Mother Teresa was having a bad press conference.
Journalists gathered for her 1989 Denver visit seemed determined to ask a litany of questions about her views on every imaginable issue in world affairs and American politics. The soft-spoken, yet often stern, nun seemed confused and kept stressing that her Missionary Sisters of Charity would always focus on the needs of the needy and the sick, including those suffering from AIDS.
One television reporter even asked if the day’s main event — a “Celebrate Life with Mother Teresa” prayer rally — would include a Mass. Once again, the tiny sister from Calcutta was confused. How could there be a Catholic Mass if the rally included Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians, Pentecostal believers and clergy from other churches?
“We will pray together,” she said. “That is what we can do.”
I raised my hand and asked another question that I knew she might not want to answer. I had heard that she had privately toured Northeast Denver, an impoverished area hit hard by gangs. Might she open a mission there?
Mother Teresa smiled, but gently deflected the question, noting that Denver had recently been added at the end of a long list of dioceses worldwide making just such a request.
What happened next was a singular moment in my journalism career, one that awkwardly blurred the lines between the personal and the professional.
Why bring this up now? For more than 25 years, I have written this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service, a streak that ended last month as the wire services closed. My “On Religion” column will continue to be carried by Universal Uclick, formerly known as the Universal Press Syndicate.
During this quarter of a century, readers have asked one question more than any other: Who is the most remarkable person you’ve met while covering religion? That’s a tough one. The Rev. Billy Graham or novelist Madeleine L’Engle? Who was the more charismatic positive thinker, the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale or actor Denzel Washington? What was more amazing, seeing Chuck Colson preach inside a prison on Easter or Bono lead a Bible-study group at the U.S. Capitol?
My answer centers on what happened after that Denver press conference, after Mother Teresa — now the Blessed Mother Teresa, one step from being recognized as a saint — finished her private prayers before the ecumenical service.
The clergy taking part in the rally were gathered in a holding room deep inside the arena and, eventually, security guards moved through to remove the reporters. I was in a corner, hidden behind the Greek Orthodox cathedral dean in his flowing vestments. The guards missed me.
Suddenly, Mother Teresa entered, spending a few moments with each of the clergy. When a priest tried to introduce me, she took my hand. “Yes,” she said, smiling. “He asked me earlier about starting a house here.” We talked briefly and she said she was surprised that a reporter had asked that question.
Hours later, as the rally ended, Denver’s archbishop followed protocol and gave the elderly nun several gifts from the people of Colorado. Then she raised her hand to silence the crowd.
“I have a gift for you,” she said, gesturing toward members of her team. “I will give you my sisters and I hope that, together, we are going to do something beautiful for God.”
Archbishop J. Francis Stafford — now a cardinal in Rome — flushed red with shock. The work to build a Denver mission would begin immediately, rather than many years in the future.
Mother Teresa’s gift was the story of the day and my editors kept asking a blunt question: What led to her shocking decision?
Well, I had a quote from Stafford, who said: “She is a spontaneous person. Maybe we will never know why she made her decision now.”
But I also told them about my strange encounter with the woman that millions already considered a living saint. Could I include this factual material in a news report, even though I was directly involved in what transpired?
What happened really happened. The quotes were in my reporter’s notebook.
Nevertheless, we decided to play the main story straight.
The problem was that I was the eyewitness. I was there and so was Mother Teresa, the most remarkable person I have encountered in my journalism work.
Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Contact him at [email protected] or www.tmatt.net