Priests in archdiocese inspired by encounters with St. Teresa of Calcutta
Dec. 28, 2016
St. Teresa of Calcutta’s simple life of service to the poor continues to inspire priests in the Archdiocese of Washington who had the opportunity to meet her and serve with the Missionaries of Charity.
“Every time I walk into a Missionaries of Charity home, my immediate experience is it is a place of grace,” said Father Greg Shaffer, who traveled to Calcutta to serve the poorest of the poor in 2000. “God’s grace is palpable there.”
Father Shaffer, who is currently the pastor of Assumption Parish in Washington, met Mother Teresa in 1995, and had the opportunity to have breakfast with her, which he said consisted of a piece of bread and a half of a banana. In addition to telling him about the work that she and her sisters do throughout the world, Father Shaffer remembers her being very interested in him and his vocation, and offering to pray for him. He remembers walking away from that meeting thinking, “I haven’t done anything with my life,” even though he was only 24 at the time.
In 2000 – three years after Mother Teresa died – Father Shaffer, who was then a seminarian, had the opportunity to travel to Calcutta to work with the Missionaries of Charity. The conditions in Calcutta were difficult, and Father Shaffer remembers the overwhelming smell, the chaos of the streets, and how every time someone blew their nose there would be black on the tissue from the dirt. Kids begging for food filled the streets, sometimes without clothing, which has made Father Shaffer careful not to waste food ever since.
“In the midst of all that, my experience was, in Mass and in the work, the presence of Christ was so much stronger and so much more powerful than usual,” Father Shaffer said.
While he was at Kalighat, the home for the dying that Mother Teresa established in Calcutta, he would help the men bathe and feed them. Then, in the afternoon, he would help teach English at a local school.
“We couldn’t communicate, but speaking the language of love, I was receiving as much as I was giving,” he said. “You realize you are serving Jesus with each spoonful of food, you are giving it to him.”
But one of the most lasting experiences that Father Shaffer had was on the evening when the group learned of the murder of Msgr. Tom Wells, who Father Shaffer said had been a spiritual father for him. Msgr. Wells had been stabbed to death in his rectory while he was serving as pastor of Mother Seton Parish in Gaithersburg.
Father Shaffer, upon hearing the news, went to Mother Teresa’s tomb and broke down. While he was there praying, one of the sisters came over to him and said something that Mother Teresa used to tell them: “The best way to imitate Christ is through suffering,” and “those who are closest to Jesus on earth are those who suffer the most.”
Since that day, Father Shaffer has passed on the sentiment to people in hospitals or people who are mourning, and he said every time he says that to someone, they perk up a little bit knowing that a saint believed that and lived it out.
“It turned my situation around and gave me strength and hope and has turned probably hundreds of people’s lives around,” Father Shaffer said.
Father Shaffer also has a special connection to Mother Teresa because of their mutual love for the Eucharist and the poor. At Assumption, Father Shaffer frequently works with the poor through the parish’s Pope Francis Outreach Center, and he brings with him what he learned while serving with the Missionaries of Charity.
“What I learned in Calcutta, why people who have less appear to be happier (is) the little they have they see as a gift,” he said.
Father Dan Leary, the current pastor of St. Andrew Apostle Parish in Silver Spring, was also on that trip. He had also met Mother Teresa during one of her visits to Washington, and had been given the job of driving Mother Teresa, whom he refers to simply as “Mother,” to the airport. On the ride there, the two prayed together, and she talked to him about God’s love and mercy.
“Mother was just always the same in terms of how she expressed her love for Christ,” he said.
About five years after that ride, Father Leary’s car died. But before getting rid of it, he asked the car mechanic to take the seat that Mother Teresa sat in out of the car. He is claiming it as second-class relic, and sometimes brings it along with him to events.
What stayed with Father Leary the most from his experience of getting to know Mother Teresa is an awareness of poverty in the world, both spiritual and physical, as well as her simple way of expressing herself. He recalled how when she prayed with couples who wanted to have a baby, she would simply say, “Mary mother of Jesus, be a mother to me now. Give us a baby.”
Now, when he celebrates Mass, Father Leary thinks about feeding the spiritual hunger of those at Mass through the Eucharist.
“I am more aware of my own poverty before God, and I seek to bring Christ’s love to other people’s poverty,” he said.
Msgr. John Enzler, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, had the opportunity to meet Mother Teresa twice: once at the home of Frank and Vi Collins, who had known Mother Teresa while they worked with the State Department, and a second time when Mother Teresa came to speak at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Washington. Despite her small stature, Msgr. Enzler remembers how “she was able to dominate the group of people by her presence, by her love.”
Msgr. Enzler was able to travel to Calcutta as a priest and offer Mass there every day for the sisters, while also working at Kalighat.
“You saw firsthand these sisters who have very little really, the sari that they wear, very little material things to take with them,” he remembered. “It is all about service and yet in their service, smiles and laughter and joy is evident.”
The Missionaries of Charity would have both Mass and Adoration every day, and Msgr. Enzler estimated that they spent about three hours in the church, and four or five hours doing ministry.
“Back and forth they went, always giving to those in need but always sustained in their prayer life to keep them going,” he said, adding that he still strives to achieve that same balance between prayer and work.
In September, Msgr. Enzler was among the thousand priests who concelebrated the Mass for the canonization of Mother Teresa in Rome.
For Msgr. Enzler, Mother Teresa’s example of following God’s will is the most important take away from the example of her life. She had great openness to doing whatever God wanted her to do, Msgr. Enzler said, adding that she “put her hands in God’s hands and trusted that God would take it from there.”
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