By Renzo Allegri
ROME, AUG. 18, 2010 (Zenit.org).- In many parts of the world events are under way to recall the centenary of Mother Teresa’s birth on Aug. 26, 1910.
Great ceremonies are taking place in Calcutta, India, where Mother lived for the greater part of her earthly existence and where she is buried. The little initiatives are very numerous in Albania, where she was born, but everywhere, at the popular level, in parishes and in volunteer workers associations, above all organized by young people to remember this extraordinary figure.
Together with Padre Pio and John Paul II, Mother Teresa was one of the persons who profoundly marked the history of Christianity of our time: Padre Pio, with the flame of his lofty mystical experience; John Paul II with the impetuous wind of action and continuous apostolic journeys; Mother Teresa with love, naked and absolute, towards the least. Their activities, their teachings, their example touched believers and non-believers, and continue to be vivid.
All those who knew Mother Teresa are in possession of extraordinary memories, especially the persons who lived close to her. But also journalists who approached her for work.
In fact, we journalists, thanks to our profession, find ourselves meeting the most disparate personalities. For forty years I was the special envoy of important weeklies and have known and interviewed an endless crowd of famous persons: artists, politicians, scientists, sports champions, stars of the entertainment world, protagonists of news events, murderers and also saints.
Among the saints were Padre Pio, Mother Teresa, John XXIII, but also others whose process of beatification is underway, such as John Paul II, Mother Speranza, Giorgio La Pira, Marcello Candia, Friar Cecilio Cortinovis and others. I have written articles and also books on all of them.
I have special memories of them all, because these persons have an irresistible charism, and once known it is impossible to forget them. They represent life in its essential and eternal meaning, and transmit hopes that go beyond the barriers of time. Above all, the most vivid memory is that linked to Mother Teresa.
By a series of strange coincidences, I had several meetings, long conversations, trips by car with her. I can say that I have profound affection for her, and she showed me such benevolence, which I judged to be friendship, and my superficial vanity drove me at times to take advantage of, asking also for favors which in part I myself already judged to be “impossible.” Yet, in her infinite kindness, Mother always found the way to satisfy me.
Incredible. I am certain that all those who approached Mother Teresa witnessed her loving willingness. She certainly was a great saint but also a woman with a most exquisite human sensibility, of a goodness of spirit so great as to feel sad if she did not succeed in satisfying anyone who asked her for something.
I have written so many articles on Mother Teresa, and also some books. Now, for the centenary of her birth, I have gathered in a volume, published [in Italian] by Ancora Publishing House, some memories and above all “the words” that in different meetings Mother gave me.
She did not like to speak much. But when she did, she was extremely fascinating with her essential and incisive way of expressing her thoughts. She spoke preferably through images. Her reasoning was a sequence of facts that bore an inevitable conclusion.
My book is titled “Madre Teresa Mi Ha Detto” [Mother Teresa Has Told Me]. A pretentious title. Perhaps only someone who has lived a long time near the Sister of Calcutta could use such a title for a book, and it’s not my case. I knew Mother Teresa; I interviewed her several times, but nothing more. However, as I said, precisely and only because of her benevolence, I felt very close to her and that title, “Mother Teresa Has Told Me,” reflects an extraordinary reality.
In 1965, while reading a book of Pier Paolo Pasolini, I found a few lines dedicated to Mother Teresa which the writer found during one of his trips to India. I began to gather information and every new fact made my curiosity increase. I decided that I had to meet and interview that sister. I succeeded after waiting for fifteen years. But it was not an interview. It was the beginning of a series of meetings.
The aspects that struck me immediately in her were a very great human sensitivity and boundless kindness. I was just another journalist, in practice a nuisance that made her waste her time. But even when I went on to ask perhaps useless questions and at times not very pertinent ones, I never saw on her face the slightest sign of annoyance.
When she was in Rome, and I asked to see her, she gave me appointments in the Celio convent, at the motherhouse of the Missionaries of Charity, the congregation she founded. She said: “I expect you tomorrow at 5:30.” At that time the Mass in the convent was reserved for the sisters, and Mother wanted us to be united in prayer before speaking with me.
I arrived on time and found, at the door of the convent, a sister who was waiting for me and accompanied me to the chapel. I followed the Mass next to Mother, who was kneeling on the floor in the back of the chapel. For me, instead, she had a comfortable kneeler prepared and also a chair.
From my place, I was able to observe all the sisters and also Mother, who did nothing special. She was huddled up in a ball, and was concentrated in prayer as if she didn’t exist. But in fact from that position of even physical annulment, she transmitted a powerful energy and infinite considerations that long conversations would not have been able to suggest.
After the Mass, the sister who received me accompanied me to a small room of the convent, where infallibly, shortly after, Mother arrived with a tray for breakfast.
Mother Teresa served me breakfast. She did not allow one of the sisters to do so, not even the one who had received me at the door of the convent. She wanted to do it herself. The first time I was confused and tried to stop her, saying that I was not hungry, that I never ate in the morning. But she intuited my embarrassment and there was no way of stopping her.
She served me with moving maternal love: coffee, milk, marmalade, slices of toast. She was concerned that I eat. And her attentions spoke more than the interviews. Then, at the end of breakfast, she gave me her time. I took my notes with the questions, turned on the recorder and she answered.
Listening again to these conversations, I realize that my questions at times were stupid, useless, superficial, but she always answered calmly, leading the conversation to important topics or evidencing, of certain events, the aspect in which the teaching was concentrated.
As I said, when I acquired a certain confidence, I also asked her for favors not very pertinent to her religious state.
One day I asked her if she would accept to be the godmother in a baptism. At Christmas of 1985, Al Bano, the famous singer from Puglia, became a father for the third time: a girl, Cristel. We were good friends since the start of his career. I was also a witness at his marriage to Romina Power and he held one of my children at baptism. A friendship that, with time, became almost a kinship.
In May of 1986, Cristel was already five months old and was not yet baptized. I knew that Al Bano had a solid and concrete religious faith. I asked him, therefore, why he had not yet baptized his daughter. He told me that he continued to postpone the ceremony of baptism because he didn’t want the religious rite to be transformed in to a hubbub, with photographers and journalists, as happened for his marriage. He was looking for an occasion for a private religious ceremony, and he asked me to help him organize it, perhaps in Rome. I did so gladly.
I spoke with Slovak Bishop Pavel Hnilica, an extraordinary person, also a saint, friend of Mother Teresa, and it was he who introduced me to the sister. I asked the prelate if he could baptize my friend’s daughter. And I also asked him if it would be possible to have Mother Teresa as the godmother.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate,” said the bishop, “but I advise you to ask her directly; she is an unpredictable woman.” Mother was in Rome. I whipped up my courage and asked her. She looked at me seriously, then she answered: “As a religious, I cannot take on this juridical responsibility. But I can be a spiritual godmother.” And so it happened.
The baptism was celebrated in the bishop’s private chapel. The baby was given the names Cristel, Maria Chiara and Teresa. Only one photographer was present and the photographs were then circulated freely throughout the world, published everywhere, also in Japan.
Two years later, in August of 1988, some friends told me a very moving story. A young couple of a region near the Bracciano Lake had quintuplets. As often happens in these cases, the little ones were kept in incubators for some time. They were saved by the very great love of the parents and the care of the doctors.
When they finally left the hospital, thought was given to their baptism. “There must be a great celebration,” said friends of the couple. One of them asked me to organize something to attract the attention of the newspapers. I thought of Mother Teresa. I was certain that, once she knew the story, she would accept. And it was like that. The ceremony was held in the little old church of Santa Maria di Galeria.
Each one of the quintuplets had a godfather, as the Church establishes, but all had Mother Teresa of Calcutta as their “spiritual godmother.” Mother, though full of commitments, dedicated half a day to that baptism. She asked to be accompanied Bracciano Lake and participated in the whole ceremony. The newspapers of course wrote about it, published photographs, and there was a great celebration.
When I think of Mother Teresa, the image that comes to mind immediately is seeing her at prayer. The first time I traveled by car with her, I had the honor of sitting next to her. We had to go from Casilina, on the outskirts of Rome, where there is a house of the Missionaries of Charity, to the Vatican, where Mother was to be received by the Pope. We spoke at length that morning and we were late. We left by car. Bishop Hnilica’s brother was driving. The bishop sat next to his brother, and I next to Mother Teresa.
The car left at great speed because we were in a hurry; we were late. The Pope could absolutely not be kept waiting. Mother Teresa looked out of the window. Her face was calm. After a few minutes, Mother asked us to pray with her. We made the sign of the cross and from the pocket of her sari she took out a rosary. She prayed slowly, with a soft voice, reciting the “Our Father” and the “Hail Mary” in Latin. We prayed with her.
The car swerved nervously in the chaotic and intense traffic. At times it stopped brusquely, swerved jerkily, took off again imperiously, went around curves recklessly, was grazed by other cars, impatient and aggressive, which threatened us with piercing honkings of the horn. I grabbed hold of the handle and looked with concern at the driver, very good but reckless. Mother Teresa, instead, was absorbed in prayer and didn’t remember a thing.
Crouched on the seat, she was in conversation with God. Her eyes were half-closed. Her wrinkled face, bent over her chest, was transfigured. It seems almost as if it emanated light.
The words of the prayer came from her lips precisely, clearly, slowly, almost as if she paused to savor the meaning of each one. They did not have the cadence of a continuously repeated formula, but the freshness of dialogue, of a lively, passionate conversation. It seemed that Mother was really speaking with an invisible presence.
One day I asked her spontaneously: “Are you afraid of dying?”
I had been in Rome for some days. I met her a couple of times and had gone to greet her because I was returning to Milan. She looked at me almost as wishing to understand the reason for my question. I felt I had done wrong in speaking of death and tried to correct my mistake. “I see you rested,” I said. “Yesterday, instead, you seemed very tired.”
“I slept well last night,” she answered.
“In recent years you have undergone some rather delicate surgical interventions, such as the one on the heart; you must take care of yourself, travel less.”
“Everyone says this to me, but I must think of the work that Jesus has entrusted to me. When I can no longer serve, he will stop me.”
And, changing the angle, she asked: “Where do you live?”
“In Milan,” I answered.
“When are you going home?”
“I hope this very evening. I would like to catch the last flight so that tomorrow, which is Saturday, I can be with the family.”
“Ah, I see that you are happy to go home, to your family,” she said smiling.
“I have been away for almost a week,” I answered to justify my enthusiasm.
“Good, good,” she added. “It’s right that you are happy. You are going to see your wife, your children your dear ones, your home. It’s right that it be so.”
She remained again for some seconds in silence; then, going back to the question that I asked her, she continued: “I would be as happy as you if I could say that I will die this evening. Dying I too would go home. I would go to paradise.
“I would go to meet Jesus. I have consecrated my life to Jesus. Becoming a sister, I became the spouse of Jesus. See, I have a ring on my finger like married women. And I am married to Jesus. All that I do here, on this earth, I do it out of love for him.
“Therefore, by dying I return home to my spouse. Moreover, up there, in paradise, I will also find all my loved ones. Thousands of persons have died in my arms. It is now more than forty years that I have dedicated my life to the sick and the dying.
“I and my sisters have picked up from the streets, above all in India, thousands and thousands of persons at the end of life. We have taken them to our houses and helped them to die peacefully. Many of those persons expired in my arms, while I smiled at them and patted their trembling faces. Well, when I die, I am going to meet all these persons. It is there that they await me.
“We loved one another well in those difficult moments. We continued to love one another in memory. Who knows what celebration they will make for me when they see me.
“How can I be afraid of death? I desire it; I await it because it allows me finally to return home.”
In general, in the interviews and also in the conversations, Mother Teresa was concise, gave brief and rapid answers. On that occasion, to answer my strange question, she made a genuine speech. And while she said those things, her eyes beamed with amazing serenity and happiness.
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Renzo Allegri is an Italian journalist and author who has published more than 40 books, including the following books in English: “John Paul II: A Life of Grace” (2005), “Fatima, the Story Behind the Miracles” (2002), “Padre Pio: A Man of Hope” (2000), and “Teresa of the Poor: The Story of Her Life” (1999).