Most of us have encountered people who have left indelible marks on our lives. They could range from charity workers to teachers to relatives who have instilled good values in us and amplified the importance of volunteer work and service over self.
But, not many can boast having learnt life experiences from religious gurus or saints. One person who has had the privilege to work with a saint is Vatican Ambassador to Malaysia, Archbishop Joseph Marino. In 1976, he volunteered to serve with St Teresa of Calcutta, known as the “saint of the gutters”.
Albanian-born St Teresa is known for establishing Missionaries of Charity (MC), a religious community set up in 1950, which manages homes for the sick, soup kitchens, mobile clinics, orphanages and schools. By the time she died in 1997, there were 517 missions in over 100 countries, serving the “poorest of the poor” in 450 centres worldwide.
For her compassion and determination to help the poor, she was honoured India’s Padmashri Award and the Philippines’ Ramon Magsaysay Peace Prize in 1962, and 17 years later, the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.
With so many righteous qualities to her name, it seemed like a natural progression for Marino – a budding Catholic seminarian at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in the mid-1970s – to volunteer at St Teresa’s MC in Calcutta in 1976.
According to Marino, it was his first year of studies in Rome and during summer break, in particular, when fellow seminarians were encouraged to enlist at charity organisations of their choice. Some of his classmates chose to serve at religious institutions scattered throughout Africa and Europe. But Marino decided to spread his wings in India instead, specifically, in Calcutta.
“I chose MC as I’ve always been impressed with St Teresa’s dedication to help the poor. I wanted to know more about her selfless act of assisting orphans, the sick, wounded and dying,” says Marino, 64, during an interview in Kuala Lumpur recently.
Fuelled by passion and determination, Marino – who was then only 23 – travelled halfway across the world from Rome to Calcutta, the Western Bengal state grappling with poverty and economic uncertainty. It was his first trip to India, and Asia as well, and the experience of being stationed in Calcutta – with its slum population – came as a culture shock.
“I was in my early 20s and it opened my heart to witness people living in dire conditions. I could have chosen to walk away and pretend they didn’t exist or embrace and care for them like how St Teresa did,” says Marino, who volunteered at MC for a month.
During his stint, Marino spent a fair bit of time with the selfless woman, who went on to found other missions, such as Missionaries of Charity Brothers (1963), the contemplative branch of the Sisters (1976), Contemplative Brothers (1979) and the Missionaries of Charity Fathers (1984).
“St Teresa came across as a humble, patient and distinguished person who was clear in her vision. She believed in teaching and serving the poor unconditionally. Although she couldn’t change the reality of the social situation of the poor, she constantly reminded us that God is with us. She often spoke of how people should work together to reflect kind deeds,” recalls Marino, who hails from Alabama, the United States.
Marino explained how St Teresa lived by the principle where, if one wanted to work with the poor, they’d have to eat, live and breathe like the poor, literally.
“I slept on a thin, foldable mattress and that was a ‘backbreaking’ experience. My meals comprised rice and vegetable curries, three times a day. As I wasn’t used to the diet, I shed 6kg within a month,” says Marino, revealing the staple diet resulted in him avoiding Indian curries for several years.
Marino would start his day at 5am, followed by an hour of silent prayer, celebration of Mass and breakfast. At 7am, he would follow other missionaries on volunteer work, encompassing visits to different ministries, where abandoned and sick children, cancer patients and the aged graciously received them.
Each day, he would be assigned to different ministries. When assigned to care for male cancer patients, Marino had to bathe and feed them, clean up their living quarters and pray with them.
“You’d never be able to truly understand the intensity of it till you’re in it. It was a humbling experience. I even had to help them shave. Our mission was to enable them to see their lives out in dignity, providing them with food, love and cleanliness,” recalls Marino, who also travelled to the outskirts of Calcutta to help the needy.
Marino also had the opportunity to follow the nuns to villages to teach orphaned children and distribute rice to poor villagers. One incident that touched his heart was how a poor woman generously offered half her rice portion to a villager who had more mouths to feed.
“This reminded me of the miracle of loaves and fish, where Christ fed thousands of people with a few pieces of bread and fish. The woman was the miracle, where she had the power to share despite being poor and downtrodden. These little miracles still remain etched in my mind,” shares Marino, with a warm smile.
Asked how he incorporates St Teresa’s teachings in his daily duties, Marino explains: “The experience of Calcutta taught me a spirit of openness and compassion.”
One thing Marino holds closest to his heart is St Teresa’s motto of embracing people, regardless of religion, creed, colour or medical condition.
“I learnt to be stronger and this helped develop my empathy towards the needy, especially social prejudices, loneliness and rejection. The poorest of poor deserve love and care and we should reach out and help them lead better lives,” says Marino, who has attended several conferences in Rome in the 1970s and 1980s with St Teresa as guest speaker.
In 2012, Marino managed to visit St Teresa’s tomb and her humble room in Calcutta. The visit was a humbling experience as he finally understood her true meaning of simplicity.
“Her room was moderately-sized, comprising a twin bed, cupboard, desk and chair. It showcased her symbol of true humility and definition of service above self.”
Last year, Marino was among the tens of thousands who attended St Teresa’s canonisation at St Peter’s Square in Vatican City, Rome. He says it was a privilege being at the ceremony honouring his beloved idol.
“It was a lovely service. I felt so moved to hear people clapping for joy when Pope Francis proclaimed her a saint,” says Marino, who has been living in Malaysia since 2013.
Just like how many people have found volunteer work to be the experience of a lifetime, Marino feels privileged to have worked with a saint who was filled with compassion and infinite goodness.
“Throughout our years, we may have picked up good values from people from all walks of life. St Teresa taught me values concerning respect, kindness and humility, values of importance to bind people together.”