BY ANDREA TORNIELLI, 04/09/2016
“Let me talk to Ronald!” Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the apostle of the poorest of the poor, whom Francis is elevating to the sainthood in St. Peter’s Square this morning, had a knack for achieving the impossible through the sheer power of her faith. Staffan de Mistura, special envoy to the UN Secretary for Syria knows this all too well. De Mistura was formerly the Italian government’s deputy minister of Foreign Affairs. Four years ago, he talked about everything he had been witness to at the Rimini Meeting.
In was 1986 and the majority-Christian Sudanese city of Juba was under siege, its population worn out and starving to death. Guerillas had surrounded it and the Sudanese government was doing nothing to address the situation. De Mistura was working with the World Food Programme in Khartoum, the country’s capital. A plane needed to be sent with provisions but the guerrillas had SAM7 heat-detection missiles that had already destroyed two aircraft. One evening, De Mistura said, “Mother Teresa of Calcutta turns up in my office. I didn’t know her and indeed did not recognise her. She had a nun called Mirtilla following close behind. Mother Teresa spoke in a rather direct way, saying: ‘I am here to help. I was at Castel Gandolfo yesterday, the Holy Father John Paul II was listening to the BBC and want to try to save the city of Juba. I was on my way to Kenya to visit my community there, so I decided to stop by. What can I do? Tell me what the problem is’.”
The WFP official briefly described the problem to her. “Too complicated,” Mother Teresa said, “Let me talk to the Sudanese President who is preventing the plane from taking off, or with the guerrillas.” To which De Mistura replied: “He isn’t here. He’s in America right now.” The saint-to-be answered: “No problem, let’s speak to Ronald. He’s a good person.” “Who?” the diplomat responded. “Ronald Reagan and his wife too. Get him on the line right away.” De Mistura used the radio to contact the White House switchboard. “Good afternoon, this is De Mistura from the World Food Programme calling, I have Mother Teresa here with me, she’d like to speak to Ronald Reagan.” To which the operator replied: ‘Listen, Napoleon and Julius Caesar already called today… oh yes, of course, of course… all the best’. The man insisted and asked to speak with the official on duty. “They put him on and he said to me: ‘Listen, I don’t have time waste. Tell me the first occasion, time and place, when Mother Teresa met President Reagan.” Sister Mirtilla had a little green book which she checked and immediately responded: on 7 February when the church was inaugurated in Washington. At this point,” De Mistura said, “our office friend called me Sir, which sounded a bit more respectful and said to me: ‘Listen here a minute, you also need to tell me when was the last time Nancy Reagan met Mother Teresa.’ Mirtilla said: ‘Well it was in New York, when that hospice was inaugurated.” Then there was silence. He makes a phone call. After which he informs me: “The President would like to speak to Mother Teresa but in exactly one hour, at the embassy.”
De Mistura and Mother Teresa rush to the US embassy. But it is closed as it’s a public holiday. “We rush to a cocktail party, with Mother Teresa in the World Food Programme car.” The ambassador doesn’t believe it at first but then sees an impatient-looking Mother Teresa in the car. They rush to the embassy. While everyone waits for the phone call, the future saint gets everyone to pray, rosary in hand, including the marines. “The phone rings and the ambassador jumps up and answers it: “Mr. President… it’s George, it is a great pleasure to speak with you… yes, I know, Mother Teresa is here, let me put her on.” She speaks to Ronald Reagan as if were a school boy: ‘Now, look here…but… how did you say?… but we need to act… do you promise?… you’ll send me a telex to confirm?’ I asked Mother Teresa: ‘What happened?’ ‘Well, he said he agrees and that he’ll put pressure on the Sudanese president to let this plane take off. Unfortunately the president is already on his way to the United Nations in New York, but he’s sending a man by the name of George Bush to contact him at the United Nations.”
Ronald Reagan’s telex reached the next morning: “I did what you asked me to do Mother Teresa, I sent my deputy, George Bush, he spoke with the Sudanese president, who never ever, ever, tried to stop the plane.”
“The plane took off,” De Mistura said, “we took precautions – we had a decoy plane flying high so that the missiles pointed at it, while an old DC9 with Mother Teresa on board and loaded with food supplies landed in Juba. From that moment on Juba did not come under siege again. We can put our all into something but it takes that extraordinary power of concrete faith that Mother Teresa taught us.”