Mother Teresa and John Paul II: Saints for the Modern World

EDITORIAL on a saintly spiritual friendship

Image: Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II on May 25, 1983, via L'Osservatore Romano
Image: Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II on May 25, 1983, via L'Osservatore Romano

Throughout the history of the Church, the lives of saints always seem to intersect. Consider Francis and Clare, Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross, Damien de Veuster and Marianne Cope — to name a few. 

The spiritual friendship between John Paul II and Mother Teresa, however, was arguably one of the most important of all time. The two not only were friends in the faith, but emerged in their own ways as patron saints of the modern world.

John Paul II was elected pope in 1978 and set to work, steering the Church toward an authentic understanding of the Second Vatican Council, and so helped the Church to have dialogue with the modern world.

Part of that vital dialogue was urging modernity to recapture a proper understanding of the dignity of the human person from conception to natural death.

Meanwhile, a year after his election, Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize, but she was already a household name as a voice for the defenseless, the weak and the forgotten.

The two had one of those extraordinary meetings that happen with saints on Feb. 3, 1986, during the Pope’s historic visit to India.

John Paul stopped in the city of Kolkata and met Mother Teresa in her refuge for the sick and dying. A humble building in the slums of the sprawling city, the home she founded in 1950 — called Nirmal Hriday (Sacred Heart) — housed 86 men and women dying from cancer, tuberculosis and neglect, but now dying also with dignity and with love.

Mother Teresa bent down to kiss the hand of the Holy Father, and he gently kissed the top of her head and asked to meet the patients in her care. The Pope blessed the patients and helped Mother Teresa and her sisters feed the suffering.

Thus began a friendship for the ages.

Where John Paul provided the theological and intellectual foundation for understanding human dignity in the face of the great darkness of the 20th century — abortion, euthanasia, atheism, communism and materialism — Mother Teresa was a living witness to what the Pope was teaching.

They were a powerful and fearless duo, exhorting the conscience of the world to recognize the innate dignity of the person.

In 1993, John Paul II traveled to Denver for World Youth Day. While there, he had a meeting with then-President Bill Clinton. The Pope told reporters afterward that he had told the president, “The inalienable dignity of every human being and the rights which flow from that dignity — including the right to life and the defense of life — as well as the well-being and full human development of individuals and peoples, are at the heart of the Church’s message and action in the world.”

Just as memorable was Mother Teresa’s encounter with the Clintons at the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.

Mother Teresa declared: “I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself.

“And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? How do we persuade a woman not to have an abortion? As always, we must persuade her with love, and we remind ourselves that love means to be willing to give until it hurts. Jesus gave even his life to love us. So the mother who is thinking of abortion should be helped to love, that is, to give until it hurts her plans, or her free time, to respect the life of her child. The father of that child, whoever he is, must also give until it hurts.

“By abortion, the mother does not learn to love, but kills even her own child to solve her problems.

“And, by abortion, the father is told that he does not have to take any responsibility at all for the child he has brought into the world. That father is likely to put other women into the same trouble. So abortion just leads to more abortion.

“Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.”

The Clintons sat stone-faced throughout, but Mother Teresa had one more surprise for them.

Speaking to Hillary Clinton afterwards, Mother found that she and the first lady had at least a little in common. The saint invited Mrs. Clinton to India and joined Hillary to establish a home for orphaned, abandoned and unwanted children in Washington the next year. The Mother Teresa Home for Infant Children eventually closed in 2002, but it was for a time an example of common ground, even for a fleeting moment, without compromising the truth.

Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II labored on, proclaiming the truth even as time and infirmity took their toll.

When Mother Teresa died on Sept. 5, 1997, John Paul II, more than anyone else, could speak to her holiness.

And so, on Oct. 19, 2003, when he declared her a blessed, he said in his homily, “I am personally grateful to this courageous woman, whom I have always felt beside me. Mother Teresa, an icon of the Good Samaritan, went everywhere to serve Christ in the poorest of the poor.”

Pope St. John Paul II and St. Teresa, pray for us!


Image: Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II on May 25, 1983, via L'Osservatore Romano