Thursday, September 1, 2016

Meeting Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Mother Teresa of Calcutta
I had the privilege of meeting Mother Teresa of Calcutta the summer of 1979. I was a graduate student at St. John's University and working for Fr. Hardon, S.J., who was one of my professors. He hired a few students, I was one of them,  to work along with his senior editor and researcher on The Modern Catholic Dictionary. It was a nice, sunny New York City day. We agreed to meet Father at the Jesuit residence on Park and 83rd Street, then walk a few blocks to the subway and take the train to the Bronx. It was there at the contemplative convent that Mother Teresa was visiting her Missionaries of Charity sisters. Fr. Hardon was teaching her sisters and he would hold conferences with Mother Teresa when she was in town. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet her as were my friends. I didn't quite know what to expect. I had been educated through ninth grade by religious sisters, but a teaching order not an order dedicated to serving the poorest of the poor or the sick and dying, and certainly not a sister who had international recognition.

Fr. John Hardon, S.J.
When we arrived at the convent, Fr. Hardon went off to his classes and we were given a tour and told about the work of the sisters and the schedule they followed. The contemplative order of the Missionaries of Charity is the praying arm of the active order. Their main work is to pray, but as in any living establishment, there is much to do to maintain the home: cleaning, laundry, cooking and more.

As we walked through the convent, I was surprised to see the modest sleeping arrangements. The sisters slept on cot-like beds with a very thin mattress. I was more surprised to learn that they rose at 4:00 am in the morning. I knew that religious sisters got up early, but I was unaware that some sisters and nuns rose as early as 4:00 am or even rose during the night only to retire for a few more hours of sleep before rising for the day. It was an eye-opening visit for me. What was even more eye-opening was the spirit of joy that permeated the sisters and the whole convent. I had never experienced that spirit of joy before. It was very uplifting, light and full of gladness. You might think that it was an indication that I was called to be a Missionary of Charity, but I knew it was not my calling. However, I will never forget the gift of that day and being introduced to the Missionaries of Charity's beautiful spirit of joy.

We had the wonderful opportunity of going to Mass with Mother Teresa and the sisters. The room that Mass was held in was not very big and it was also very simply furnished. There were no kneelers or pews. We all stood and knelt from our sitting positions on the floor. Our Lord had been adored in the Monstrance just before Mass began, and it was very impressive in such a small space to have the Monstrance reigning on the altar, then removed for Mass. There was a distinct sense of an Indian presence although most of the sisters were from the U.S. and the Mass was of the Roman rite. Still there was an unique atmosphere. Mass was beautiful, very quiet and full of serenity.

We ate lunch which the sisters prepared for us. Mother Teresa was not present, but there were other guests besides ourselves. The lunch was delicious! The sisters said that it was prepared from donations of left over food from grocery stores and those who wished to help the sisters. Again, I was amazed at what a tasty meal could be prepared from donations. Who knew!

A short while after lunch we were invited to meet Mother Teresa. We entered a small parlor-like room where Mother Teresa was standing among a number of guests. Fr. Hardon was present. I was surprised to see how short Mother Teresa was. I stood about 5'5 1/2". She barely came to my chest. I was anxiously, perhaps foolishly, waiting for some kind of personal revelation about Jesus' plan for my life from her. After all I had heard of people receiving insights into their souls from Padre Pio and St. John Vianney, and I knew Mother Teresa had a very special calling and charism from Our Lord. When I did get to meet with her for about 30 seconds, she told me, "Follow Jesus." Simple, direct and profound. It wasn't quite what I was expecting, but it was and is the best advice anyone can give - "Follow Jesus."

Anyone who knew Fr. Hardon knows that this is a very typical pose of his where he bends over and looks directly into the face of whomever he is speaking to, in this case, Mother Teresa.
We finished our visit with Mother Teresa and hopped back on the train with Fr. Hardon, returning to our work and studies. The experience was a rich one, more than perhaps any of us knew at the time. It was so typical of Fr. Hardon to always be doing good, thinking of others, and sharing the wealth of spiritual treasures that came his way. I only worked for him that summer, but he arranged  an interview for me which led to a job that  I held for the next four years.

Mother Teresa will be canonized this Sunday, September 4, 2016. May God be glorified! Fr. Hardon is a Servant of God which means that the cause of his canonization has begun. Both individuals were called from very ordinary lives to bring the love of Christ to many, and they each accepted that call. Many, many of us have been the recipients of their cooperation with God.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us

Fr. John Hardon, pray for us