Mother Teresa’s Enduring Lessons

U.S. Catholic leaders who knew the saint of Kolkata personally speak of what made her holy: love and prayer.

Pope St. John Paul II with Mother Teresa in 1988.
Pope St. John Paul II with Mother Teresa in 1988. (photo: © L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — Today in Rome, it was announced that Pope Francis will enroll Mother Teresa in the canon of saints this fall.

And while the news has possibly caused the greatest joy in her native Albania and her adopted country of India, it has also given immense happiness to those in the United States who intimately knew her. Several of those Catholic Americans spoke with the Register this week, about the ways that the saint-to-be profoundly influenced their own lives of faith.


Residing in Holiness

As Ave Maria University President Jim Towey told the Register, “My wife and I give thanks to God for the privilege of knowing her. And now she is a saint, which will allow us to know her even better. We knew when she was alive, however, that holiness resided in her.” Ave Maria has a project dedicated to the saint of Kolkata’s life and work that encourages students to follow her holy example.

Susan Conroy, who wrote Mother Teresa’s Lessons of Love and Secrets of Sanctity and has hosted an EWTN series on saints and considered Blessed Teresa her mentor, agrees.

During her first summer serving with Mother Teresa in Kolkata, Conroy recalls how, one day, nothing went right. She decided to pray in the chapel to “hit the ‘reset’ button in my heart. Little did I know I would discover Mother Teresa alone with Our Lord in the chapel, in deep communion with God! I will never forget the sight of her … kneeling on the floor, with her head bowed, in loving union with God. She was radiant with love of Our Lord! It was so obvious that she had a ‘direct line’ to heaven that I felt like tapping her on the shoulder and saying, ‘Will you give him my love while you have him on the line?’ It was strikingly beautiful to behold. She was a woman in love … with her Groom! He was always on her mind, on her lips and in her heart.”

EWTN personality and author Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle also counted Blessed Teresa as a friend. Like Conroy, she wrote a book about her, Mother Teresa and Me. She says what made the nun holy was how she would always pause “from what she was doing to tend to the need that unfolded before her, whether it was speaking to someone in need, righting some wrong or serving in some way. She wholeheartedly embraced Jesus’ instruction to serve him in everyone: ‘Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me.’”

“Everyone mattered to her,” O’Boyle added. “Her example of holiness radiated out in the love she showed to everyone around her.”

What enabled this holiness, she says, was prayer, whether it was the constant Memorares she said or the Mass.

“She was very clear that she needed a firm foundation of prayer to do her work. She said she needed to partake of the broken Body of Jesus in the Eucharist at Mass every morning to be able to go out and serve the broken bodies of the poor.”


Human Model of Love

And though Mother Teresa is correctly seen as a woman of towering holiness, Towey cautions against making her “a plastic-statue saint.”

He notes, “She was fully human. She loved music; she loved poetry; she loved people. She missed her sisters when they were gone; she grieved when they died. She liked chocolate ice cream and candies, and she had a great sense of humor. A few times she got really mad at me, and I felt it.”

Asked why God willed Mother Teresa’s canonization at this point in history, Conroy observes it may be because the “world is so in need of loving, kindness, humility, faithfulness, selflessness, prayer, purity, love of God and everything Mother Teresa modeled for us so beautifully.”

For her part, Cooper O’Boyle said, “That is a tough question to answer. But I trust God knows what he is doing when he chooses this moment in time, during the Year of Mercy, when we can reflect on the wonderful, selfless work of Mother Teresa and perhaps be drawn to being more merciful ourselves. After mercy comes justice — now is the time.”

Towey also made a connection with the jubilee, noting, “[Her canonization] will be a wonderful day for the Church universal, and it will be a great way to renew our commitment to the poor, whom she loved so well, and it will be a jewel in the crown that is this Jubilee of Mercy that we are living.”

But he also observed that her becoming a saint may serve another purpose. People born after 1997 have grown up in a world where, for many, the greatest poverty is that of the soul.

“Mother knew the darkness and isolation that so many throughout the world feel,” he said. As such, “I think she will have a greater impact in the 21st century than she had in the 20th.”


Father Rutler’s Remembrance

Contacted by the Register this week for his own observations about Mother Teresa’s personal influence on him, Father George Rutler provided the text of a December 2004 commentary that was subsequently published in his book Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive.

“In the 1935 film The Crusades, there is a breathless moment when Loretta Young pleads with Henry Wilcoxon, playing Richard the Lion Heart, ‘You gotta save Christianity, Richard! You gotta!’” Father Rutler’s remembrance begins. “Though not a high point in cinematic art, the line reminds me of how so many spoke to Mother Teresa, now Blessed. All who knew her have their stories to tell, but common to most encounters with her was a confidence that she could do something about the fragile circumstance that believers and half-believers found themselves in at the end of the millennium.”

Father Rutler, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, recounted that while, strangely, he has no memory of his initial meeting with Mother Teresa in Rome in 1980, he vividly recalls other encounters that highlighted both her humanity and her holiness, such as the time she “silenced even a Jesuit who joked that she seemed to be getting smaller: ‘Yes, and I must get smaller until I am small enough to fit into the heart of Jesus.’”

On another occasion, “On my way to say Mass for her in New York, I found myself in the subway standing in front of a kiosk featuring magazines with women who were only innocent of the Legion of Decency. After Mass, although I had said nothing, she said, ‘On your way through the streets when you are coming to say Mass, don’t look at the magazines with the women on the covers.’”

“By showing the utter naturalness of supernaturalness, saints are a sacrament of the transfiguration,” Father Rutler commented at the conclusion of his remembrance. “All through the Christian annals it has seemed perfectly natural and not silly to tell them, ‘You gotta save Christianity. You gotta.’”

Brian O’Neel writes from Coatesville, Pennsylvania.