The number one trusted online resource for Catholic values
A+ A A-

In the Vatican


"Mother Teresa's daily life, as described by Msgr. Maasburg, can be put in two powerful words: holy daring." - Alice von Hildebrand, Author, The Privilege of Being a Woman


Order Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait here.

"Drive you to the Vatican? Yes, of course. I'd be happy to!" I had no reason to refuse Mother Teresa this small request. Besides, it was a good opportunity for a priest who had been ordained only a few months earlier to get a glimpse of what lies behind the Vatican walls, and perhaps even, while waiting for Mother Teresa, to walk a little in the Vatican Gardens which are otherwise closed to the public.

"Yes, gladly. Any time!" was the response to the question of when I should pick her up to drive her to the Vatican, which began my first short discussion with Mother Teresa.

"Father, we must be very punctual. So it would be best if we leave here tomorrow at four o'clock." So she began our little argument.

"Four in the morning?" I could already see myself getting up in the dark, completely sleep- deprived, since people in Rome rarely went to bed before one in the morning — especially students. This looked like it was going to be a real sacrifice.

But maybe the time of the sacrifice could be postponed just a bit? It was worth a try: "Mother Teresa, I presume you have been invited to the Holy Father's morning Mass?"

A pursing of the lips and an Indian wagging of the head, which to us Europeans signifies "No" but in the Indian world means "Yes", confirmed my assumption. I saw my chances improve: "Mother Teresa, the Pope's Mass doesn't begin until seven o'clock!" I objected with my insider knowledge.

"Yes, but we must be very punctual! All right, then, departure at half past four."

A partial victory had been won. Now I had to keep at it. "No, Mother, half past six would be quite early enough. At that hour of the morning the streets are empty, and it will take at most fifteen minutes to drive from San Gregorio to the Vatican."

"OK, then, Father, five o'clock. But no later!"

Again a partial victory. She was amenable to argument, I thought. And there was not even the slightest trace of annoyance or impatience. On the contrary: I thought that I spied an encouraging look deep in those extraordinary eyes that reminded me of my grandmother. I felt a little like Abraham when he was bargaining for the just souls in Sodom. Of course it was not a matter of souls here, but only of a few hours of sleep for me the next morning.

Nevertheless I wanted to try once more, this time with an argument that wasn't entirely insubstantial: "Mother Teresa, that's still much too early! The gates at the Vatican aren't even opened till six o'clock!"

Again I had won. "Half past five!"

Now that was much more bearable than four o'clock!

Punctually at half past five the next morning I arrived at San Gregorio to pick up Mother Teresa. She and a Sister who was fortunate enough to accompany her on her visit to the Holy Father were already waiting for their ride. When the Vatican opened its gates at six, my green Opel with its Munich license plate was the first car waiting. The Swiss guard waved us through with a smart salute, and we drove up the ramp to the Cortile San Damaso (St. Damasus' Courtyard); from there the Pope's guests take an elevator to the third floor where the entrance to the Holy Father's chambers is located.

As I stopped the car in front of the entrance to the elevator, another Swiss guard saluted. "Good morning, Mother Teresa. You're much too early. Please wait here,." His command was succinct. So I had the good fortune to wait in the car with Mother Teresa for almost an hour. That was more than I had ever hoped for, and I believe that I have never enjoyed waiting as much as on that occasion.

Mother Teresa sat in the passenger seat, and together we prayed the fifteen decades of the Rosary and a Quick Novena. This Quick Novena was, so to speak, Mother Teresa's spiritual rapid-fire weapon. It consisted of ten Memorares — not nine, as you might expect from the word novena. Novenas lasting nine days were quite common among the Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity. But given the host of problems that were brought to Mother Teresa's attention, not to mention the pace at which she traveled, it was often just not possible to allow nine days for an answer from Celestial Management. And so she invented the Quick Novena.

Here are the words of the Memorare:

"Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession was left unaided. Inspired with this confidence, I fly unto you, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother. To you I come, before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in your clemency hear and answer me. Amen."

Mother Teresa used this prayer constantly: for petitions for the cure of a sick child, before important discussions or when passports went missing, to request heavenly aid when the fuel supply was running short on a night-time mission and the destination was still far away in the darkness. The Quick Novena had one thing in common with nine-day and even nine-month novenas: confident pleading for heavenly assistance, as the apostles did for nine days in the upper room "with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the women" (Acts 1:14) while waiting for the promised help from the Holy Spirit.

The reason why Mother Teresa always prayed ten Memorares, though, is as follows: She took the collaboration of Heaven so much for granted that she always added a tenth Memorare immediately, in thanksgiving for the favor received. So it was on this occasion. We prayed the entire Rosary while we were waiting in the car. No sooner had we finished the Quick Novena than the Swiss guardsman knocked on the steamed-up windshield and said, "Mother Teresa, it's time!" Mother Teresa and the Sister got out. To keep the guardsman from chasing me out of the beautiful courtyard, I called after Mother Teresa, "Mother, I'll wait here for you until you come back down. Then I'll take you home." But it was to be otherwise.

the author with Mother Teresa

For she turned around and called, "Quick, Father, you come with us!" Was it the Quick Novena that finally bring about this "Quick, Father..."? I had no time to reflect, for Mother Teresa was already on her way to the elevator; she swept aside the timid protest of the Swiss guardsman with a charming "Father is with us!" and a grateful twinkle of her eyes.

I thought I knew why the guardsman let me go along with no further objections. The rules were unequivocal: Only those who were on the list of announced guests could enter. And only the names of Mother Teresa and one other Sister were on that list. So it was probably just as clear to the guardsman as it was to me that I had no chance. Even in the company of a saint I would not get past the elevator attendant — much less the civil police in front of the entrance to the Holy Father's apartment.

Mother assured the hesitant elevator attendant no less charmingly, but at the same time quite decisively. "We can start now. Father is with us." Rather than contradict such a clear instruction from Mother Teresa, the elevator attendant obviously preferred to leave it to the civil police to put an end to my intrusion into the papal chambers. As we got out of the elevator it seemed as though that was what he was thinking as he waved to the policeman.

I had already tried again and again to explain to Mother Teresa in the elevator that it is not only unusual but absolutely impossible to make your way into the Pope's quarters unannounced. But even my resistance was useless: She repeated, "No, Father, you are with us." Well, since I could not sink into the floor, there was nothing left for me to do but prepare myself for the final "Out!" just before we reached the desired destination. In my mind I could already hear the elevator attendant and the guardsman whispering: "We told you so," when I crawled back to the car. Would they at least let me wait in the courtyard?

There is a long corridor on the third floor of the Palazzo Apostolico, leading from the elevator to the first great reception hall of the papal apartments. Not long enough, however, to convince Mother Teresa that it would be better for me to turn around immediately. I would not mind at all, I tried to explain timidly.

"You come with us!" she replied firmly. So nothing could be done. Some people called this holy woman a "benevolent dictator". And I was slowly beginning to understand why.

The walls of the corridor that we were now walking along in silence were lined with splendid paintings and studded with ornamentation. The view out of the large windows was simply breathtaking: At our feet, in the light morning mist, lay the Cortile San Damaso, St. Peter's Square, the Gianicolo Hill with the Pontifical Urbaniana University and the North American College, and finally, a seemingly endless ocean of roofs: the Eternal City. I had little time, however, to absorb these impressions. Mother Teresa, the Sister and I were coming closer and closer to the door to the papal apartments. In front of it stood two tall policemen in civilian clothes — would this be the definite end of my morning excursion to see the pope? I was sure of it.

The expected "Out" was finally delivered in a very friendly and professional tone. The older of the two policemen greeted the foundress of a religious order courteously: "Mother Teresa, good morning! Please come this way. The Padre is not announced. He cannot come in." He stepped aside for Mother Teresa, whereas I had stopped walking. She gestured to me, however, that I should keep going, and explained to the policeman, "Father is with us."

"Good, then wait here!" was the prompt reply. And Mother Teresa was already weaseling her way beneath the shrugged shoulders of the policeman and heading for the papal chambers. "I will go and ask the Holy Father!"

But this time even the supernatural charm of a holy woman did not prevail over a Vatican security official who was faithfully following orders. The papal policeman now stepped into Mother Teresa's path and repeated his instruction kindly but definitely, so that there could be no remaining doubt as to who set the rules in this part of the palace: "Mother, your Padre has no permission; therefore he cannot come with you!" Given such courteous yet unassailable authority, it was quite clear to me what my next step was: make my retreat now and as quickly as possible!

In such situations the difference between success and failure becomes clear: To Mother Teresa the solution to this problem appeared altogether different from the way it appeared to me. She stood there calmly and asked the policeman in a patient tone of voice, "And who can give the priest permission?"

The good man was obviously not prepared for this question. With a helpless shrug of his shoulder he said, "Well, maybe the Pope himself. Or Monsignor Dziwisz...."

"Good, then wait here!" was the prompt reply. And Mother Teresa was already weaseling her way beneath the shrugged shoulders of the policeman and heading for the papal chambers. "I will go and ask the Holy Father!"

The poor policeman! After all, one of his most important duties was to safeguard the peace and tranquility of the Pope. And now — it was quite clear to him — this little nun was going to burst into the chapel, snatch the Pope away from his deep prayer, and bother him with a request to admit a simple priest. No, that must not happen! And it was up to him to prevent it!

"Per amor di Dio! For God's sake, Mother Teresa!"

A short pause, then Italian-Vatican common sense prevailed and Mother Teresa had won, "Then the Padre had better just go with you!"

Turning to me, he said, "Go. Go now!"

An order is an order, and so the "benevolent dictator", for whom I had ever greater esteem, the Sister and I went past the policeman and into the Holy Father's reception hall.

From a door on the opposite side of the hall, a figure approached us: Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Pope's private secretary, who today is Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow. Shaking Mother Teresa's hand warmly, he looked inquisitively at the Padre who so unexpectedly enlarged the group. Mother Teresa saw no need at all to give him an explanation. Instead her words of greeting were: "Monsignor, the Padre will concelebrate Holy Mass with the Holy Father!" She did not ask, "Could he?" or "Would it be possible?" No, she said, "The Padre will...!" Clearly Monsignor Dziwisz already knew the "benevolent dictator" better than I did. After examining me with a brief critical glance, he smiled, took my hand and led me into the sacristy, where he explained to me the customs of the house for concelebrating morning Mass with Pope John Paul II. He laughed heartily at the way in which I had intruded into the papal chambers.

With a short bow the Pope acknowledged the presence of Mother Teresa and the Sister in the chapel. Besides them there were only two Polish sisters from his household. In the sacristy the Holy Father put on his vestments while softly murmuring prayers in Latin.

That Holy Mass was an overwhelming experience and left me with an unexpectedly profound impression. The intense devotion of those two great personages of the Universal Church in the silence of morning and high over the roofs of Rome: It was simply thrilling! It was so intense that I felt as though I was inhaling an atmosphere of peace and love.

After that experience in the Vatican, Mother Teresa's ability to prevail in other places and under other circumstances hardly surprised me any more, for instance during the second pastoral visit of Pope John Paul II to Poland. Mother Teresa had already spent two days in Warsaw because her Sisters were ready to take their religious vows at their novitiate for the Eastern countries in Zaborow. After she had received their vows in the morning, she showed them her invitation to a meeting of consecrated religious with the Pope. As she interpreted it, she was invited and so we were all invited! "We" were Mother Teresa, her eighteen new Sisters and Father Leo.


So we drove together to Warsaw and headed for a side entrance to the site of the Mass, as recommended by a Polish colleague. There was less of a crowd there, just as he had said. The downside, though, was that there was a fence in our way. Mother Teresa gave the order to lift the fence. "You hardly have to lift it at all for me anyway because I'm so short."

Soon she was crawling under the fence, followed by eighteen Sisters and Father Leo. Holding her invitation in her raised hand, she ran ahead of us like a weasel and headed directly toward the church. Naturally the security forces at the entrance knew the little nun who was waving her white formal invitation at them. "Come, come in here, all of you," she called to us, turning around briefly.

And so we had to go in by the main door: all the other guests had taken their seats long since and were waiting for the Pope. Mother Teresa walked ahead, unfazed, down the red carpet that had been rolled out for the Pope — holding her invitation high and followed by eighteen Sisters and Father Leo. So she came to the seat that had been allocated to her — to her alone, please note — in the first row.

When she arrived she was greeted by a very dignified Monsignor: "Yes, your seat is here in the first row." But Mother Teresa turned to me: "Father, Father, come quickly, this is your place! Sit down here."

The Monsignor tried to contradict her, "No, Mother Teresa...."

He got no further. "No, Father will sit here."

The Monsignor was visibly irritated and did not know what he was supposed to do now with

Mother Teresa and her eighteen Sisters. But that did was not his problem for long: Mother Teresa took it in hand herself. The Monsignor scarcely had a chance to stammer, "Where are we going to seat the Sisters? They can't stay here."

Mother Teresa already had an idea: "That's very easy. Four Sisters there under the television lights, four Sisters there on the other side, three Sisters along here, and the others will sit here up at the front on the floor."

Mother Teresa sat down on the floor with the last group of Sisters. Now the Monsignor became quite indignant: "No, Mother Teresa, that will not do!" This was not at all in keeping with protocol.

From very close range I could see that the situation was moving towards a crisis. Meanwhile I was sitting in the first row, following Mother Teresa's orders. At that moment the Pope came in and went directly over to Mother Teresa. She stood up and introduced all the young Sisters who had just taken their vows to him. The Holy Father was visibly glad to see them there. I never again heard anything of the exasperated Monsignor.



Monsignor Leo Maasburg. "In the Vatican." chapter two from Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011): 9-18.

Reprinted with permission from Ignatius Press.

The Author

Monsignor Leo Maasburg, born 1948 in Graz, Austria, studied law, political science, theology, canon law and missiology in Innsbruck, Oxford and Rome. In 1982, in Fatima, he was ordained a priest. He was a close friend of Mother Teresa for many years, as her spiritual advisor, translator and confessor. He traveled with her in India and Rome, and on many journeys ranging from Moscow to Cuba to New York. Since 2005 he has been National Director of the Pontifical Missionary Societies in Austria.

Copyright © 2011 Ignatius Press