hand. It is allowed, but not an order, … as M.C.s, we have chosen to receive Holy Communion on the tongue. If questioned about [it], do not enter into discussion – “let every spirit praise the Lord” – but let us pray that all be done for the greater glory of God and the good of the Church.”

You quoted “Wherever I go in the whole world, the thing that makes me the saddest is watching people receive Communion in the hand.” This statement does not seem authentic to us. We have never heard Mother Teresa saying these words nor read them in her writings.


If the attributed quote was in fact an exaggeration, it would not have been entirely out of character for Mother Theresa’s deeply traditional liturgical piety.  She had a deep devotion to the Eucharist, and connected it to the Passion of Jesus. She said:

“The Eucharist is connected with the Passion. If Jesus had not established the Eucharist we would have forgotten the crucifixion. It would have faded into the past and we would have forgotten that Jesus loved us. There is a saying that to be far away from the eyes is to be far away from the heart. To make sure that we do not forget, Jesus gave us the Eucharist as a memorial of his love … When you look at the Crucifix, you understand how much Jesus loved you then, when you look at the Sacred Host you understand how much Jesus loves you now.”


Mother Theresa was an advocate of Eucharistic adoration:

“Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration with exposition needs a great push. People ask me: ‘What will convert America and save the world?’ My answer is prayer. What we need is for every parish to come before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament in holy hours of prayer.”

She also said this about adoration:

“The time you spend with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the best time that you will spend on earth. Each moment that you spend with Jesus will deepen your union with Him and make your soul everlastingly more glorious and beautiful in heaven, and will help bring about an everlasting peace on earth.”


Mother Theresa had a deep respect for the ordained priesthood, with a rather unreconstructed high view of the priest’s status. She even spoke of the priest “replacing” Jesus by acting in his role:

There is no comparison with the vocation of the priest. It is like a replacing of Jesus at the altar, at the confessional, and in all the other sacraments where he uses his own ‘I’, like Jesus. How completely the priest must be one with Jesus for Jesus to use him in his place, in his name, to utter his words, do his actions, take away the sins, and make ordinary bread and wine into the Living Bread of his own body and Blood.

She saw priests necessary for access to Jesus:

Without priests, we have no Jesus. Without priests, we have no absolution. Without priests, we cannot receive Holy Communion.


Mother Theresa also advocated strongly for priestly celibacy:

I think many, many priests are being called, even without their realizing it, to give themselves totally to the Lord. Yes, the world is in great need of priests, of holy priests, of priestly celibacy, for the world is in need of Christ. To doubt the value of one’s priesthood and one’s priestly celibacy in today’s world is to doubt the very value of Christ and his mission — for they are one. Christ’s mission is ours.

There is much to explore in the life work and writings of Mother Theresa. No doubt most attention will be focused on her service to the poorest of the poor, and that is as it should be. But readers of Pray Tell will also be interested in some of the things she said in connection to the liturgy.



  1. The Mother Theresa Center has a Web site for things Mother Theresa did NOT say:

    It will be busy if they keep it up because she is going to be “credited” with every clever thing said by people nobody ever heard of and things people wish she had said and things she might have said about some subject while talking about a different subject. I’d suggest that if you have one of those you should attribute it to Twain or Churchill or, if the era sounds right, Dorothy Parker. They can take it.

  2. Other than her alleged sadness over receiving Communion in the hand, I find myself in agreement with most of Mother Theresa’s thoughts quoted here, including her views on celibate priesthood, inasmuch as this is so: How completely the priest must be one with Jesus for Jesus to use him in his place, in his name, to utter his words, do his actions, take away the sins, and make ordinary bread and wine into the Living Bread of his own body and Blood.”

    Even so, I just cannot get worked up over her canonization. It just seems wrong, as it did with the canonization of Popes John XXIII and JPII, especially the latter, to do it so soon after her death, not least because not enough time has passed, IMO, to do justice to this: “There is much to explore in the life work and writings of Mother Theresa.”

    1. Elisabeth Ahn, #2: “Even so, I just cannot get worked up over her canonization. It just seems wrong, as it did with the canonization of Popes John XXIII and JPII, especially the latter, to do it so soon after her death,” […]

      The canonization process has undergone so many revolutions through history that it is impossible to find a canonical example of the practice. I suppose then a critical acceptance of the current turn of the wheel is better than trying in vain to find historical analogues.

      Certainly I hope we will never return to the political canonizations of history. St. Vincent Ferrer comes to mind as an example of a political saint who engaged in rather un-saintly activities such as sanctioned and immoral anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. Still, I don’t see how the sociopolitical hatreds and evils in late feudal/early modern Spain and their influence on the canonization of Vincent Ferrer is any different than the quick canonization of St. Teresa of Kolkata. An external impetus, whether it be public inquisitorial policies or a popular reification of women religious in postmodern developing countries, lies behind every canonization. No canonization is “pure” (without ulterior motives), regardless of what individuals would rather believe.

      Sadly, my favorite “saint” will probably never be canonized. Fr. Emil Kapaun and his Mass-Jeep endeavored to feed all the Korean War troops who hungered for the Eucharist. Eh, I suspect that saints today require some celebrity, some extroverted spark. Mud splattered truck fenders aren’t romantic.

      1. @Todd Flowerday:

        Todd, I completely agree that more laypeople, and especially married laypeople, should be canonized. That door into sanctity must be opened much more widely. The laity can teach about the sacraments and daily sanctity as well as the clergy. I would also say that the married vocation should be taught as a bond which is not personal but a means to grow in faith in the domestic church.

        A moratorium on the canonization of the clergy and the founders of religious orders? Maybe a marked decrease in the number of these canonizations is appropriate, but I wouldn’t call for a complete cessation. As a person who has discerned that he shouldn’t wed (avoid tmi), and is also dissuaded from religious life, I rely on the example of the clergy-saints and religious-saints to guide me through the holy sacrifice and its banquet. In particular, I value saints (such as Fr. Kapaun) who, in the face of desperate circumstances, distilled Mass into its most visceral elements. Because I will never enter under the sacrament of Matrimony, I can only have a dim approximate knowledge of marriage as sanctified vocation. This is not to say that I cannot learn from a married-saint about sanctity and grace. However, I also rely on the turba of the consecrated and ordained saints for a firmer understanding of the Eucharistic hunger.

        Todd, your aspirations are well meaning. Yet, I am mildly concerned that a concerted effort to canonized the blessed married might leave other Catholics, and particular the single laity, out of a firm understanding of a foreign piety.

      2. @Jordan Zarembo:

        An external impetus… lies behind every canonization. No canonization is “pure” (without ulterior motives)… I suspect that saints today require some celebrity, some extroverted spark.

        Very true.

        But, I gotta confess something here. I’m not really very consistent when it comes to this issue. I’m quite uncertain about Mother Teresa, I’m very dubious and suspicious about JPII. But, I will probably be all for Santo Subito-ing Pope Francis when his time comes (and it’s not hard to imagine that happening), although I shudder to think, especially given what’s happened/happening with Mother Teresa, what the Francis haters, er, sorry, critics will say/do.

        And this is why I think there should be not five but at least 50-year waiting period after the person’s death before anything can even begin, with no fast-tracking allowed in the whole canonization process.

        As to Father Emil, as the cliché goes, he already is a saint in my heart, and surely, in God’s kingdom.

  3. I’ve not yet gotten particularly worked up over any canonization (though I may eat these words if our founder gets that honor). I do get very excited about beatifications though. A declaration, with the full authority of the Church’s ordinary magisterium, that a particular person is in heaven? That’s awesome (in the literal sense of the word). Canonizations don’t really compare.

    1. @Adam Booth, C.S.C.:

      Beatifications don’t do it for me either. I was all kinds of meh even when Pope Francis beatified 124 martyrs of my motherland. But, that’s all on me.

      Back to Mother Teresa (without an “h”! 🙂 ), watching the canonization mass, a typically beautiful celebration, made me wonder if, now that she’s surely had her one-on-one with the Lord, if she’s changed any of her views.

  4. Why is it that celibacy which is after all a discipline is “the only way” that priesthood is to be lived and practiced.

    I am more and more convinced after 40 yrs of marriage to the love of my life, a marriage with all the “bells and whistles” of a Roman Catholic sacramental rite and Eucharist that the church (the chancery/those “setting” forth the rules so to speak) have no REAL understanding of the value of marriage as a true sacrament of Christ, its self sacrifice and surrender to Christ through another person – as Teresa of Calcutta speaks of with celibacy. Most of what married people get from the “official” church by way or rules and homilies etc is HUMANE VITAE and canonical process/validity.

    Where are the married saints?

    Where are the models put up for 95% of Catholics who are or were married. After all we all come from some family
    Where are those models? I have three children, four grandchildren and have spent my life working in a professional capacity for the church – I know the second class citizenship that married folk fall into. It comes from bad theology and even worse a bad understanding of human anthropology, companionship and sexuality.

    Right now in my diocese, we have gone from 100 priests to 40 – we have 2 theologize seminarians studying. We have over 90 deacons and 850 commissioned lay ministers. Around 30% of our parishes which used to thrive are now either closed or amalgamated with no sense of what the next five years will bring. Its hard for me to see how there is any VOCATION crisis. It seems to me a crisis of vision and leadership and most of all an unwillingness over centuries for the Church to see the people who are married can serve in an ordained capacity with holiness and spiritual depth JUST AS WELL as someone celibate.

    It is the married couples I know who day in and day out in faithfulness raise children in a culture that is adverse to their Catholic values, who don’t go on month long retreats and sabbaticals and studies and spend countless hours and…

  5. Agrrrr! Can we please spell her name correctly?! It’s Teresa, without an “h”!!! (And yes, I am prone to insist on that since I had to repeat that refrain about my own name for much of my life).

  6. This is about Fr Rutler’s recollection of a private conversation he had with St. Teresa “in a little room”… So he was either mistaken or he is a liar. … Or his quote above is accurate.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but primary source material from someone of the character of Fr Rutler seems weightier than someone trying to prove a negative because it sounds out of character. She didn’t call out the practice as wrong; she didn’t “rail against it”. She simply said (IF Fr Rutler’s quote is accurate) it makes her sadder than anything else in the world.

  7. 50 years was the traditional waiting period, and probably is sufficient as long as a timely investigation has happened.

    I am more concerned with the cultus that promoted the cause. It feels like these speedy canonizations are driven by the Vatican rather than by a local community. I imagine Calcutta and her religious order were involved, but were they the ones who pushed it forward?

    1. @Teodoro Gonzales:
      I am an instituted acolyte / extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and I do not receive in the hand. I know more than one female extraordinary ministers who do the same.

  8. On the Sunday following her death, I asked the members of our parish if they believed that Mother Teresa should be numbered among the saints. They responded heartily and affirmatively. I’m happy that the canonical process is now caught up with the belief and sentiment of Christ’s faithful all over the world.
    Having said that, I don’t believe we should look to this Saint for guidance on liturgical matters. She was raised in a part of the world where the prevailing piety was regarded as sacred and unchanging. And her exemplary service occurred in a country where the same was true. Thank you, Mother, for teaching us to to do ordinary things in an extraordinary way; and for showing us how to recognize Christ in those considered the least of his brothers and sisters.
    I regard it as sad, bordering on tragic, that priestly ministry has been so inextricably linked to those who are willing to forego marriage and family. I have never met a single person who aspired to the priesthood because he discerned a call to be unmarried and chaste. But I have met many married men who would welcome the opportunity to discern a vocation to priestly ministry. Since Pope Francis stated his openness to bishops’ conferences making proposals to open this ministry to mature married men, a roar of silence has come forth from their excellencies. This included a formal statement from the bishops of Great Britain that they had no interest at this time. And what do the bishops propose? A redoubled commitment to the closure and consolidation of parish communities to better fit the vastly reduced number of celibate priests. In the meantime we have added another consecrated religious to the litany of the saints. With no offense to her, is there something wrong with this picture?

  9. Since it makes so much sense to include married men as candidates for priestly ministry, there has to be something out of kilter in those who have the authority to bring about this change.

  10. Fr. Rutler has attempted to correct the record concerning Communion in the hand:
    “She told me once after Mass that the “saddest thing in the world” was to watch people receiving the Blessed Sacrament irreverently. She motioned with her hands but she was speaking of the inward disposition of the soul and not the physical manner of Communion, whether in the hand or on the tongue. I mentioned this in a broadcast talk that was widely interpreted as Mother’s disapproval of Communion in the hand. This distressed her since the bishops had conceded both forms. She always received on the tongue and I have a photograph of me giving her Communion with the late Cardinal Mayer in Rome—he administering the Host and I with the Precious Blood as she often received both species. It may be that Communion on the tongue better avoids profanation especially in urban churches where there are many anonymous people who might abuse the Sacrament. But Mother did not want to be invoked in polemics. No sentimentalist, she ordered me to write a correction for a newspaper that had reported that she opposed Communion in the hand. I told her that I would “pray and then write” to which she replied like a Marine sergeant: “No! We need this right away! I pray! You write!” I transcribe the exclamation points I heard in her voice. I have lost count of the number of times I have explained this, and not a few have ignored and even resented what I wrote at Mother’s behest. I hope this puts the matter to rest. I doubt it will.”

    1. @Aaron Sanders:
      The problem is that Fr. Rutler doesn’t tell us WHAT his words really were, only that it was “widely interpreted” to mean the wrong thing. Which makes you wonder whether that’s what he said in the broadcast, and if not, why it was widely interpreted incorrectly. And if so, why didn’t he correct it right away and apologize for the misunderstanding he caused?

      His clarifying remarks are thus not entirely convincing.


  11. “Communion in the hand.”
    “If Jesus had not established the Eucharist …”
    “Without priests, we have no Jesus.”
    “To doubt the value of one’s priesthood and one’s priestly celibacy in today’s world is to doubt the very value of Christ and his mission”

    I find it really depressing that a person who believes all this is the kind who gets deemed a saint (not even going to the place where she mistreated patients at her clinic, etc.). But I’m not surprised.

  12. Just wondering: what theological training/education did Mother Teresa have to qualify her to make theological statements about the Eucharist, priesthood, etc etc?

    1. @John Swencki:

      I think all women religious have to have certain “theological training/education” before they profess their final vows, don’t you?

      Of all the criticisms to be hurled in Mother Teresa’s direction, this has got to be one of the most misplaced kind.

      @Aaron Sanders:

      “But Mother did not want to be invoked in polemics.”

      And yet, this is exactly what Fr. Rutler did, whether intentionally or not (though probably the former, it now seems/smh).

  13. I have a lot of respect for St. Theresa of Kolkata. However on this point of communion in the hand I have a lot of questions: Did Jesus do it? I do not think so. When Jesus and his disciples gathered at the last supper, they did not feed one another, they broke bread together and shared bread together. If one truly believes that the Lord instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, then we have to disagree with St. Theresa. Its true that she was brought up in the pre Vatican spirituality of the Church which we need to accept since like many old people, people do not want to change from their old ways of doing things. This is not to condemn them. But as St. James states in his letter we need to realize that the tongue is the worst place to receive the Eucharist. This is truly showing disrespect to Jesus at its best. ( James: 3:5,6.) In this sense, we should live “not from bread alone but from every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

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