DEARBORN, Mich. (CNS) — Blessed Teresa of Kolkata, India, had a profound effect on just about everybody.
Whether it was her healing touch, her ministry to the poorest or the poor, or the millions of Catholics from around the world moved by her words, almost everyone felt like they “knew” her.
But one Detroit-area priest has a unique tie to the soon-to-be-saint: He was her driver.
On the bustling streets of Rome — where many aspire to be Ferrari’s next Formula 1 driver — Father Ben Luedtke, a guest priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit who gives missions and assists other priests across the archdiocese, was Blessed Teresa’s driver whenever she visited Rome from 1975 to 1982.
“Italians drive like crazy and I had a universal driver’s license,” Father Luedtke said. “I tended to go slower, not take the corners as sharp. So I got to know her through that.”
Not quite a “Driving Miss Daisy” story, but Father Luedtke and Blessed Teresa got to know each other over the years. Father Luedtke was studying in Rome to become a priest, being ordained by St. John Paul II in 1982. Upon his ordination, Father Luedtke and Blessed Teresa’s relationship continued in a special way — they became spiritual brother and sister.
“Every person ordained by St. John Paul II had a sister assigned to them to be their spiritual sister,” Father Luedtke told The Michigan Catholic, Detroit’s archdiocesan newspaper. “The nun prays for the priest, and the priest prays for the nun for spiritual benefits. When a person prays for a priest, that nun receives a grace, and vice versa.”
During one of their drives, Father Luedtke told Blessed Teresa that he didn’t have a spiritual sister yet.
“I told Mother Teresa that I didn’t have anybody, so I asked her,” Father Luedtke said. “She asked the Holy Father about it, then called me and said yes. She probably would have lived longer if she didn’t have to pray for me so much.”
On Dec. 17, Pope Francis confirmed the second miracle necessary for Blessed Teresa to become a saint — with Sept. 4, 2016, as the probable date of her canonization.
The entire world knew Blessed Teresa for her work in India, standing up for the poor and spreading the love of Jesus, but Father Luedtke gained insights few others might have enjoyed. In fact, if not for him, the world might not have gotten to see her much at all.
“Mother Teresa wouldn’t let anyone take pictures of her; she hated publicity,” Father Luedtke said. “I was talking to her and said, ‘You realize, Mother, you release a soul from purgatory for every time you offer anything up to God, so why don’t you offer the picture up to God?’ She said all right, and that’s why you only see pictures of her when she’s old.”
After 1982, Mother Teresa and Father Luedtke went their separate ways — occasionally running into each other at retreats or conferences. But he is quick to play down his connection to the future saint, noting that he always knew she would be canonized one day.
“She was very quiet, always prayerful,” Father Luedtke said. “I did ask her once, what is the one criteria you look for in a person who wants to join the Missionaries of Charity? She smiled and said, ‘She has to be able to laugh. You need to see the humor in life, there has to be joy.'”
When the church was investigating possible miracles to attribute to Mother Teresa’s intercession, Vatican officials tracked down Father Luedtke and interviewed him about his time with her — Blessed Theresa never wrote his name down, so it took years for the Missionaries of Charity to find him and finally did so at a retreat in Memphis, Tenn.
Looking back at his time driving around the church’s next saint, Father Luedtke doesn’t think of it as extraordinary — he was doing what he was asked to do — but he did learn a lot from a person who meant so much to so many.
“She prayed for hours. When I went to go pick her up, she would still be praying before we took off,” Father Luedtke said. “There was a reporter who once asked, ‘Mother, people are dying in the streets of Calcutta while you are at prayer; why do you waste so much time?’ She said she couldn’t do anything without the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and through prayer.”
Meloy writes for The Michigan Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Detroit.