August 11, 2013

Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the “Express Novena”

Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the “Express Novena”

Mother Teresa & Me

I was blessed to spend two years in religious formation with Mother Teresa’s priests (The Missionaries of Charity Fathers) in Tijuana, Mexico. This was a while back. 1988 to 1990. I was 18 when I arrived in Mexico. And I still had hair back then. 😉

Not only did I have the privilege to be in formation with those priests, I was also extremely blessed to meet Mother Teresa on several occasions. On one occasion, I had the opportunity to repair her rosary, which had broken in two. Presumably from so much use. On another occasion I was able to sit alone with her in the chapel for about 15 minutes. We conversed about my vocation and about my family, and then we prayed together. It was a most profound experience. I was very cognizant of the fact that I was in the presence of a saint… and of our Eucharistic Lord.

Needless to say, Mother Teresa has had a profound impact on my life and my prayer. After spending two years volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity sisters in Baton Rouge and two years in formation with the Missionaries of Charity Fathers in Mexico, it makes sense that I would be naturally inclined to pray the “MC way.”  What do I mean by that? Well, first of all, I mean that prayer is something that permeates everything else and fills in all the “empty” spaces of the day. The day begins and ends with prayer and scripture. So do meals. Driving or riding in a car is always the perfect time to pray the Rosary. Walking is also an excellent time for the Rosary. Praying the “MC way” means focusing on the presence of the Lord at every moment of the day. We encounter Jesus in the Eucharist, in the brothers and sisters in our community, and in the poor and the rich that we meet throughout the day. Every moment gives us a new opportunity to love Jesus himself and to quench his thirst.

Then there were the formal prayers of the community. We prayed certain rote prayers at specific times of the day, and some we prayed just whenever. Many of those formal prayers sunk roots deep in my heart, and they effortlessly form on my lips at just the right time. The Memorare is one such prayer. I can give you so many examples of times that I have been asked to lead a prayer or someone asks me to pray for a particular need and the first words that come to mind are “Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary…” Without even thinking, I launch into the Memorare. The Memorare was a favorite prayer of Mother Teresa.

Mother Teresa and Me - circa 1989

There is a “funny” but powerful story about Mother Teresa and this prayer, the Memorare. She was known for getting what she wanted (and what she wanted was always for holy purposes). Time and again, she would overcome seemingly insurmountable problems. The miraculous happened around her every day. She was a strong woman of prayer, a woman very close to God, and a woman who rarely took no for an answer. She had boundless confidence in God. She knew that God answered her prayer.

The Memorare was one of her secret weapons. She had a very deep love for Our Lady, and she prayed the Rosary all day long. Literally. Her rosary was always in her hands. Her lips always moving in prayer… whether silently or out loud.

In times of great need, when there seemed to be no solution to some obstacle in her way, she turned to the Memorare:

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

When facing difficult circumstances, she did not pray this prayers just once. No. She would offer an “express” novena. Nine Memorares in a row. And, as you will read below, she always prayed a 10th Memorare in thanksgiving, confident that her prayers would be answered.

Prayer is not magic. No. Prayer is a relationship, a conversation with the greatest friend in the universe. Mother Teresa did not pray this express novena as a magic formula, rather she prayed from the heart knowing that God would act. This repetitive prayer was a tangible expression of her great faith in God.

We can learn from Mother Teresa, and we can be edified and encouraged by her simple yet great faith. She can help us to grow in faith. That is why I want to share this story with you. It’s just one example of Mother Teresa’s confidence in Our Lady’s intercession.

Mother Teresa and the “Express Novena”

The following is an excerpt from the book Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait by Monsignor Leo Maasburg.

The “problem” in this story is that Mother Teresa and another sister were invited to meet with Pope John Paul II in his private apartment. Msgr. Maasburg was not invited. No matter. Mother Teresa wanted him there. So what was the first thing she did? She prayed an express novena of the Memorare.


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.

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.”

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.

Join Jeff Young, The Catholic Foodie and Fr. Kyle Sanders on a Food Meets Faith Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Registration for my next pilgrimage to the Holy Land is now open! The pilgrimage will be from February 26 to March 8, 2015. Fr. Kyle Sanders, a priest of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, will travel with me as the Spiritual Director.

I want to invite you to grow in faith together with me around the table of the Eucharist and around the dinner table in the Holy Land.

Register before August 1, 2014 and you will receive a free autographed copy of my soon-to-be-released cookbook: Around the Table with The Catholic Foodie: Middle Eastern Cuisine, published by Liguori Publications.

See full itinerary HERE. You can also download it.