The first time Mother Teresa spoke to me, she was looking for a pen. She needed to write a letter — and do it quickly. The letter was to my parents, who lived in Kansas and whom she had never met.
I was a young priest, studying in Rome, in 1991. I had been invited by a friend to concelebrate Mass at the Missionaries of Charity house in Rome. Mother Teresa was there, and she had heard that my parents would soon be baptized and confirmed, received into the Catholic Church. She wrote them a short and beautiful letter: She thanked them for giving their son as a priest to the Church. She congratulated them on becoming Catholic, asked for their prayers and promised them hers.
Mother Teresa made me promise that I would deliver the letter to my parents. I gave it to them on the day they became Catholic, framed, along with a photograph of Mother Teresa and me.
Mother Teresa of Kolkata, who was canonized Sept. 4, has a worldwide reputation for holiness. Pope St. John Paul II called her “one of the most important figures of our time.” He’s right.
Mother Teresa was one of the most significant and influential figures of the 20th century. But she didn’t possess a high office, or direct a large social movement, or teach at an elite university. Mother Teresa just practiced kindness in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
She saw each person she encountered as Jesus Christ himself, and she loved them as Jesus Christ. She bathed the dying, or comforted the mourning, or gave away chocolate, or wrote notes to the parents of priests because she wanted to love each person as the Lord.
Through her kindness, selflessness and fearless heart, Mother Teresa became one of the most powerful witnesses to the Gospel in the Church’s history.
I worked in the Vatican for 10 years, and during that time, I became “Father Friday” at the Missionaries of Charity house in Rome, Dona di Maria. I celebrated Mass for the sisters each Friday. Sometimes, Mother Teresa would simply show up unannounced and pray and work with her sisters: scouring pots, sweeping floors and welcoming the homeless women of Rome to her convent.
One day in 1996, just a year before she died, Mother Teresa was in the back of the chapel, behind the other sisters. She knelt on the floor, gazing at Our Lord on the cross. I trembled when she came forward to receive the Eucharist, because I knew that she was a saint.
Before I left, she asked me for a blessing, which I gave her. I never spoke to her again.
But the humility, faith and high expectations of Mother Teresa are really unforgettable. She never assumed a privileged place in her community; she never expected special treatment; she never looked for honor or recognition. She simply loved as the Lord Jesus loved, and she taught others to do the same.
Mother Teresa’s influence is evident in each of her community’s homes. The Missionaries of Charity always live simply, and they depend on divine Providence. Mother Teresa lived with absolute dependence on divine Providence. She asked the Lord for everything that she needed, and she asked those she knew to give whatever they could. They expect the Lord to provide for them, and they expect others to provide for the poor.
Mother Teresa knew that serving the poor is a way to love Jesus, and so she encouraged everyone to join in her work. The Missionaries of Charity invited the late Cardinal John O’Connor to clean bathrooms in New York. They invited Pope John Paul II to serve meals to the dying in Kolkata.
While I was working in Rome, the Missionaries of Charity asked me to go to Russia, Armenia and Kenya to give retreats during Holy Week. Holy Week is one of the few times when Vatican employees have enough time to make a visit home. But when the Missionaries of Charity ask for anything, it is almost impossible to say No.
One year, I arrived in Nairobi on Tuesday of Holy Week to celebrate the Sacred Triduum for the sisters. I thought I might have a day or so to rest and prepare before the ceremonies began. The local superior asked me if I would be willing to hear confessions before the Triduum began. I agreed. Then she informed me that there were 200 novices and postulants who needed to go to confession. I asked if I was the only priest. She had learned from Mother Teresa: With a smile on her face she said, “Oh, yes, Father. We are going to use you up to the last drop and then send you back to Rome!”
Mother Teresa was not afraid of hard work, nor are her sisters. She expected no less from the priests who served her sisters!
In all of Mother Teresa’s chapels, next to the crucifix, are the words of Jesus: “I thirst.” She taught us that Jesus thirsts for us. She said that, on the cross, he is consoled by the small signs of love we offer him, that his satisfaction is in our love. She also said that we find Jesus among those who suffer, that we should take joy among the poor, the dying, the filthy, or the destitute, because Jesus himself is there.
On Mother Teresa’s canonization, I celebrate a figure who influenced the entire world for the Gospel. But I also remember the small, persistent, radiant woman who loved me with the Lord’s love and who taught me how to love as Jesus does.
May St. Teresa of Kolkata intercede for us.
This column was originally published Sept. 2 in the National Catholic Register. It is reprinted here with Bishop Conley’s permission.