|Mother Teresa – a much younger looking
(and then, just a seminarian) Fr Jim Chern
and Fr. Eugene Marcone, Pastor of St. Agnes
in Clark NJ. Taken at the Missionaries of Charity
Convent in North Plainfield NJ
This Sunday, September 4 – 19 years after she died, the Church will confirm what many had assumed long ago – that the little, frail nun from Calcutta who served the poor, the sick, the dying in some of the most deplorable of conditions – is a Saint. (The Church moves slowly… prudently I might add)
With all of the coverage leading up to this celebration, I couldn’t help but recall the day I met Mother Teresa. I’m thinking that it had to have been 1996. I was a seminarian at the time and my pastor, Fr. Eugene Marcone, from St. Agnes in Clark, NJ at the end of the Sunday Masses had said to me “do you have any plans this afternoon?” I said that I hadn’t and he told me to come back later that day, that he had been invited to something very special that I wouldn’t want to miss.
I went back that afternoon, and as we started driving he explained that every other week, he had been teaching Mother Teresa’s sisters a class in Church history at their convent in North Plainfield, NJ. Mother Teresa had come to visit the sisters this day and the sisters were inviting some of their close friends, including Fr. Marcone to meet her.
Not going to lie, I was starting to freak out a bit. I mean, what do you say to a living saint? The dead saints – who are alive in heaven and in God’s presence – are a lot easier to talk to when we ask then to pray for us and our various needs. We got to the convent, and were lead into the chapel where they were having adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament – a time of silent prayer. As I walked in, there she was, in the back of the chapel, in a wheel chair, sitting quietly in prayer. I had to take a seat a few rows in front, and have to admit I wasn’t as attentive to the Lord as I was looking back at this frail, little woman who despite her stature and declining help still radiated in a way that only faith in the risen Jesus Christ can explain.
After the Holy Hour concluded, we were all lead to this outside room, where she was going to greet the sisters and their visitors. Father Marcone walked in front, and spoke with her for a few moments and then turned to introduce me…
Mother Teresa – this is Jim Chern, he is a seminarian studying for the priesthood from our parish.
I couldn’t believe I was meeting her, she had this amazing smile, grabbed my hand with both of her hands and we had an encounter I will never forget:
She said “You’re studying to be a priest…”
“Here in New Jersey – at Immaculate Conception Seminary. I’m studying for the Archdiocese of Newark.”
Then came the part that I’ve replayed in my mind a million times
“You must come to Calcutta”
without even the slightest pause or hesitation I said:
“You must talk to my Archbishop.”
At which point she laughed… As I type this I’m actually laughing, shaking my head and blushing – because I’m still shocked that despite all my nerves, my admiration for this woman – at a moment like that I could have been so . . . – well I don’t know what word goes next there’s a variety of words that come to mind. I know when I shared this with Lino Rulli on “The Catholic Guy Show” on Sirius/XM satellite radio a few weeks ago – he had a few suggestions.
Because quite simply, I was pretty confident that should she have asked Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, the Archbishop at the time, he would have diplomatically said No to Mother Teresa.
In any event, I’ve taken a good amount (and for good reason) ribbing whenever I’ve shared this story – “You said No to a saint… good luck with that” “Why do you hate Mother Teresa” “Why do you hate the poor”… none of which is true (well maybe the first one)
But two things that come to mind about this that I’ve reflected on recently, both concerning God’s will. One was Mother Teresa’s absolute dedication to God’s will and call in her life. Here she was, near the end of her earthly life; still making these visits to her sisters around the world. Not only did she continue to push herself to make these visits – but her beloved homeland, and the poor, the sick, the dying – those that the world would shun and forget; those that for many would be the reason they’d want to flee Calcutta -were the very ones who made her homeland her beloved homeland – was still one of the first things on her mind. That she was still calling people to join her mission – even a reluctant 20 something seminarian.
But the other thing was that look, that laugh she gave when I blurted out my lame response “you must talk to my Archbishop.” While people have observed I said that “because you’re scared of flying” “because you hate leaving New Jersey” – both true observations – the reality is I know I was called to be a priest here. To serve the people of God here. To attend to the poor, the sick, the dying of this local Church.
And I think Mother Teresa knew that too – with that smile, that laugh and her giving me a miraculous medal as I left. I ask St. Teresa of Calcutta to pray for me that I may always do so until the day I hope to meet her again in God’s eternal kingdom.