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!” 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.
Strange to say, I cannot remember our first meeting, which was in 1980 when I was studying in Rome. In the moral constancy of her presence, every conversation seemed the same and the surroundings were totally irrelevant. But she always gave the impression that she had all the time in the world, and the one to whom she was speaking was the only other one in that world. Once I arrived at the ancient church of St. Gregory with my cassock a bit disheveled, having been chased over a wall by a dog, and Mother gave the impression that it was a normal way to prepare for Mass. She would kiss the hands of the priest who had given her Communion in thanks for having brought Jesus, but she had no illusions: More than once did I hear her say how people wherever she went felt betrayed by priests. Nonetheless she asked them to remember her as the drop of water mingled with the wine in the preparation of the chalice.
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.” I still have the radiant memory of listening to her talk with my own mother on a visit to New York some years later, and it was like listening to two neighbors chatting over the backyard fence. Just as picturesque was the time in Rome when she led me by the hand through a large field of poppies on the periphery of the city and then served tea on a rickety table in the garden. Afterward, because there was a public transportation strike, she and another sister and I tried hitchhiking. No one gave us a lift, but Mother barely shrugged her shoulders.
I have a picture of her wearing an insulated coat such as meatpackers wear when she arrived in the Bronx one winter night. When that picture was taken she winced because of the cataracts that had swollen her eyes: “Jesus told me to let the people take pictures, so I told him to please let a soul out of Purgatory each time the light flashes.” Her eyes could look ineffably sad, as when she heard that during Holy Hour in our hospice, a patient had hanged himself upstairs. There was no humbug about her. She could give orders like a Marine sergeant, and her counsel was pointed but not piercing. When she told me to correct a reporter who had misquoted her, I said I’d pray about it and then write. “No,” she insisted, “we need this right away. I pray. You write.”
After I had preached one morning, she pushed a book across the kitchen table: “Reading is good but make your meditation before you preach and then just tell the people what Jesus told you.” I had the sense that she was on a special wavelength. 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. All through the Christian annals it has seemed perfectly natural and not silly to tell them, “You gotta save Christianity. You gotta.”