With a trembling voice, Pope John Paul II on Saturday spoke of his deep emotion over the death of Mother Teresa and held her up as a “luminous example” for humanity in her care for the desperate and downtrodden.
Rising early at his summer palace in Castel Gandolfo, in the cool hills southeast of Rome, John Paul celebrated a private Mass for the 87-year-old Roman Catholic nun who founded the Missionaries of Charity, an order dedicated to the homeless, the dying and others society often shuns.
A few hours later, in a public appearance scheduled before he learned of Mother Teresa’s death Friday in Calcutta, India, John Paul told several thousand Catholic volunteers at a skating rink near his summer home what she meant to him and to the world.
“This morning I celebrated, with intimate emotion, Holy Mass for her, unforgettable witness to a love made up of concrete and ceaseless service to the poorest and most down-and-out brothers,” John Paul said, his voice at times shaking, seated in a chair before the crowd.
“Traveling tirelessly the streets of the entire world, Mother Teresa marked the history of our century,” he said. “With courage, she defended life - she served every human being by always promoting dignity and respect.”
He asked God to grant her “the reward that awaits every faithful servant” and prayed that “her luminous example of charity be a comfort and stimulus for her spiritual family, for the church and for all of humanity.”
In 1986, when the pope visited with Mother Teresa during a pilgrimage to India, he noted that she had spearheaded the Roman Catholic church’s fight against poverty and social ills in predominantly Hindu India.
“If I was able to go to India with a clear and tranquil conscience, it was thanks to Mother Teresa,” John Paul told reporters at the time. “She will be a saint.”
Two years later, John Paul inaugurated an 80-bed shelter for homeless men and women within the Vatican’s walls. Nuns from Mother Teresa’s order run the facility.
In praising Mother Teresa on Saturday, the pope singled out her embrace of “the hearts of the dying, of the abandoned children, of the men and women crushed by the weight of suffering and solitude.”
John Paul, lately experiencing more difficulty in moving about, looked tired, but seemed to make an extra effort Saturday to spend time with the handicapped in the audience. Before and after his speech, he embraced those in wheelchairs, murmuring words of comfort.
Earlier in the day, he sent a telegram of condolence to Sister Nirmala, who was elected the order’s superior-general earlier this year to replace Mother Teresa, who was suffering repeated heart, breathing and other health problems.
In the telegram, the pope offered “fervent thanks” for Mother Teresa, whom he called “a gift to the church and to the world.”
John Paul told Sister Nirmala he was confident that Mother Teresa’s “extraordinary spiritual vision … self-sacrificing love … her absolute respect for the value of every human life and her courage in facing so many challenges” will inspire the order’s 4,000 members worldwide to carry on her work.