100th Anniversary of Blessed Mother Teresa's Birth
Mother Teresa As I Knew Her
I would never be so bold as to claim that I knew Mother Teresa intimately or that Mother Teresa really knew me – although deeply holy people have a way of looking into one's soul. Nonetheless, I was very blessed to encounter Mother Teresa on many occasions, especially when I served as priest and auxiliary bishop in Washington, D.C. With your kind permission, I'd like to relate some of those stories in the hope of reflecting at least glints of her holiness and love.
I first met Mother Teresa when I was a seminarian at Mt. St. Mary's Seminary. The year was 1974 and I was a first year theologian. The seminary was abuzz over her visit - we regarded her as a celebrity. But she arrived without any of the trappings of a celebrity. She came in a van driven by a volunteer and was accompanied by two sisters. All of us expected her to talk about her heroic charitable work in Calcutta. She touched on it but the real theme of her talk was the vine and the branches. This woman, who even in her dark night, was so deeply in love with Christ, told us that to be good priest we would have to be joined closely to the Lord. She had a way of speaking simply and profoundly at the same time. Not one of us missed her message.
Twelve years later I was serving as the priest-secretary to Cardinal Hickey who, at the time, was the Archbishop of Washington. He had invited her to Washington almost as soon as he arrived there in 1980. She set up the contemplative house on V Street in Anacostia and a wonderful home serving unwed mothers and their children on Wheeler Road. Her next project was to set up a hospice for homeless victims of AIDS and she was looking for a building in which to house it.
The Cardinal sent me on Mother Teresa's real estate search. Among the places she asked to see was the headquarters of Catholic Charities. I was a little bit reluctant but what was I to do – this was Mother Teresa! So off we went – Sandy McMurtrie, two of Mother Teresa's Councillors, Mother Teresa herself, and yours truly. Mother Teresa looked at the building and pronounced it too large. Wiping the sweat off my brow, I secretly gave thanks to God. Then suddenly, she conferred with her sisters and then proceeded to place miraculous medals in the mortar between the bricks. It was then I knew I was sunk!
She decided not only to open up an AIDs hospice there but also to make it the place where her sisters would prepare for final profession.In the process, Catholic Charities, which ran housing programs, became homeless. When I got back to the office, the Cardinal took the news calmly. He said that in the long run this would bring many blessings to the Archdiocese. I think he and Mother Teresa were on the same wave length. They were living the Beatitudes!
Not too many years later, just after I became an auxiliary bishop of Washington, the Cardinal asked me to celebrate the Mass of final profession for the MC's. It was one of the occasions when Mother Teresa herself was present and there I was celebrating Mass and preaching (no pressure there).I kept remembering what she often said about not spoiling the work of the Holy Spirit and fervently asked for the grace not to undo God's good work. I'm not sure that Mother Teresa ever learned my name but she saw me many times after that and I am told she referred to me as "that nice young bishop" – an opinion I hope she still has in her place in heaven.
Mother Teresa's work with the poor was phenomenal I was blessed to witness where she got the vision and strength for what she did. More than once I saw her at prayer before morning Mass, sitting on the floor with the rest of the sisters, absorbed in prayer. I thought to myself, it must be very easy for Mother Teresa to pray but I found out later that she experienced the dark night of the soul. It was hard for her to pray but she prayed anyway and her prayer was the source of charity, that love which St. Paul celebrates in our 2nd reading, that love which never fails.
Mother Teresa could touch the hearts of anyone and everyone. At one point in the early 90's, she was invited to speak at a national prayer breakfast which President and Mrs. Clinton would also be attending. Mother Teresa called Cardinal Hickey's office to find out if she should accept but the Cardinal knew right away that wild horses would not keep her away from the event. He mentioned the challenges and pitfalls she might face but Mother Teresa would not be deterred. Practically every national leader of prominence was there and Mother Teresa spoke of the sacredness of human life. She said that no mother needed to have an abortion – instead she would provide a home for those children. And she spoke not with anger but with such love and simplicity that even the President and Mrs. Clinton were moved to tears. Before long, Mother Teresa had Mrs. Clinton helping her open a new convent where children would be cared for while they were awaiting adoption.
Nor did Mother Teresa mind giving highly placed prelates jobs to do. One day when I was still the Cardinal's priest secretary, she called. As I had done so many times, I put Mother through to the Cardinal. When the call was completed, he called me into his office. He told me that Mother Teresa requested that he help her open a convent in China! "That's a tall order!" I said. The Cardinal laughed and phoned Cardinal O'Connor. The two of them really did try. After all, if she softened Fidel Castro's heart... who knew what she could do?!
As Mother Teresa was nearing the end of her life, Senators Santorum and Brownback, together with their colleagues, decided to award Mother Teresa the Congressional Medal of Honor. The ceremony was to take place in the Rotunda of the Capitol. Because Mother had become frail by the point in her life and there was some concern that she might repeat herself, Cardinal Hickey was asked to give her acceptance speech. He knew her well enough to give a beautiful talk that reflected her holiness, her love for the poor, and her utter generosity of spirit. When the Cardinal finished his talk, she stepped right up to the microphone and delivered a beautiful extemporaneous talk. No one, not even a Cardinal, was her spokesperson!
After all those experiences, I was overjoyed to find out that just before my appointment to Bridgeport Cardinal Egan had invited the Missionaries of Charity to come here. Even though I didn't know anyone, I got help in finding a benefactor to donate the house on Colorado Avenue and to fix it up. Now, nine years later, there are two convents, two tabernacles, and in the spirit of Mother Teresa, you, the Missionaries of Charity, are giving a wonderful witness to Christ in your loving service to those in need, to the poorest of the poor.