by Andrea Hartley
It was at the airport in Rome, 1970 where the young seminarian waited for the arrival of the plane which would bring a nun from Calcutta. The nun, who would later become known worldwide as “Mother Teresa” usually traveled by bus, but now had a broken rib and so required a car. She was coming to see the sisters who had opened a home to serve the poor. The small woman he saw moved at a fast pace. She expressed no visible fatigue and made it quite clear that she was on a mission. Her enthusiasm was contagious and he felt a desire to help her with whatever that mission would be. As he drove the physically frail, spiritual powerhouse back to the convent, his mind flashed back to a time where he sat in an old blue Studebaker, at the age of seven, waiting for his mom. His Dad at the wheel, almost every Friday night they would go to a nearby family’s apartment. Mom would get out of the car and knock on their door. She would go inside for just a few minutes and return to the car. The boy wondered about this Friday night ritual and at the age of 10, he asked his mother about it. She replied, “It is our responsibility to help others in need and we are giving this family money.” He remembered her kind blue eyes and sweet smile as she spoke. His parents, though they had their own financial struggles, always found a way to help others monetarily, or with food. It was by watching his parent’s example of living their faith that led this young man to his vocation and to this moment of driving this particular nun. Living one’s faith was even more brilliantly exemplified for him as he watched, learned from and helped Mother Teresa over the next 28 years. Monsignor Michael Mannion, born and raised in Pennsauken, NJ, describes his impressions of the Mother Teresa he knew.
“When I first met her, she was about 60 yrs old. She was extremelyintelligent, very astute. [She] didn’t miss a trick in terms of anything and everything going on around her. She would let no one distract her from her love and care for the poor, needy and dying,”
He remembers an occasion when he and Mother Teresa had the unpleasant task of going to an embassy which was unfriendly to Christianity to ask for visas for the sisters to enter the country and help the people. There was an initial reluctance and refusal on the part of the officials. Mother Teresa would smile and start fingering her rosary beads silently,praying the rosary. Ten minutes later we walked out with five visas. I said, ‘Mother, what went on in there?’ She replied, with a smile something to the effect that it was all in God’s hands and Jesus takes care of His own.” This scenario was often repeated with many different embassies, yet these same officials would become her biggest supporters when they saw the work that Mother and her sisters accomplished,” Monsignor Mike said.
The Monsignor volunteered to work in Calcutta with Mother Teresa during the Bangladesh war. “We would sit and talk about how do we deal with a loving God creating a world where people could do horrible things to each other. We shared the sadness we felt about the cruelty that we witnessed and took comfort in knowing that what we saw was not all there is,” he said.
They worked many hours at Salt Lake 7 refugee camp digging ditches to create basic living conditions, worked with lepers and gave nutrition IV’s to starving people dying from dehydration. Salt Lake 7 was one of 829 refugee camps in India where about 10 million people from East Pakistan lived in sub-human conditions. Their initial shelter wasabandoned drainage pipes. They had fled East Pakistan to escape mass murder, rape and destruction and the result was that many had died from starvation and living in unsanitary conditions.
“Mother Teresa and our faith in Christ was our anchor. We never used heaven as an excuse for not caring for the poor now, but as a reason to care all the more so. We would see in the poorest of the poor and those hurting the most, flickers of light in a smile or a ‘thank you’. We were all color blind and saw through the lens of knowing that we were all one community.”
He remembers when Ted Kennedy came to the camp and visited a tent which housed 40 or 50 children who were blinded by malnutrition. “He came out with tears in his eyes.” he said, adding that many came who held titles and status and they left with more of a conviction that we are all part of the family of God and that we ARE our brother and sister’s keeper. “People of faith have a special responsibility to reach out to, care for and love all God’s children. These experiences drew from us depths of compassion that we didn’t know that we were capable of,” Monsignor Mike said.
Monsignor Mike also worked at Gift of Peace in Washington D.C., a home for the homeless and those dying with AIDS. He emphatically says, more than once, that he does not want this article to be about him, but rather about Mother Teresa’s mission. “It is so important that people understand that Mother Teresa believed that what she did, in one form of another, we all can do and we must do, because God gives us the people we meet as opportunities in a difficult, fragile and sometimes violent world, to meet Him in them.”
He also works counseling teens and producing youth retreats. Mother Teresa encouraged Monsignor Mike to write the first book written on healing from abortion, “Abortion and Healing – A Cry to be Whole”.
The Monsignor also works as a chaplain for many local police departments and is the Director of Community Relations for the Diocese of Camden. “I have to say that what I see in the streets of Camden often reminds me of what I experienced in the streets of Calcutta. There are so many poor people in Camden trying to survive the deaths of a loved one. There are a lot of heroes in Camden. They reach out to each other and support each other and I am inspired by it,” he said. He also explained that Camden youth have a great need for mentors. “If people would just take a few hours a week or even a month to mentor a youth, listen to their dreams, care abut their lives and support them in their struggles, it would make a huge difference in the life of a youth.” He spoke of his greatest desire, which is to see others know that we can all be a part of Mother Teresa’s work. “We are all brothers and sisters, children of God; we can and should make a difference in the lives of others. Mother Teresa taught me what it means to be Catholic… it is to have unconditional love for all. So often in our everyday lives, our feelings and moods impact how we see the world. We see it not as it is, but how we are.” He explained that Mother Teresa was able to take her eyes off of herself and keep them on God and identify with Christ. As a result people of all faiths were blessed. He further explains that this is something that all who care can do. “The greatest hunger we have is not for physical food but for love,” he said, and then added the quote from St. Francis of Assisi, “Always preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.”
Note: If you would like to mentor youth, contact Adam Gaubinger, Center for Family Services, Mentor Coordinator at (609)458 5028.