The news spread like wildfire: Pope John Paul II was arriving in New York on October 2, 1979. There was an outpouring of excitement at our convent at 335 East 145th St. in the South Bronx, where I was a 23-year-old postulant, a newcomer learning about religious life. The almost electric excitement increased wattage when the Superior of the house of the Missionaries of Charity, Sister Priscilla, announced that she would be getting passes for all of us to go to the papal mass as well as some of the other events connected to the Holy Father’s visit. I kept thinking to myself, ‘Wow, the Pope, coming here...’ It took a while for it to sink in.
Before papal sojourning became a common place event, the average Catholic in America knew that they had a threefold chance of a papal encounter: slim, fat and none. That is unless you were a diplomat or rich enough to travel to Europe… or… if the Pope decided to come and see you instead. John Paul II was an intriguing person – a ruddy, vigorous Polish pope with a mischievous smile and captivating heart that reached out to everyone. I was ecstatic to have this chance.
The house was full of high spirited, beaming sisters, 20 or so in all. Some were newly arrived aspirants, some postulants who were there for almost a year and the rest were professed sisters, those who had taken vows after 5 years preparation. All were going about their daily duties with a lift in their step. It would take an act of God to change the schedule of the Missionaries of Charity. Business as usual was our daily bread, visits to the shut ins, serving at the soup kitchen, hospital visits, the household chores, all set to the beat of a prayer life that strung the common events of the day together like a daily rosary. Tomorrow would be different. He was coming to New York and we had passes!
That evening, after a dinner of soup, bread, and supercharged conversation so loud that we could hardly hear the bell ring, we dispersed to do our after-dinner chores and get ready for recreation and evening prayer. (Recreation meant sitting on the floor and sewing the holes in our saris while making each other laugh with the funny stories of the day.) After a meal you simply picked up your bowl and flatware, washed it in the nearest sink, and put it back on the shelf in the refectory, a fancy name for a room with a picnic table in it. On my way to rinse my dinner dish, I was contemplating how well I had put into effect the latest correction I had been given - not telling jokes while Sister Lydia is eating spaghetti because it made her choke. Comic timing now included watching to see if Sister Lydia was chewing or not, before the punch line was delivered. The internal review would have to wait; I suddenly came upon Sister Lucy weeping in the corner of the stairway landing on the way down to the basement kitchen.
“What is it Sister Lucy?” I said, as keeping the silence wasn’t compatible with charity at the moment. Her tear stained face was bent downward. I couldn’t imagine what had happened to her -- she was just laughing with the rest of us in the refectory only moments ago.
Sister Lucy was all sweetness. A Quebec native with an endearing French accent, she was a slight, pale creature with bachelor button blue eyes and the acute propensity to drop, spill, or break whatever she had in her hands. To our group, she was pure delight, a gentle, sensitive soul with childlike purity and goodness.
“Sister (Priscilla) needs me to stay home tomorrow evening to care for her and to make her supper while everyone else goes to see the Holy Father.” She continued to weep, lifting her tiny gold rimmed glasses from her eyes to wipe her tears. I thought for a moment that I understood the problem.
“Oh, Sister, I’m sorry, that is going to be so hard. To be stuck here when everyone else is going…You won’t get to see the Holy Father.”
“That is not the problem. That is not why I am crying,” she said. “I have to cook for Sister Priscilla.” She stopped and looked at me to see if I comprehended her plight.
“I can’t do that. I will make mistakes and she will be cross with me.” The tears were renewed. I had forgotten how terrified Lucy was of our superior, Sister Priscilla. The more nervous Sister Lucy got, the more she bumbled. The more she bumbled, the more she frustrated the superior. It was a comical cycle of events for us, but not so funny for Lucy.
Although she looked hale and vigorous, our superior, Sister Priscilla, had wracked her body caring for the poor, the lepers, and the dying in India. A tall, regal sister with beautiful Indian skin and large dove eyes, her British accent gave her charm as well as an air of authority. Sister Priscilla had an indomitable character. She was all order, justice, intense love, and surprisingly, a lot of humor with an emphasis on storytelling and practical jokes. Now, after so many years of service, it was Sister Priscilla herself who needed some assistance when she had a bad day. Even though she never mentioned her pains much, you could see the suffering in her eyes. Her knees were inflamed and arthritic, she also had much difficulty swallowing, as well as other internal ailments. She was a formidable woman on a mission. Remarkably unstoppable, she was a kind of spiritual typhoon in a blue par sari. It was this side of her that gave Sister Lucy the willies.
I looked at Sister Lucy, crying like a little kid, and I could not hold back the words that came out of my mouth although I couldn’t believe I was saying them. It was almost against my will.
“Go ask Sister Ancy (the sister in charge of us postulants) if I could take your place, and I will stay here and prepare Sister’s meal and look after her. You go to see the Holy Father.”
“Really? You would do that for me?” she said all red nosed and puffy eyed.
“Yes. Now go,” I said with a gentle push. Off she went.
“What did I just say?!” I said to myself. “I want to go. What am I thinking?” I have always had an impetuous streak. Something unplanned is always bursting out of me. Sometimes it works toward my divine account, sometimes against it. My heart was already sinking at the prospects of not going to see JPII. Sister Lucy wasted no time in finding Sister Ancy. She came back in a short moment. She was beaming.
“Oh, no,” I whispered to myself.
“Sister said you could stay home and that I could go in your place,” she said. Then she looked at my face intently. “Are you sure you want to do that?”
“Of course, I am sure,” I said in my most heroic tone. “I wouldn’t have asked you if I wasn’t sure. You go tomorrow. I will be fine here. You just go…” No pope. I lost my chance to see the pope. I lost my chance.
Off Sister Lucy went, with a light heart and a bright face. I just stood there withering inside like a plucked dandelion, all perky and sunshiny one moment, and all droopy and only good for your mother in the next. But I didn’t let Sister Lucy see me droop.
The day of the Holy Father’s arrival came. All of New York was bustling with excitement and expectation. The visit would be a smash hit even for a star-bored city like New York, the toughest crowd in the world.
Early that afternoon everyone but me put on her “third set.” Each Missionary of Charity has three sets of clothes. One to wear today, one to wash in the bucket and hang on the line and a “third set” (i.e. dress set) that is saved for special occasions. The third set is wrapped up in cloth and put away until needed it for, let’s say, A PAPAL VISIT or an outing. Everyone was gleaming white, without patches or darning spots.
Everyone’s’ clothing was different. Your dress indicated your level of formation. An aspirant wore a navy skirt and a white blouse for the first 6 months. The first-year sisters, the postulants wore all white – white blouse, white ankle length drawstring skirt and a white sari, held in place by a piece of rope wrapped around the waist and the corner piece pinned at the shoulder with a cross. The professed sisters, the ones who had taken vows to be sisters, wore the “blue par,” a white sari bordered by the 3 royal blue stripes over a full-length white cassock, the habit worn by Mother Teresa.
The community gathered in the front hall for instructions by Sister Priscilla, partnered up and left the house. It looked like someone opened a birdcage and all these doves went fluttering out the opening. I stood there like a lonely teacher on the last day of school with all her pupils gone. Everyone--gone. Silence. I walked into the chapel.
“Lord, this is killing me. I give this pain to you.”
The achy heart didn’t leave. I puttered about. I made Sister’s dinner. She didn’t like the way I made it. I must admit, the eggs were runny and unappealing. Time meandered until it was night. Eventually, the door opened. The flock had returned.
We gathered in the downstairs refectory of the professed sisters. There were stories and accounts, laughter and the general swelling of hearts of how it felt to see the Holy Father and how incredible it was. As the chatter went on, I put on my best face, but I felt it keenly to have missed it all. Sister Lucy gave me a tender smile. She knew my sacrifice. I’m sure she prayed for me.
A year passed.
Our group left New York City for Rome, Italy to prepare to enter the novitiate, a two-year intensive preparation to take first vows as a Missionary of Charity. At that time American groups were sent to Tor Fiscale, a poor suburb of Rome on the outskirts of the city. We studied, prayed, learned to speak Italian, visited the poor, served in the soup kitchen, worked at the men’s shelter and visited hospitals all in view of discerning our vocation. We would decide if we wanted to make this our life or not.
When we first arrived, we met up with our group sisters who we would be professed with us in two years, sisters from all over Europe and India. For the first few weeks we stayed in San Gregorio, the home of St. Gregory the Great where there was large men’s shelter and soup kitchen. The sister’s convent was located in what used to be St. Gregory’s chicken coop. Don’t worry, it was remodeled a bit. There was something deeply satisfying about having lived in St. Gregory the Great’s chicken coop. Not something any of my friends have ever done. In a few weeks, we would go to Tor Fiscale, where there were already 40 other sisters in various stages of formation.
Then some great news came. Mother Teresa, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize almost a year ago, was on her way to Oslo, Norway. She would spend a few days with us at San Gregorio before and after receiving the Nobel Prize itself. Then she would return to Calcutta.
The Holy Father was apprised of Mother Teresa’s schedule. He contacted her and invited her to come to the Vatican to have a Mass of Thanksgiving while she was in Rome.
The day Mother Teresa came was perfect delight. Her presence was like a magnet that pulled your heart. So short, so powerful and so much joy! Mother Teresa greeted us with her blessing. With folded hands we bent our heads and she placed her hands on both sides saying softly, “God bless you.” After we all settled down about her in the professed sister’s refectory, she gave us some thrilling news. The Holy Father would be sending a bus to San Gregorio in the very early morning and Mother was to fill it with her sisters. Mother made the decision to take all the professed sisters with her. Our group had 22 sisters from about 12 countries. It just so happened that there were 22 seats on the bus left and Mother Teresa wanted to know if our group would like to go with her…to see the Holy Father in the morning. I was dumbfounded. Was this really happening to me?
The bus came so early, the fading moon was still silvering a dark sky. Mother Teresa stood at the door of the bus, like a hen shooing her chicks along. We loaded the bus in customary silence, each of us bursting with joy underneath the silent exterior. We rambled along empty streets of sleepy Rome, reciting the rosary aloud. Soon the sunlight began to rim the ancient city buildings. Then the dome of St. Peter’s became visible. We turned around the corner and there was a couple of Swiss Guards in their bright yellow striped medieval costumes standing on either side of an arched gateway. They opened the gate and the bus churned through the gears as we entered archway after archway. We were deep inside the Vatican walls. The bus stopped in front of an ornate doorway. The guards opened the doors and led us to a long stairway. Sister Francesca and I happily ended up on either side of Mother Teresa climbing the stairs. The marble stairway was worn thin in the center; it curved to the shape of your feet. I wondered to myself how many saints, kings, and brigands had climbed these very ancient, historical steps. Even now, as Mother Teresa went to celebrate the winning of the Nobel Peace Prize with Pope John Paul II, I realized that this was no small piece of history itself.
The top of the stairs opened to a spacious marble hall. This is one of the rooms where the Holy Father meets visitors. Down to the left we approached his private chapel. Suddenly, there he was, sitting in the center area on a black marble chair before the altar, the special place where he meditates and prays the psalms before mass. His white robe contrasted by the black marble chair was an intense image that burned into my heart.
There were only a few pews behind the Holy Father, but these were filled up quickly with our sisters. Some of us had to go and sit on the floor near him because that was the only space left. I was one of those. The white soutane he wore spilled onto the floor around his chair as he sat. Without him knowing, I held onto it and while he prayed, I prayed with him. I thought of the woman with the hemorrhage touching the tassel of Our Lord’s cloak.
The front chapel wall was bent in a U shape and ornamented with mosaics of the early Christian martyrs. On the right behind the altar was a favored Italian saint: Santa Lucia. Then I remembered. It was December 13th, the feast of St. Lucy, the Patroness of the sister whose place I took instead of going to see the Holy Father in New York! Remarkable!
We received communion from the Holy Father, and later, after mass, he visited with us. His greeting to Mother Teresa was so beautiful. Mother had explained to us once, how she did not allow people to hug or kiss her due to her vow of chastity, and her desire to keep herself for God alone. When people approached her, she bent her head down, folded her hands and bowed in respect as a greeting. But with the Holy Father, she accepted his greeting out of love for who he is. He is so tall and she, so short. He put his arm around her and kissed her on top of the head saying, “My Mother.” The Nobel Prized she had won pleased him greatly.
Soon, Mother began to present us to him individually. There was a photographer standing next to the Holy Father taking pictures as each person met him. A very noticeable long strand of hair had fallen out from under the Holy Father’s small round zucchetto he wears on his head. It made him look a little untidy for photographs. Being an American, I am accustomed to the media making fun of all things Catholic. While I waited my turn to meet him, I got angrier and angrier, thinking to myself, “They are taking pictures to put in some magazine to ridicule him.” The angst grew in my heart. I didn’t know that the Vatican had its own photographer and that the picture being taken would eventually become a gift to each one of us. How was I supposed to know? Step by step, closer and closer, angrier and angrier. I remember saying to myself, ‘No one, no one will make fun of my Holy Father while I’m in the room.’ By the time it was my turn to greet the Pope, my purpose was set. I reached up and fixed his hair.
He jumped back.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Holy Father,” I explained, “Your hair is messed up and they are taking your picture!”
“You must be an Italian,” he said with a laugh.
I found out later that sometimes the Italians try to take relics off of saintly persons before they are dead. He thought I was trying to get a very personal keepsake.
“On no, Holy Father, I’m an American.” I said. He leaned forward and raised his eyebrows knowingly and insisted, “Someone in your family is Italian.”
“Yes, Holy Father. My mother is Sicilian.” “You see. I told you.” He smiled and blessed me, giving me a rosary that bears his coat of arms, which he gives to all his visitors. He was so fatherly in the richest, deepest way. My heart was moved by the love that I felt when I was with him. What a grace this was for me.
Afterward, when we had all been presented, Mother Teresa hoped to detain him for a little while longer, so she sat on the floor at his feet, a Missionary of Charity custom when there are no chairs about. We immediately followed her lead and gathered around him on the floor.
“So Holy Father,” she said looking up at him with her charismatic smile, “tell us how you love Jesus.” He began to laugh. Soon his secretary would take him by the arm and gently lead him away. His schedule was relentless. He turned and waved, giving a sweet smile that went straight into my heart.
I still feel the blessing of that meeting. The orchestration of events of people, places and time was so intricate, only God could have pulled it off. The richness of that day still leaves me in awe, feeling affirmed in God’s love for me. I came to understand that sometimes our Father in heaven wants us to experience His perfect thoughtfulness and love while we are still here on earth – a divine preview of rewards for all the little crosses we bear out of love for Him. To me, spending that morning with Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa was as if God were saying, “Yes, my little girl, I saw the sacrifice you made, I am watching you.”
Sister Lucy came to Rome six months after me, and it was a great joy to tell her of the meeting with the Holy Father. That first summer in Rome, Sister Lucy received word that her father had died back home in Montreal, Canada. I spent much time talking to her as she struggled with her vocation. She stayed and eventually became the superior of one of the convents in Haiti, working for the destitute and the dying. I eventually went home to become a teacher with a heart full of treasures – like the one I just showed you.
They say paybacks are hell. I guess it all depends on who is paying you back.