My 8-year-old daughter needs to read a biography for a book report, so we headed off to the library in search of something inspiring. As we walked through the stacks, she grabbed a book on Annie Oakley and another on Sacajawea. I bent down and pulled out a book on Mother Teresa. Olivia looked at me and said, "Who is Mother Teresa?" I almost dropped our pile of books on the floor. How did I miss passing on that important fact? I have books about Mother Teresa in my living room and office. I have a miraculous medal touched by Mother Teresa. I met Mother Teresa, for goodness sake.
OK, I told Olivia, we're taking this one then. When we got home, she started flipping through the biography, subtitled "Protector of the Sick." Noah, my 12-year-old, came in and asked what she was doing. That started up the Mother Teresa conversation again.
"Did you know Mommy met Mother Teresa?" Olivia inquired. Noah quickly responded that, yes, he did know, but tell us the story again. Well, it wasn't a private meeting or anything like that. I was covering a Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral on the anniversary of Cardinal Terence Cooke's death, and there, in the sanctuary after Mass, as we were about to go down to the crypt, Mother Teresa stood beside me and put her hand on my arm. As simple as that, but I will never forget it.
The kids started getting very excited when they heard the story again, saying, "You met a saint." Don't worry, I corrected them and reminded them that she is Blessed as of now. But then I told them that I had met another saint in the making, Cardinal Cooke. When I was young, I performed a religious song I had written at a Mass in my parish. My pastor, a classmate of Cardinal Cooke, wanted to introduce me to him. Later on, of course, I would often find myself writing about Cardinal Cooke's canonization process as I worked as a reporter for Catholic New York newspaper.
But that is all beside the point of this post, really. As we talked about my brush with spiritual celebrity, I told the kids that, while it is exciting and inspiring to have met people who are on the official road to sainthood, we are all, in fact, called to be saints. They stared at me with a confused look on their faces. Once again, I had to flip back through my memory bank to try to figure out how that information had bypassed them. I guess on some level I assumed they knew that. But why would I assume such a thing? Maybe because when I was growing up, a priest who served weekends at our parish would mention that fact in every single homily he gave. It was constantly out there before us: You are called to be a saint.
The kids liked this idea. Olivia mentioned Adele, an amazing woman from our parish who died a couple of years ago. She had cerebral palsy and lived in a group home next to our church. Olivia's class would plant flowers at the home or visit the residents to make crafts. Adele was a fixture at our parish. She often parked her wheelchair with the "Got Jesus?" bumper stick on the back in front of the statue of Mary on the school grounds to sit and pray for hours. She was a true witness to all of us, but especially to our school children. Adele was as saintly as they come, and yet it took a school assignment to make me realize that I needed to connect the spiritual dots for my kids in order for them to see the real people in the stained glass versions of sainthood.
So what started out as a somewhat dreaded trip to the library turned into one of those teachable moments I always hear about. I reminded the kids that not everyone will be called to give up everything and serve the poor, as Mother Teresa did, but that everyone is called to walk the path to sainthood right there in the midst of everyday life, even when everyday life is about homework or cooking dinner. It's nice when the teachable moment reaches not only the kids but mom too.