“Jesus wants us to be joyful, spread His joy.”
Those were the final words ever spoken by future saint Mother Teresa to Fr. James McCurry, OFM Conv., providing a fitting end to their fascinating 15 year friendship.
Fr. James currently serves as the Minister Provincial of the Our Lady of Angels Province of the Franciscan Friars Conventual, in Ellicott City, Maryland, but on October 10, 1982 he was in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican for the canonization of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Conventual Franciscan priest and martyr, who died in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. Fr. James was the leader of the Franciscan delegation from the United States and he played a prominent role in promoting St. Maximilian’s candidacy for sainthood. His presence in Rome that day led to a “chance meeting” which would change his life.
“Because of the role I had played in promoting St. Maximilian Kolbe, working towards his sainthood, I was given the special honor, at the Mass of Canonization, to be in the offertory procession,” said Fr. James. “That necessitated my being inside Saint Peter’s Basilica before the Mass got started. I got there quite early and I had been praying in the church and, out of the clear blue sky, who did I bump into, none other than Mother Teresa. We stopped to chat and I asked why she was there for the canonization.”
Fr. James had been aware of Mother Teresa from the time she came to prominence after her appearance at the Eucharistic Congress in 1976. He had seen her speak from a distance, but had never met this future saint prior to that day.
During their conversation at St. Peter’s that morning, Fr. James came to learn that “Mother” had a deep devotion to St. Maximilian because of their shared consecration to the Blessed Mother, the Immaculata.
The brief meeting led to an invitation for Fr. James to speak to the Sisters of Mother Teresa’s religious congregation, the Missionaries of Charity and, from that day until her death in 1997, and beyond, Fr. James has provided retreats, talks and other spiritual services to the nuns and priests of the Missionaries of Charity. Although Mother Teresa sought council from many priests around the world, she did develop a close relationship with Fr. James, as together they authored prayers, greeted and blessed the poor and spent hours discussing spiritual issues.
According to Fr. James, Mother Teresa viewed the Missionaries of Charity as Franciscans at heart, which is a big reason why she had such a devotion to St. Maximilian. In fact, both of them were emphatic about distributing Miraculous Medals, by the hundreds, wherever they were.
This practice inspired Fr. James, during his tenure as the National Director of the Militia of the Immaculata, to present Mother Teresa with the organization’s annual St. Maximilian Kolbe Award, an honor reserved for outstanding Catholics who promote devotion to Our Lady with the ideals of St. Maximilian Kolbe. In 1991 Fr. James visited Mother Teresa in Washington, D.C., to present the award. During his visit the two recited together the entire St. Maximilian Kolbe Prayer of Consecration to Our Lady and she then enrolled herself in the Militia of the Immaculata. Later, she also wrote a reflection to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Saint Maximilian’s birth, in which she spoke about St. Maximilian’s sufferings and how Our Lady helped him to offer his life as a martyr.
With Fr. James in attendance at St. Peter’s Basilica once again, Mother Teresa was canonized Saint Teresa of Calcutta, by Pope Francis, on Sept. 4, 2016. The experience crystalized Fr. James’ reflections on his friend.
“One of the themes that Mother always stressed, not only with me but with everybody, were the two words ‘I thirst,’ that Jesus uttered as he was dying on the cross,” said Fr. James. “Those two words more or less became the motto of the Missionaries of Charity. Mother said that her mission was to satiate the thirst of Jesus. She always seemed to have in view that image of Jesus hanging on the cross at Calvary saying ‘I thirst.’ By giving water to the poor, she was quenching the thirst of Jesus. By giving them bread or shelter or clothes, all of that was helping Jesus as He was presenting Himself to her in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor. That’s the whole spirituality of Mother Teresa in a nutshell.”
Fr. James last saw Mother Teresa on her final visit to her New York convent in the South Bronx. It was in June of 1997 and she was already quite feeble, with most of her time confined to a wheelchair. After the Mass which was celebrated that day, she greeted each of the priests, one by one, and Fr. James came to realize this would be the last time he would see her.
With a basket of Miraculous Medals on her lap, her last words to Fr. James were, “Jesus wants us to be joyful, spread His joy.”
“It’s an extraordinary grace that God had given me to have walked, and known, and rubbed shoulders with a saint like Mother Teresa,” said Fr. James. “In our Catholic tradition, for someone like me as I was growing up, the saints were distant figures from the past, whom we put on pedestals, whom we invoked in prayer, loved and admired, and tried to imitate, but we didn’t know them face to face.
“We hadn’t heard their real human voices, we hadn’t seen the wrinkles in their faces, the bunions on their feet. So, when I think of Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta, I think of somebody very human whom I was graced to meet in her humanness. Whenever anyone was in Mother Teresa’s presence, they knew they were in the presence of someone very holy, a deeply human holiness.”
When asked if his “chance meeting” and subsequent relationship with this holy woman was pre-ordained to serve as a bridge between the strikingly similar ministries of two saints from different eras, Fr. James did not shy away from the possibility.
“Nothing in life happens by accident. It is all by Divine Providence, so I am absolutely convinced that my bumping into Mother Teresa at the Canonization of St. Maximilian Kolbe by Saint John Paul II was directed,” said Fr. James. “I spoke with two saints that day. On the same day, two future saints said to this little nobody of a friar, teach us, teach others, spread the Consecration to Our Lady. Nothing in that scenario was by happenstance or chance.”
“I certainly reckon that day, the 10th of October, 1982, will be engraved in my heart as one of the most important days of my life. It gave to my life and Franciscan priesthood, a focus I wouldn’t have had otherwise.” †
Articles from this edition: