In the summer of 1976 I attended Habitat: The United Nations Conference on Human Settlements in Vancouver, Canada. While walking with a friend across the campus of the University of British Columbia where the conference was taking place we saw an older woman of diminutive stature with a lined, weathered face in a blue and white nun’s habit. “That’s Mother Theresa,” my friend said. “Who’s Mother Theresa,” I asked. “Why she’s the closest thing to a living saint you will ever meet,” he answered. “A living saint?” I thought. “I’ve never heard of her.” Little did I know then that she would make such a lasting impression on me.
Intrigued, I watched as Mother Theresa made her way towards our forum followed by a small group of people. As a U.N. correspondent stationed in New York I had traveled to Vancouver to write about the growing trend of emigration of political prisoners out of the former Soviet Union and the mistreatment they faced while in that country. Nonetheless, I found myself intently watching Mother Theresa most of that afternoon. I had never seen anyone who was almost a saint before. Apart from the sense of purpose I noted in the way she walked, however, there was nothing special about her that I could see. It was only later that I would realize what tremendous power she possessed.
She once described herself this way: “By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.” A later Nobel Prize winner for her work with the poor of India, the Nobel Committee summarized her life as follows:
“From 1931 to 1948 Mother Teresa taught at St. Mary’s High School in Calcutta, but the suffering and poverty she glimpsed outside the convent walls made such a deep impression on her that in 1948 she received permission from her superiors to leave the convent school and devote herself to working among the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta…”
In Vancouver that afternoon we participated in the U.N. forum. Important issues were raised – urbanization, sustainable development, affordable housing, and the fact that millions of people lacked decent housing, food and clean water. There were also the perennial problems that always arose: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Cold War between the U.S.S.R. and the United States and the disregard for human rights by various nations – back then Argentina was a growing source of concern. Mother Theresa was allowed to speak several times during the session raising the problems of the poor, the hungry, the naked and the homeless. The moderator of our session exhibited great deference to her, allowing her to speak several times. I have to admit I was a bit miffed that Mother Theresa’s interventions were taking up a lot of the time and thus made it less possible for others to get their problems expressed. As important as she was, I thought that these problems also deserved attention. I was not yet fully aware of her greatness.
In reading about her later in my life I learned that her greatest contribution was to be present with the poor of Calcutta while they lay on their death bed. Many spiritual leaders including, for example, Ram Das, an American who has had to deal with death in the course of his work, have said that the death of a person is a moment of great reverence. Indeed, for me witnessing the titanic struggle between life and death in the final moments of a loved one’s life has been one of the highest honors bestowed on me. This was Mother Theresa’s calling.
As the session drew to a close I watched as she left the building with some people walking back across the mall. Just then I saw a women come up to Mother Theresa with her child. Mother Theresa gently caressed the woman’s face and then picked up the child. In that moment, I finally saw that Mother Theresa’s greatness lay in the tremendous power of her touch. I watched in awe as Mother Theresa cuddled that child as it lay comforted in her heavenly arms. No doubt that same touch, at the bedside of those who were dying, comforted them and helped them transition from this world to the other.
In her speech accepting the Nobel Prize, Mother Theresa explained her work by quoting Christ’s words from the bible, “Whatever you did for the least of my brethren you did for me.” The point she made was that the poor did not want our pity and sympathy but only that we treat them with dignity. She related the story of a poor dying man who was brought to her in his final moments. Except for his face, his body was completely covered with maggots. As she comforted him at his bedside she said that the man only spoke one sentence before he died. “I have lived like an animal in the streets, but I am going to die like an angel – loved and cared for.” He had been treated with dignity, at last, in the final moment of his life.
St. John Paul II, one of Mother Teresa’s greatest champions, was convinced of her saintliness and intent on at least beatifying her in his lifetime. He waived the normal five-year waiting period to begin the process a year after she died. Pope Francis recently announced she will soon be declared a saint. In this Christmas season, let us thank the Prince of Peace for all the gifts he has bestowed upon us, including sending us a Mother Theresa as a model of how we should live.