I was not yet a priest. I was still in the seminary and supposed to have dinner with one of my priest-professors from the seminary. I didn’t own a car, so he had to drive. In the car he asked me if I minded if we stop somewhere for an hour before dinner as he was asked to say Mass for a group of sisters in the Bronx. And so off we went to the South Bronx.
Entering the convent we were met by a dozen young sisters all dressed in their beautiful white and blue habits in the Indian tradition called “saris.” Instantly recognizable the world over were Mother Teresa’s Sisters, or the Missionaries of Charity as they are correctly known. All of their habits are the same. Each sister owns 2 blue and white habits, worth about one dollar. Each sister owns a small bucket in which she washes her habit. That is all they own.
We entered the chapel—all of their chapels are the same. No chairs, but simple small carpets or straw mats and an altar made of simple bricks. In front of every altar in their convents worldwide are the words: “I thirst,” the fifth words Jesus would speak from His Cross. The sisters are constantly reminded that Jesus thirsts, not for water, but for the salvation of every soul. I picked a small straw mat and sat down for Mass, surrounded by a dozen nuns all dressed alike. A few minutes into the Mass I looked at the nun next to me and I froze: the most admired and recognized face in the world. I wanted to yell, but couldn’t utter a word. At the end of the Mass the sisters say a long litany of prayers. Seeing that I was not familiar with the prayers Mother Teresa handed me her own prayer book! I was reading out of her personal prayer book.
After the Mass I was fortunate enough to spend a while privately with her. She was very tiny and she kept holding my hand. Her last words to me were: “Be a holy priest.” And that was it. Off she went.
There are countless stories about this woman who last week became Saint Teresa of Calcutta. She is the second official saint I have met in this life. The other official saint was Saint John Paul II. That meeting, perhaps, will be the subject for another time. These are only two “official” saints I have met. I have met lots more. There was Margaret who would collect shoes and drive them out east to distribute to the homeless; there is Dan who prepares meals throughout the week for the homeless; there is Christine who gave away her own grave to a stranger; there is the priest who died with nothing in his room because he gave everything away to the poor. There are lots of saints around. Most of them don’t realize they are saints. All of them would deny they are saints. There are many saints I have met in this life. But Saint Teresa of Calcutta…her I will never forget.