I don’t think anything could have prepared me for my first encounter with Mother Teresa “one of the greatest missionaries of the twentieth century,” as Pope John Paul II called her. It’s a good thing that the moment I met her was totally unanticipated, because it left me no time to worry about what to say or do when suddenly face-to-face with a “saint!”
I didn’t first run into Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India among the dying she was known to serve at Nirmal Hriday (Pure Heart) where those in their last moments lie on simple mats, lovingly attended to by the Missionaries of Charity Sisters. I didn’t visit with Mother Teresa at the Motherhouse where she spent much time at 54 A Lower Circular Road in Calcutta — that address that became instantly recognizable to me every time I spotted it on the corner of the envelopes of the letters I would later receive from her.
No, I first met the “saint of the gutters” in the capital of one of the richest nations in the world. I found her “by chance” in Washington, DC. Mother Teresa was visiting her Sisters and helping to care for the terminally ill cancer and AIDS patients lying on simple beds in their “Gift of Peace” home at the convent located in a poorer section of that great city and command center of the U.S. government.
I actually caught my first glimpse of Mother Teresa one summer morning when she walked quietly past me and knelt down for Mass celebrated in the Missionaries of Charity’s modest chapel. The Sisters had invited my family to Mass at their private chapel in DC. How fortunate we were that Mother Teresa happened to be visiting the country at that time! Straight after Mass, rendering me speechless, Mother Teresa walked directly towards me asking about my little daughter nestled in my arms and stretching her worn, wrinkled hand to touch Jessica tenderly. Being in the same chapel was blessing enough for me — it was more than enough, I thought. You can imagine my delight when I understood as she approached, that I was also given the gift to personally meet and speak with Mother Teresa in the intimate setting of the convent.
Awestruck and Startled
I had always considered Mother Teresa (now referred to as “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta” because of her beatification) to be a living “saint.” I admired her decades of selfless holy service caring for the “poorest of the poor” all over the world.
Suddenly, there she was, the hero of the poorest of the poor, caring for my family — giving us her time — touching us — speaking to us — blessing us! I didn’t even have to leave the U.S. to encounter this inspiring and remarkable woman. After the initial shock of meeting Mother Teresa, I was struck by her height, or lack thereof. Not much taller than one of my daughters, she stood before us with a prominent looking hump on her back. It startled me. I hadn’t noticed it in photos of her I had seen. My mind quickly attributed the severe protrusion to her constant stooping to care for the dying. She appeared frail, even ordinary. But, I knew in my heart that appearances can be very deceptive and that she was indeed a “power house” of faith, hope, and love.
In the Apostolic Exhortation, Christifideles laici, Pope John Paul II has told us, “The saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments in the Church’s history.” Thanks to God’s providence, I lived in the time of Mother Teresa and came to know the virtuous “saint” through at least a dozen more meetings and a couple of dozen personal letters from her and even a phone conversation between Calcutta and the U.S. Mother Teresa was not an unreachable or abstract saint of hundreds of years ago, but a real live, flesh and blood woman, no stranger to the realities of modern day life, someone whom I could speak and correspond with, one whom God had given to our era to raise up other saints and essentially teach us how to truly love the poor.
God used a simple, small, frail woman who called herself a sinner and “just a stubby little pencil in God’s hands” to win thousands upon thousands of souls for Heaven. Mother Teresa didn’t achieve this by getting involved in politics, or trying to analyze systems, ideologies, or economic patterns. Rather, she accomplished her amazing work through her one-by-one approach — of meeting each person face-to-face joyfully and ministering to them with Christ’s love. This she did even when heavily burdened with suffering herself including physical ailments and also a dark night of the soul, a secret suffering she carried quietly close to her heart. Her example of “loving until it hurts” is utterly edifying.
Mother Teresa allowed Jesus to live through her as she served Jesus who she earnestly believed lived in the poorest of the poor and in each and every person she met — even me, an ordinary suburban housewife. Everyone mattered. As a matter of fact, she constantly preached about the sublime dignity of every human being and fought tirelessly against abortion and euthanasia. She begged for all unwanted babies and said she’d care for them herself. She truly lived the Gospel of Matthew — “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of the family, you do to me” (Matthew 25: 31-46) and she beckoned us to do the same telling us that “holiness is not a luxury of a few, but a duty for us all.”
When asked why she didn’t try to fight for injustice and human rights or change structures, she explained that, while she and the Missionaries of Charity were not unaware of those things, “Our mission is to look at the problem more individually and not collectively. We care for a person and not a multitude. We seek the person with whom Jesus Christ identified himself with when he said, ‘I was hungry, I was sick.’” This was her approach with everyone and everything she came in contact with. Her simple trustful outlook may have come up against criticism, but it never failed.
Mother Teresa summed up the way she cared for the poor by saying, “To know the problem of poverty intellectually is not to understand it. It is not by reading, taking a walk in the slums, admiring, and regretting that we come to understand it and discover what it has of bad and good. We have to dive into it, live it, share it.” And this is exactly what she did.
Our Own Call
The life of working amongst the poor and outcasts drew me in — it intrigued me immensely. I even felt an intense call. Yet, I was a mother of five growing children. I knew my place was here in the U.S. and not in Calcutta or another poverty stricken area. After all, it was Mother Teresa who often preached, “Love begins at home.” Mother Teresa inspires us all to answer God with our own “Yes” to His plan for us for wherever we are. God asks us to care for the “poor” whom He places in our midst.
I would later found an apostolate called “Friends of Veronica” as an outreach to the lonely and forgotten in imitation of St. Veronica’s loving and courageous gesture of making her way through the crowd to console Our Lord by wiping Jesus’ bloody and swollen Sacred Face.
There’s much we all can do to alleviate the sufferings of the “poor” wherever we are located. A smile, an outstretched hand, a listening ear, words of consolation and care are all seemingly little things which are actually huge in God’s eyes when we offer them to others in love. Mother Teresa was famous for telling us “Small things done with great love bring peace” as well as “if we could only remember that God loves me and I have an opportunity to love others as he loves me, not in big things, but in small things with great love.”
Every word from Mother’s letters to me and every additional encounter with Mother Teresa that unfolded in the years that followed my first meeting with this modern-day saint pierced my heart and drove home a very essential and formative lesson for me. I didn’t need to traipse off to Calcutta to do Mother Teresa’s work. My spiritual mentor dressed in her simple cotton sari trimmed in Blessed Mother blue taught me that the poor may very well be the person in the cubicle beside us in the workplace, a lonely neighbor, or a family member starving for love right under our own roof. She showed us all that the poorest of the poor are not only those starving in third world countries, but they are the folks right here in our affluent country craving attention, love, and care. The work is indeed cut out for us in our own homes, neighborhoods and communities when we are willing to open our eyes, ears, and especially our hearts to Christ’s call to love.
In my book Mother Teresa and Me: Ten Years of Friendship, I set out to share my blessings and further the work of Mother Teresa by telling the world who she was and what she preached in an attempt to draw others closer to God and inspire them to love Jesus in the poor as Mother Teresa did so beautifully. The publisher encouraged me to “tell the whole story.” So, the book became part biography, part memoir. I have woven in many true stories of people I met along the way and my own experiences as my life unfolded in ministry after meeting Mother Teresa.
If we will bear in mind an insight that Blessed Mother Teresa had intimately understood and expressed, “Prayer makes your heart bigger, until it is capable of containing the gift of God himself,” we may then be able to offer our own prayer-filled hearts to all in need, starting first within our own homes to continue dear Mother Teresa’s work.
As we go about our daily duties, let us remember, “Calcutta is all over the world for those who have eyes to see” as Mother Teresa has often said. Fr. John A. Hardon S. J., my former spiritual director and a friend of hers and mine (now up for beatification), has said to me on many occasions, “There’s work to be done!”
Let’s do that vital work of evangelization with joy and love — by serving Jesus in one another — in both small and big ways. God bless you!