Final exams were upon us. Many Catholic University students had taken up their usual seats across the library as darkness settled in that Sunday. I was heads down, reading and reviewing for an exam the next day, looking forward to the semester's end and the holidays to come.
My then-roommate, Frank DeRosa, appeared at my study table. His face wore an excited smile. He crouched down and said in a low voice, "Mother Teresa will be at the Basilica this evening. She's here to honor several new members of her order." He paused, awaiting my reaction, and then declared, "We have to go!"
Little did I know what would unfold in the next few hours. I shoved books into my bag and imagined returning to my studies later that evening. We hurried to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which stood only a few hundred yards from the library. Each door was closed, yet music seeped through the walls.
The Basilica was packed with thousands of people. Frank and I craned our necks toward the front of the church, wondering if we would even see her. Would she speak? Had we missed the mass? Then we spotted her tiny outline in the front row with her head tilted downward in prayer.
As the mass ended, priests began to close the ceremony, and the congregation began to stand to depart—until Mother Teresa began to walk toward the pulpit. The music stopped abruptly; attendees found seats again, eager for the unscripted moment. Mother Theresa's exact words are lost to history, but I recall her soft-spoken voice emerging as the crowd settled into stillness.
She gave thanks to God for the commitment of the five women who had just taken their vows. She spoke about the gift of life itself and the need to protect the most vulnerable in our midst from conception until death. In less than five minutes, she returned to her seat and the mass finally came to its close.
Elated that I had seen and heard her speak, I turned to Frank and suggested we get back to studying. "Let's stay awhile," he replied, "and see if we can get close enough to really see her." He pointed to a huge door in the side of the Basilica.
I remember thinking that Frank's guessing her exit door was a long shot, as I assumed she would more likely be taken out a private exit for security reasons. But I followed him outside anyway, joining the thousands who were headed to their cars and vans. Halfway down the large granite staircase, which was soon to be backdrop to one of the most memorable moments of my life, we paused.
We waited for nearly 30 minutes before there was any indication of her departure. The stairs were filled with people standing closely together in palpable excitement and reverie. As people at the top of the staircase began to crowd toward the door, the message cascaded down to us that Mother Teresa was in fact leaving through the door Frank had guessed. She would pass right in front of us.
I looked to the top of the staircase, watching people bow their heads as she walked past them. Some gently reached their hands out to touch her shoulder as she passed. I wondered whether I could be so bold—whether I should.
Mother Teresa descended the stairs slowly with her hands clasped in prayer, looking to her right and then her left. Several times she made the sign of the cross as she looked out at the crowd. Some people were so overwhelmed that they wept deeply. As she reached the step where I stood, I found myself reaching out and gently touching her shoulder. A deep calm and happiness washed over me and the sound of those around me faded.
Mother Teresa continued her descent down the stairs, making her way toward the car waiting to take her away. I stood still on the stairs, perhaps 10 yards from the car. The whole crowd remained transfixed by the image of the tiny woman climbing carefully into the passenger seat. Flashbulbs popped again and again as people dragged out their cameras, realizing that their time with her was fleeting.
Then came the moment that has taken me decades to put into words. Mother Teresa sat behind the glass of the car, slowing waving her right hand up and down, left and right, making the sign of the cross. Gasps and wails came from the crowd. And then something happened that no one in the crowd could have imagined.
A young girl, perhaps 8 or 9 years old, was suddenly planted beside the limousine in the direct eye-line of Mother Teresa. The child could not have fully known who was on the other side of the glass, yet her active arms showed a determination that evoked both innocence and intention. The girl placed her full palm flat against the car window. Mother Teresa responded in kind, and the two were connected despite the glass between them.
From where I stood on the stairs, I could only see Mother Teresa's eyes looking up and out. Though I couldn't see the child's face, I have imagined for years that her expression must have been one of wonder as she soaked in the wisdom and grace of Mother Teresa. Their eyes were locked in a spiritual trance that seemed to last hours, though it was no more than 10 seconds.
As the child pulled back her hand and bowed her head, preparing to step away, Mother Teresa once more made the sign of the cross with her right hand. With all of her fingers raised, she blessed the child before our eyes—a blessing for all of us who had witnessed the incredible moment. I wonder now if that determined, beautiful child had known she was staring into the eyes of a saint.