Actually, Mother referred to the houses where her sisters live not as convents, but as "tabernacles," i.e. places where Our Lord Himself lives. First and foremost, those MC houses or convents are houses of prayer. That important point helps us to understand why Mother Teresa said, "My sisters are not social workers, but contemplatives in the world."
Of course, Mother was not taking anything away from men and women who unselfishly devote their lives to social work. Rather, she wanted to make a distinction that it would be useful for us to consider. By describing the MC's as "contemplatives in the world", Mother Teresa was indicating among other things that the work that the sisters do in caring for the poor is the fruit of their prayer. One of the Missionaries of Charity once told me that the thing that most distinguished Mother Teresa as a saintly woman was her ability to see Jesus Christ in every person she touched: That marvelous ability-one we should all aspire to emulate and practice---was the fruit of Mother's prayer, her daily personal conversation with Our Lord.
Mother Teresa wrote the following beautiful words to her sisters, but she could have just as easily addressed them to you and me: "I worry that some of you still have not really met Jesus alone-one on one-you and Jesus alone...Do you really know the living Jesus...from being with Him in your heart? Have you heard the living words He speaks to you? Never give up this daily intimate contact with Jesus as a real living person. Jesus wants you each to hear Him speaking in the silence of your heart."
Although America has its share of material poverty, it is our "spiritual poverty," as she called it, that most concerned Mother Teresa. By spiritual poverty, Mother meant the deficit we incur by failing to know, love and serve Jesus Christ, a deficit that often has its roots in an empty or superficial prayer life. Contrary to what many well-intentioned people want us to believe, the problems that confront American culture are generally not problems that can be solved in Washington or in Hartford. Much of what is actually sick in our society could be repaired, so to speak, by individual men and women who frequently and worthily receive Holy Communion, who make a sincere and humble confession each month, and who persevere in prayer - i.e., "contemplatives in the world."
I celebrated my fourth anniversary as a priest last week, and I thank everyone for their prayers and good wishes. I thank God for my vocation (and for St. John's!). My experience as a priest is relatively brief, I know. But I am certain that many Catholics flounder and even find themselves in grave difficulty because they do not regularly talk to God and because they do not really give God the chance to talk to them. Sad. What is keeping you from becoming a contemplative in the world and then enjoying the peace the world cannot give?