September 14, 2007

A spiritual figure for our time: 10 years after her death, Blessed Teresa continues to be a model of holiness

Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein, when he was bishop of Memphis, and the late Blessed Teresa of Calcutta talk to reporters in Memphis about plans for the Missionaries of Charity to send several sisters to minister to the poor in Memphis. (Criterion file photo courtesy of The West Tennessee Catholic)

Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein, when he was bishop of Memphis, and the late Blessed Teresa of Calcutta talk to reporters in Memphis about plans for the Missionaries of Charity to send several sisters to minister to the poor in Memphis. (Criterion file photo courtesy of The West Tennessee Catholic)

By Sean Gallagher

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta was born nearly a century ago to Albanian parents, and ministered for decades in India to people living in a state of poverty that is hard for most Hoosiers to imagine.

Yet Catholics throughout central and southern Indiana are drawn to this woman unlike nearly any other spiritual figure of our time.

Some of them are leaders in the faith or notable television personalities. Others are average people in the pews.

No matter who they are, Blessed Teresa has a special place in their heart.

Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein met with Blessed Teresa three times while he served as bishop of the Diocese of Memphis from 1987-92. Their meetings primarily involved the Missionaries of Charity establishing a convent there.

One might expect that the two talked about matters of the spirit. They did. But at the entrance of an airport jetway?

“When Mother Teresa was preparing to board the plane after her second visit, she pulled me aside and said, ‘Bishop, when you put the drop of water into the chalice of wine at the offertory, please pray that I might be dissolved in Christ,’ ” Archbishop Buechlein said.

He also recalled how, despite, or perhaps because of, her great reputation for holiness, she put him or whoever she was with at ease.

“Mother Teresa made one feel very comfortable in her presence,” Archbishop Buechlein said. “We don’t hear it said very often, but she had a wry sense of humor in the midst of her care for the poorest of the poor.”

On the 10th anniversary of Blessed Teresa’s death, the archbishop still looks to her as a model for his life of faith.

“Blessed Teresa is, above all, a model of patient humility,” Archbishop Buechlein said. “She kept her heart and mind focused on Jesus. I pray for some of her holiness.”

Spending time in Calcutta

Patrick McEntee teaches religion at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis. In 2001, he spent time in Calcutta with the Missionaries of Charity.

“I was overcome by the powerful presence in the main chapel that housed [Blessed Teresa’s] tomb,” he said. “She had been dead for nearly four years at the time, but her spirit was very much alive in the nuns and the volunteers.”

One day, McEntee visited Nirmal Hriday, the Missionaries of Charity’s home for the dying in Calcutta.

“I was amazed at the care and compassion shown,” he said. “One Missionary of Charity held the hand of a man who was dying until the time he took his last breath. It was humbling, to say the least.”

Anne Ryder, a member of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis and a former television news anchor for WTHR Channel 13 in Indianapolis, was the last person to interview Blessed Teresa. It occurred just before Easter in 1996, a little more than a year before Blessed Teresa died.

“Mother Teresa had that quality that when you were in her presence, she had luminosity,” Ryder said. “You felt a holiness coming from her. You saw a light in her eyes. You felt that strength.”

Although Ryder only spoke with her for 45 minutes, the interview has left an indelible mark on her life in the decade that has followed.

“That whole thing means so much more with every passing year and with my depth of understanding of what her life was, what her faith was, and undergoing some of my own experiences,” said Ryder, who experienced a ruptured uterus in 2002 when she was six months pregnant.

Her son, Sean, whom she was carrying in her womb at the time, died. Ryder came close to death herself.

“Sometimes I just sit there and marvel that I was able to have that [interview] because the more I learn about her, the more I marvel at the depth of her faith and the depth of her perseverance,” Ryder said. “She’s somebody real, flesh and blood, that I can model my own faith after.”

Family connections

Barbara Taylor, currently a teacher at Central Catholic School in Indianapolis, has taught in the archdiocese for 26 years. Early in her career, she had an encounter with Blessed Teresa, one in which she witnessed

a vocation to the Missionaries of Charity starting to blossom.

In the late 1970s, Taylor attended a National Catholic Educational Association convention in Chicago at which Mother Teresa was scheduled to speak. Tonya Knarr, a member of Holy Cross Parish at the time, went to the convention with Taylor.

Knarr was interested in the Missionaries of Charity. The two stayed in Gary, Ind., at a convent run by the order.

“I believe our entire trip was blessed,” said Taylor, a member of Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Beech Grove. “I don’t remember many details of the convention, but I do remember Mother Teresa standing in one of the booths.

“She was short and she was smiling. I walked right up to her and shook her hand. I can still feel her handshake.”

Taylor saw Mother Teresa get in a car and leave. Then the car stopped, and Mother Teresa got out.

“Somehow, she had heard that Tonya had come to talk with her,” Taylor said. “She got out of the car and waited to talk with Tonya, who is a Missionary of Charity today.”

Tonya Knarr, who joined the order 30 years ago, is now Sister Christa and ministers in Chicago.

Her mother, Jean Knarr, is a member of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis.

“Mother Teresa has been a blessing for all of our family,” Knarr said. “Many graces have come through our daughter’s vocation.”

One of those graces has been the spiritual help that Knarr has needed to accept the separation that came with her daughter’s vocation.

“Some of Mother Teresa’s example and the experiences in her life help us to cope, in a sense, with sort of the loss of our daughter,” Knarr said. “I’m always reminded of the fact that Mother Teresa never saw her mother again after she left home at age 18.”

Total dedication

Benedictine Archabbot Lambert Reilly, the former leader of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, had a close connection with Blessed Teresa.

Starting in the mid-1980s, he met her on several occasions, often at the approximately 30 retreats he has given for the Missionaries of Charity.

“I was hearing confessions [at a retreat],” Archabbot Lambert said. “As the sisters were taking their turns, one came in and grabbed my scapular. It was Mother Teresa.

“She said, ‘Now you know what all those foolish people don’t know: what a sinner I am.’ ”

Archabbot Lambert testified in writing in the process that led to Blessed Teresa’s beatification.

“She’s probably the most authentic, unpretentious person I’ve ever met,” he said. “She was very real. Her concern was really for other people.

“When you meet somebody like [Mother Teresa], you find a person totally dedicated to the call which he or she thinks God has given.”

However close Archabbot Lambert was to Blessed Teresa, it surely could not be as close as one of her spiritual daughters.

Missionaries of Charity Sister Ita, originally from Gary, Ind., is the superior of the order’s convent in Indianapolis.

She spoke recently about how Catholics in Indiana, so far from Calcutta and called to a way of life so different from Blessed Teresa’s, can still be inspired by her.

“Everyone, in every corner of the world, can practice what Mother [did for] the glory of God in her life,” Sister Ita said. “She gave him glory by every little thing done with a great, pure love of God.”

Sister Ita also said we can learn from her order’s foundress how to connect prayer with action.

“Her prayer life was everything to her,” Sister Ita said. “She was a contemplative in the heart of the world. Everything she did, she connected to Jesus. She would say many times, ‘Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Jesus in the poor. It is the same Jesus.’ ”

However much Catholics in the archdiocese love Blessed Teresa, Sister Ita said that this devotion should draw us closer to God.

“It’s God who used her,” Sister Ita said. “She was the little pencil in his hand, as she said. He wanted to write her message all over the world, even to us folks here in Indiana.” †

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