Monsignor Michael Mannion, an associate of Priests for Life, recognized Mother Teresa as a saint long before many even knew her name. On Sept. 4, he will concelebrate her canonization Mass in Rome.
“I knew her for 28 years,” said the monsignor, director of community relations for the Diocese of Camden, N.J. “We met when I was a student in Rome and her sisters were working in the shacks of Rome, the slums. One of the sisters asked me if I could pick her up at the airport. I borrowed a car from Bishop Hicks and I picked her up at the airport. That led to a friendship of 28 years. This was 1970 and a lot of people didn’t know who she was yet. It would be another three years before she would win the Templeton Prize.
Mother Teresa won prestigious award in 1973 for her efforts to help the homeless and neglected children of Calcutta. Six years later, she won the Nobel Peace Prize.
“The thing that struck me about her was her holiness, joy and humility,” Monsignor Mannion said of his first meeting with her. “Her life was totally immersed in Christ and in seeing Christ in others.”
In the summer of 1971, Monsignor Mannion went to Calcutta to work with her sisters.
“I went to dig ditches and ended up a paramedic in Salt Lake 5, a refugee camp with 900,000 people from East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.” To crush forces seeking independence for East Pakistan, the West Pakistani military unleashed a systematic campaign of mass murder aimed at killing millions of Bengalis. Most of the Western world became aware of the plight of Bangladesh through a benefit concert former Beatle George Harrison organized to raise money and awareness. But Mother Teresa and Monsignor Mannion saw the horror first hand.
“Mother Teresa was there every day,” the monsignor said. “We all worked together. When I talked to her, she told me that God’s love is going to prevail, even if it didn’t look that way. She told me that my faith had to go deeper than my physical sight and human emotions.”
After that summer, “I saw her many times through the years,” he recalled. “In D.C., I saw her when I said Mass in her convent. Mother Teresa founded a hospice in D.C., where members of her order cared for people with AIDS.”
“At a Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia, I had a chance to introduce her to my Mom and Dad. She came to Camden. I saw her in other places, too.
“She felt that what she did, everyone can do. Our role is to be the people of life and see the sacredness in every human being. She would see a spark of goodness in a man in prison who had done horrible things and she would reveal that spark. She believed that those who deserve it the least need our compassion the most.”
Although Monsignor Mannion was not at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994, when she spoke so eloquently and so forcefully about abortion – and received a standing ovation and thunderous applause from everyone except the Clintons and the Gores - she spoke to him about it and later gave him a copy of her speech.
Monsignor Mannion last saw her in June 1997, when she was brought in to the Capitol Rotunda to address Congress and receive the Congressional Gold Medal. She died Sept. 5, 1997. During her funeral, he was at the CNN studio in Atlanta, providing commentary along with reporter Christiane Amanpour, who was in Calcutta.
“I focused on her holiness, her humor and her humility,” he recalled.
On his upcoming trip to Rome for her canonization, he said: “I’m honored to do it.”