My family had the great fortune or the great miracle — yes, maybe we should call it precisely this — to be friends with a saint. Yes it is her: Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who Pope Francis just days ago canonized at St. Peter’s Square, was our friend and all of us, including my father who is no longer with us, thank God for this amazing gift.
It was fitting that my dad Renato met her first. He was so religious and he quickly took charge of providing to the nuns of the order their own convent, involving all of his Roman friends as well as quite a bit of money, given that, in addition to being a true believer, he was also great benefactor. I, on the other hand, met her in the mid ’70s. At that time, I had shoulder length hair, studied psychology in university, played guitar, was moderately atheist and owned a used Volkswagen bus, which seated nine. My father met me at the door one evening, as I was leaving to go play a game of soccer or was it to met up with my girlfriend at that time perhaps.
“Tomorrow morning we need to go to the airport with your bus to pick up the little nuns.”
“What nuns?” I replied perplexed, without however getting a response.
So the next day, he woke me up really early, more or less at 11:30 a.m., which is basically sunrise for a twenty year old, and standing I downed some coffee and then I was heading to the airport. The little nuns were already outside of the airport doors waiting. They had arrived from India and were very tired and also very dark. In fact, all of them were dark except for one, the eldest. Her name was Teresa, she was tiny, had a white complexion, many wrinkles around her eyes and a serious air to her. I rubbed my eyes to get a better look at her. I thought I had already seen her somewhere, maybe in the newspaper, but I wasn’t very sure. They made her sit in the front passenger seat beside me, while my father and the other seven nuns took their places in the back seat. At some point, as I was driving on the Roma-Fiumicino highway from the airport, the elderly nun asked me “Are you my friend Renato’s son?” “Yes,” I replied. “I’m pleased to meet you,” she said “but you need to speed it up because we’re in a hurry.”
She spoke a weird dialect, a mix of Italian and English but I’m convinced there were also some Albanian or maybe even Indian words. Yet, I understood her perfectly.
Miracles were already happening.
I accompanied them close to the church of San Gregorio al Celio, where the order she founded established their first Roman convent. That day, she had a very important appointment with some important politician who was looking to close these residences for nuns.
She was very angry, almost furious, and you could see it in her eyes. My dad got out with her and while saying goodbye to me, he said, “She’s tiny but tough. No one is going to screw her over.” Dad was right. The politicians didn’t. In fact, not only did she succeed in keeping open her order’s home but, over the next few years, helped always by my father and many other good people like him, not all of them necessarily believers or churchgoers, she opened two more centers, one in Primavalle and another actually in Saint Peter’s in Vatican City, the soup kitchen dedicated to St. Martha. I remember communists, staunch atheists, former hardcore blasphemers, who had fallen head over heels for this little nun and whom they would have helped to do anything.
Teresa was my father’s great friend, I’ve already said this, yet, as time passed, she became a true friend to the entire family. She always asked about my studies, my plans. I would often go pick her up at the airport when she arrived, and she had a special rapport with me, like that of a good aunt who waits without asking a thing. For what was she waiting? Well, first that I too would grow up a little, that I become wiser and that in the end I would find the path to knowing God. We all celebrated together when in 1979 she received the Nobel Peace Prize and after she had decided to donate the prize monies ($6,000) to the poor in Calcutta.
“Earthly rewards are important only if they help the world’s needy,” she said on that occasion. How can you blame her?
A few years later, she wanted that I sit next to her when in the refectory of Saint Gregorio they projected the documentary of her life “Mother Teresa” directed by Ann e Janette Petrie, narrated by Sir Richard Attemborough, who was also present that day, seated right behind us. Maybe the great and famous director, destined to become even more famous for his role in Jurassic Park, was asking himself who was that unknown young man sitting next to the world’s most famous nun?
The following year, my first son was born and she wanted to come meet him in person.
“The grandchildren of my friend Renato are my grandchildren too,” she said with a big smile.
My father would take her everywhere and on a few occasions was received in her presence by Pope John Paul II as he too had become Teresa’s very close friend. He, in turn, would reciprocate her visits by going to see her in Calcutta. In 1989, she came to lunch at our place and then, with my father, we accompanied her to the international hospital Salvator Mundi she received a pacemaker after having suffered a bad heart attack prior. In 1991, my second son was born with unfortunately great cardiac issues. He was operated on immediately by the surgeon Marcelletti at Bambin Gesù Children’s Hospital, a very complex surgery that required him to undergo a month of intensive care treatments.
She wanted to make a surprise visit to him. So on a typical morning of April, my father drove her to the hospital. She barely had enough time to say hello to the little one in his recovery bed and say a prayer for him before people started recognizing her. Within minutes, the entire hospital had come to a standstill. Doctors, nurses, children arrived from all the hospital wards. She reached into her pockets and pulled out one of her famous Blessed Virgin Mary medals. How many could she possibly have? An infinite number. It seemed to be the multiplication of the bread and fish.
Her visit worked wonders. How could it have been otherwise? Today my son is doing very well, is a fascinating 25 year old man, full of life and desire to do things. Unfortunately instead Mother Teresa caught pneumonia in that year and then in the subsequent year, 1992, had more heart problems. She returned to Italy for treatment and we accompanied her back to the hospital for these visits and examinations. She returned to India and was diagnosed with malaria. These were dark years for her. She become progressively more ill and decided to leave her charge of her missionaries of charity. Her role was taken over by a very talented sister Nirmala Joshi. Teresa returned to Rome for the last time just in time, in March of 1997. She saw the Pope, naturally, and even all of our family. In her eyes there was no sadness, not at all. In fact, I swear I saw a glimmer of light. She knew that from there she would only return to the house of the Father and this filled her with joy. She died September 5, 1997, in the same period in which my faith arrived also.
How did that happen? How is it possible that a staunch atheist change course? I don’t honestly know. Probably another one of those weird miracles that only saints can do nowadays. Four years ago, I also lost her great friend Renato, my father. At that time, his finances were not good and there were great financial problems. Still the last check that we found was signed the day before his death, made out to the order of the little nuns.
“Earthly rewards are important only if they help help the world’s needy,” Teresa would have said and this he understood to perfection.