Mother Teresa and me: Visa for a saint

I will never forget the day, in early August 1989, when Mother Teresa came to the Albanian Embassy in Rome to receive her first visa – a visa that would enable her to travel back to her homeland after almost 60 years away from it. 

I was a minister-counsellor for cultural affairs in the embassy at the time. It was during a period when the weakened communist government of Albania was allowing breezes of pluralism to blow through the bureaucracy.

It had taken Mother Teresa two decades and an intense personal tragedy to get that permission. Her long ordeal started in late 1960s when her mother Drane and sister Age were living in Tirana, the Albanian capital. Her mother was ailing. Mother Teresa wanted to see her before she died.

She used a variety of powerful friends, from presidents to foreign ministers, to plead with Enver Hoxha’s insular communist regime to grant her mother a 30-day visa and permission to leave the country. — The hope was that the elderly woman would be able to visit her daughter in Rome and enter a hospital.

Mother Teresa slowly got out. In front of us was a tiny lady, stooped over, wearing dark sandals on her feet, dressed in her simple, white and blue sari. The only adornment she wore was a Roman Catholic rosary around her neck.

But the regime never allowed that to happen. Her mother and sister died in Tirana in the mid-1970s.

In all the intervening years she had never been able to even to visit their graves.  

It took almost 19 years—until a popular revolution began to topple nearby pro-Soviet communist regimes — for the Albanian government to decide to approve a travel visa.

When the approval came the embassy contacted the sisters at the Missionaries of Charity in Rome, the order that Mother Teresa founded, to let her know that the visa was ready. To our surprise they told us that Mother Teresa herself would be coming to the embassy. 

By that time, Mother Teresa was world famous. She had received the Nobel Prize in 1979, had met with presidents, kings and leaders around the world.

We at the embassy anticipated her arrival with all pomp that a world dignitary of her status deserved. We thought that she would arrive in the same fashion.

Instead, on that early afternoon, on a very hot day in August, an old car pulled into the driveway of our embassy in Rome’s via Asmara, driven by one of the missionary sisters.

Mother Teresa slowly got out. In front of us was a tiny lady, stooped over, wearing dark sandals on her feet, dressed in her simple, white and blue sari. The only adornment she wore was a Roman Catholic rosary around her neck. 

Inside the embassy hall, we had prepared a huge banquet in her honor.  Neither she, nor the two Sisters accompanying her, ever touched it. 

She didn’t stay long, meeting briefly with our ambassador, and in parting saluted all of us in rusty Albanian – Zoti qoftë me ju (May God be with you).

A few days later she arrived in Albania, met with officials there, and was able to finally visit and pay her respects at the graves of her mother and sister.

Two years after her visit, the country’s communist regime was swept away in popular elections.

Mother Teresa would later return to Albania and open her local branches of her Sisters of Charity. These women immediately began to bring help to the poor and sick all over Albania.

The Sisters of Charity’s doors were open to everyone: Muslim, Roma, Orthodox and Roman Catholic Albanians alike. They never turned anyone away.

Mother Theresa liked to say, “there are no great things, only small things with great love” that bring about change in this life. 

The canonization of Mother Teresa on Sunday brings great pride to Albanians. But the humility and patience she showed decades ago, even while enduring the pain of separation from her dearest family members, is what truly illuminates our path to social justice and greater help for people in need. 

Gjovalin Shkurtaj is a member of the National Academy of Science of Albania. Join him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.



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