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Catholic News Herald

Serving Christ and Connecting Catholics in Western North Carolina

083116 bishop curlin mother teresaCHARLOTTE — The Diocese of Charlotte is blessed to have a direct connection to one of the Church’s newest saints, Teresa of Calcutta. Bishop Emeritus William G. Curlin, the third bishop of the diocese, was her longtime friend and confessor.

As the date of her canonization approaches, Bishop Curlin has been a sought-after resource on the life and legacy of this petite powerhouse of mercy.

His friendship with Mother Teresa lasted more than 20 years, until her death in 1997. And Mother Teresa’s ministry, the Missionaries of Charity, which now serves in more than 100 countries around the world, has a convent in east Charlotte where members of her order have cared for the poorest and most vulnerable for more than 20 years.

Pictured: Bishop Emeritus William G. Curlin and Mother Teresa are pictured at the Charlotte Coliseum during her visit to the Queen City in 1995.

Mother Teresa herself visited Charlotte on June 13, 1995, to attend a private dedication of the convent and lead an ecumenical prayer service that attracted more than 19,000 people.

Bishop Curlin served for years as the spiritual director for the local Missionaries of Charity, and although he retired as bishop in 2002, he still celebrates Mass for the sisters regularly.

Bishop Curlin met Mother Teresa in the early 1970s when he was the pastor of a poor parish in Washington, D.C. He remembers celebrating Mass at the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception one Sunday, and Mother Teresa was there during a visit to the U.S. She approached him after Mass and asked if they could talk. They spent hours conversing about her plans to help the poor, and he was struck by her fervor and her faith.

Sometime after that, she phoned him from India to tell him he would be coming to give her and her sisters a retreat there. He told her that as a pastor of a poor parish he didn’t have the money to travel, but she was adamant about him leading the retreat. Sure enough, a friend gave him the money to fly to India for the first of what became many visits.

“It was a wonderful experience to meet her in her home environment and to be with her where she really began her ministry to the poor in the world,” Bishop Curlin says. He collaborated with her on several projects in the U.S., especially the Gift of Peace Home for AIDS patients, which opened in 1983 in Washington, D.C.

083116 clt bl motherteresa visit 1995“Mother kept saying to me, ‘If you’re going to do work, it’s not social work. It’s Jesus working through you,’” Bishop Curlin recalls.

The first time he helped bathe a dying leper in India she encouraged him, saying, “If you see with your heart, you will see Jesus lying here.” She also reminded him that “when you look at someone, you are looking at the face of God.”

Bishop Curlin shares that Mother Teresa believed when you hold a dying person in your arms, or when you feed a poor person or cradle a sick child in your arms, your hands are the hands of Jesus. And when you speak to someone, your voice echoes His heart.

“She said that our life as Christians is not to lock Christ up inside, it’s to let Him out of us. She actually believed when you woke up in the morning, God woke up in you. Through you, Jesus continues His works of mercy and love and reconciliation. If you have the heart for it, He will do this.”

“You must never close your heart to Jesus,” he recalls her saying.

“It helped me as a priest, as I had never learned that in seminary,” he adds.

“This was the action she taught me. When you go to the door to help a poor person, give them your heart, not just the sandwich in your hand.”

083116 Curlin and Missionaries of CharityBishop Curlin notes that “All for Jesus” was her motto, and she really believed through each of us, Jesus is made present in this world.

“Mother believed that Christians should be possessed by Jesus alone, and that love drives them out to the streets to serve the most needy. She said the greatest hunger is not physical hunger, it is the emptiness of God in us crying out for the fullness of God. The greatest hunger is for God, even if we don’t know Him.”

“It’s your life that proves you are a Christian,” he emphasizes. “...The love that comes out of you which is Christ-centered and reaches another person. Whether they are dying, or whether they are hungry or whether they are depressed – they are all hurting. You have to take away that pain.”

Bishop Curlin, who attended her funeral in Calcutta and submitted testimony to the Vatican on the cause for her canonization, believes Mother Teresa’s canonization during this Jubilee Year of Mercy is providential.

“I think it’s wonderful,” he says. “Mother said we’re always judging people. She said, ‘I fear sometimes people look at the Church and say it’s a courtroom – saying who are the washed, who are the unclean, who are the saved and who are the damned.’ She said instead of that, we should always carry in us what Our Lord carried in His ministry: a tender heart of mercy.

“So as a priest I never go into a confessional being harsh, but try to be as tender as I can,” he says. “When I meet people who say, ‘Father, it’s been so long, I don’t know where to begin,’ I say, ‘Welcome home.’ All because of Mother Teresa’s teaching.”

Bishop Curlin says he will always remember her joy and her smile, both trademarks of her ministry.

“Her joy was a gift, one of the precious gifts we need in the world today,” he says with admiration, adding that he tries to practice this wherever he goes.

“I smile at the many times we met, went on retreats together, worked together. I believe that she helped me more than I ever helped her. She would say to me, ‘You are my spiritual father, but you are also my son.’”

— SueAnn Howell, Senior reporter

083116 Bishop Curlin MTBishop Curlin holds a photo of Mother Teresa and him that he displays in his home.