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The Footsteps of Saints: Mother Teresa and John Paul II

There was a special friendship between Mother Teresa and St. John Paul II, a friendship that will be confirmed eternally by her canonization in Rome tomorrow. Remember St. John Paul II kissing the top of the head of the little woman and she holding his hand in hers? For the Polish pope, as George Weigel puts it, Mother Teresa was a “person-message” for the twentieth century.

Mother Teresa and St. John Paul II, the man and the woman of the century, who together made and changed history. They were pilgrims of peace, individuals who were deeply in love with God and neighbor, supporters of the poor and the marginalized, promoters of human freedom and human dignity. Additionally, what St. John Paul II witnessed in Mother Teresa was what he called the mystery of woman and the great works of God in and through the woman.

Mother Teresa and St. John Paul II believed in the same principles of apostolate: they opened wide the arms of the Church to the people, and they brought to faith a sense of family and belonging. Their friendship was so deep and gentle that Msgr. Francesco Follo, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to UNESCO, who worked closely with the Missionaries of Charity in Italy and France, wrote in his book on John Paul II, that their bond was so profound that Mother Teresa represented “the feminine dimension of John Paul II.”

Mother Teresa and Karol Wojtyla, then Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, met for the first time in February 1973 at the 40th World Eucharistic Congress in Melbourne, which focused on the theme of Jesus’ new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” It was Wojtyla’s first exposure to the New World.

In his personal diary, the future pope mentions meeting Mother Teresa. In fact, she was quite at home in Melbourne. The Missionaries of Charity had opened their first house in Australia in 1970, helping with other forms of poverty, different from those in India: alcoholism, addiction, and the spiritual needs of the elderly. She believed that alcoholic men and women of Australia should not only be fed and sheltered but also loved and rehabilitated in order to rejoin society.

In 1976, Karol Wojtyla they met again in Philadelphia, at another Eucharistic Congress, focused on Jesus, the Bread of Life. As odd as it may seem, neither was much known yet in the Catholic world. But their speeches resonated. Mother Teresa addressed physical hunger and love of small things, Cardinal Wojtyla focused on a different form of hunger – the hunger for freedom. The cardinal, who knew totalitarian regimes first hand, appealed in the name of those who were denied freedom and were suffering behind the Iron Curtain. Hunger for bread and hunger for freedom – and the fight against human suffering – were forging a life-long friendship and common cause.

The Melbourne and Philadelphia meetings with Mother Teresa and her missionary work in India must have had a profound impact on the pope. In 1986, during his ten-day visit to India, he prayed at Nirmal Hriday – Home for the Pure Heart, run by the Sisters of Charity in Calcutta. The home, which was founded in 1950 by Mother Teresa, provided assistance and healed the suffering of the sick, the destitute, and the dying. The pope, led by Mother Teresa, stopped at each of the eighty-six patients, spoon-feeding the sick and the dying. At the end of his visit he said: “Nirmal Hriday is a place of hope, a house built on courage and faith, a home where love reigns.”

Ironically, it was located on the grounds of the former Hindu temple dedicated to the goddess Kali that the future pontiff encountered the mystery of human suffering and the mystery of human love. Indeed, human suffering and human love are universals; they transcend nations, religions, rich and poor. The historic visit of St. John Paul II to India and his meeting with Mother Teresa are memorialized in two life-size statues of Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa at the St. Thomas, Apostle to India, National Shrine.

The pope was so moved by the poverty and human suffering he witnessed in India, that in 1988, during the special Marian Year, Mother Teresa’s Gift of Mary home was inaugurated, near the Basilica of St. Peter’s imposing colonnade. Mother Teresa gave it its name hoping, “that it might always be possible to experience in it the love of the Blessed Virgin.” The home distributes food and clothes to hundreds of poor people in Rome, and provides shelter and medical assistance to women in distress.

St. John Paul II visited Albania in 1993. It was the first time a Roman pontiff set foot in the country. In his speech to the Albanian people, a predominantly Muslim nation, the Polish pope, who knew Communism first hand, focused on their newly gained freedom, after decades of severe persecution and martyrdom. Among the Albanians welcoming him was Mother Teresa.

She had visited Albania in 1989, when it was still under a Communist regime, for “private” reasons – to pray at the graves of her mother Drane and sister Age Bojaxhiu, who were buried in Tirana, Albania’s capital. The Communist government, in spite of high-level diplomatic interventions, had denied Mother Teresa entry to visit her family in Tirana for almost twenty years. If her 1989 visit to Albania signaled the first signs of Albania’s openness and the fall of the last bastion of Communism in Eastern Europe, St. John Paul II’s 1993 visit was a celebration of freedom in the world’s “first atheist state.”

His speech directed to the Albanians expressed his gratitude to Mother Teresa and her universal mission to feed world’s hungry: “Even during the times of Albania’s complete isolation, it was this humble religious, this humble servant of the poorest of the poor who carried around the world the name of your country. In Mother Teresa, Albania was always esteemed. . . .Today, I thank you in the name of the universal Church, I thank you dear Albanians for this daughter of your land and of your people.”

Mother Teresa (to be canonized tomorrow) and St. John Paul II were universal figures, serving the universal Church with a universal mission. What united and forged their life-long friendship were compassion for the world’s suffering and a profound respect for human dignity and freedom, through the particularity fostered by Catholicism. They, like all the saints, are vivid reminders for us of the deep connection between love of God and love of man.

Ines Angeli Murzaku is Professor of Church History at Seton Hall University. Her extensive research on the history of Christianity, Catholicism, Religious Orders, and Ecumenism has been published in multiple scholarly articles and five books. She edited and translated with Raymond L. Capra and Douglas J. Milewski, The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano, part of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Dr. Murzaku has been featured frequently in national and international media, newspapers, radio and TV interviews, and blogs. Her latest book is Mother Teresa: Saint of the Peripheries.