I recently arrived back in England, after spending five days in Rome with one of my best friends and an estimated 100,000 pilgrims from around the world, in St Peter’s Square, celebrating the canonization of Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta (who I will refer to Mother from here onwards, as she was to all).
To say that it was an experience of a lifetime would be a huge understatement. The canonization ceremony itself, whilst wonderful (and extremely hot!), was not the only event that made my trip memorable.
Exploring the Vatican City and Rome’s churches, and eating as much ITALIAN FOOD as humanly possible, were definitely up there. Of course, being half-Indian swelled the pride within me. However, experiencing the love of Christ through others, and the surprise encounters with strangers in the most unlikely places, truly made the pilgrimage worthwhile.
The day before the canonization, we put our trust in God (and Google Maps) to get us to the Basilica of St Andrea della Valle, for a sacred oratory in honour of Mother Teresa. The Basilica of course would be overcrowded, so I hurried my friend along to try and get a good spot, but just as we were walking into the building I was literally stopped in my tracks.
The atmosphere suddenly changed and a crowd started forming on the steps. I spotted a blue and white saree of a Missionary of Charity and thought little of it, until I realised that I was standing over Sister Mary Prema MC, Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity.
Like a stereotypical Catholic girl, fresh back from World Youth Day, I had a huge fan-girl moment. The wait to meet her was long and was beginning to test my patience, until I really observed what she was doing.
A crying woman approached the Sister and was consoled by her for five minutes – in that time, that helpless woman was her sole focus, and she showered all her love upon her. At least 20 people were competing for her attention, and yet she lovingly took a young child into her arms.
After waiting for a while, I finally got to meet her. She was swamped by a huge crowd but found time for a quick selfie and to gently touch my cheek and lovingly look into my eyes, in a way only a spiritual mother could. Through her witness, I had encountered God’s mercy. I had felt Jesus’ love for me. I had met the modern day Mother Teresa.
When we eventually got to the front of the Basilica it was packed (as expected), we struggled to find anywhere to stand. A spot in an archway became available and we weren’t going to miss that chance!
It was going to be a half an hour wait, so I took the opportunity to do a spot of people-watching. Sitting in front of me I saw two religious sisters in grey habits and long black veils. I recognised the habit and veil from meeting Sisters Catherine, Chiara, Elizabeth, Faustina and Josephine CFR (a group of caring, insightful and fun-loving women) the previous week at a Youth 2000 retreat in Walsingham.
I cautiously approached, as not to alarm or appear stalker-ish. I began chatting to the Sister sitting down and immediately felt at ease. We discussed the retreat, the Sisters I had met, whether Sister Catherine was a good MC during the retreat (I gave a good report to your Superior, Sr C – I’ve got your back), and what I was doing in Rome; when she introduced herself as Mother Lucille CFR. She had travelled from New York to be there with Sister Mary Teresa CFR, to see the latter’s patron’s canonization.
I was stunned that out of all the places in the world to bump into them, it would be in Rome during this once-in-a-lifetime experience. They both shared so much wisdom with me and a Miraculous Medal, to give to someone in need, as I’d already received one from Sister Faustina CFR.
For a second time in an hour, God’s mercy was bestowed upon me by their interest, love and counsel. I was feeling overwhelmed to say the least, and Mother Teresa hadn’t even been canonized yet!
Finally, canonization day arrived! It was a 5am start and we were outside the Vatican by 6:45am. The huge crowd swelled and everyone was in high spirits; the atmosphere was electric.
A few minutes in, my friend noticed that everyone seemed to have tickets… We didn’t. At this point I was feeling pretty hopeless. I said a quick Hail Mary and hoped that my flare prayer would work. We left the crowd and decided to walk around the Vatican walls to see if we could get inside at another entrance.
On route, we found an Indian priest and some of his congregation with the same problem, so we tagged along. At one point a lady said to him, “Father, you go in. They’re letting all the priests in anyway.” To which he replied, “No way, I’m not leaving my flock.”
That moment has really stuck with me. This was a chance of a lifetime but the priest was willing to sacrifice having this experience all for the sake of charity and solidarity; he embodied the spirit of Mother Teresa.
My friend took a risk and went into the Pilgrimage Office on the road leading up to the Vatican; it turns out they were giving out free spare tickets! Talk about God showering his mercy upon us! When we eventually got close to entering St Peter’s Square, the crowds were so large that we were all pressed up against each other with no space to move… Given our proximity to them, we got to know a couple from Pennsylvania very well.
Finally, in the 30+ degree heat, Pope Francis did his thing… He declared Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and the crowd erupted in applause. I was overcome with emotion; it had finally happened and I felt an overwhelming sense of pride and gratitude towards Mother for her love, compassion, insight and most of all her perseverance.
Without her perseverance, so many people wouldn’t have had the chance to live and die in dignity, knowing that they were unconditionally loved by God and by her. Without her, I wouldn’t have been able to overcome my own “darkness” and wouldn’t be able to in the future.
All in all, it was a trying but wonderful experience, and I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. I believe that Mother helped me encounter and recognise the essence of God’s mercy during my pilgrimage.
Following her example as a “model of holiness” (Pope Francis declared her as such in his homily), I hope that I will be used by God to be a witness of the merciful love of the Father.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta, please pray that we may always remember that “Peace begins with a smile.”