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Ambassador Ray Flynn recalls the political smarts of Mother Teresa


Diane Montagna - published on 09/09/16

The former mayor of Boston talks about how the future saint knew how to work the system to fulfill her mission

VATICAN CITY — The brilliance of Mother Teresa’s holiness is known to millions of people across the world, but fewer are aware that she was also politically very astute.

One man who experienced Mother’s political smarts firsthand is Ray Flynn. A man of humble beginnings (his mother was a cleaning woman, his father a dockworker), Raymond Leo Flynn served as Mayor of Boston, Massachusetts from 1984 until 1993. He was later appointed United States Ambassador to the Holy See by President Bill Clinton.

Aleteia sat down with Ambassador Flynn at St. Peter’s Basilica on the morning of Mother Teresa’s canonization. He recalled his relationship with the saint, spoke of the significance of her canonization, and recounted a delightfully humorous story that captures both her dedication to her mission and the political acumen she sometimes used to accomplish it.

Ambassador Flynn, you and your wife have travelled here to Rome for Mother Teresa’s canonization. What does this day mean to you and your family?

It’s a very special day for all mothers throughout the world, because Mother Teresa really symbolized the beauty and the purity of motherhood in how she reached out to so many children and people who needed help. She is the saint of everyone, but in a special way I believe she is really the saint of mothers. So many mothers are here to honor another mother.

Photo by Francois LE DIASCORN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Francois LE DIASCORN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Photo by Francois LE DIASCORN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Many people who have come to Rome for Mother Teresa’s canonization met or knew her personally. Tell us about your own experience of meeting Mother Teresa.

I first met Mother Teresa in 1982 when she delivered the commencement speech at Harvard, one year after she received the Nobel Peace Prize. I have been active in the social justice movement of the Catholic Church and have been involved in politics for over 50 years, so they invited me to accompany throughout her trip.

Former Mayor of Boston Ray Flynn with Mother Teresa at Harvard, 1982
Former Mayor of Boston Ray Flynn with Mother Teresa at Harvard, 1982

During the commencement speech she delivered at Harvard, she talked about the unborn and abortion; she talked about the poor; she talked about the destitute. It surprised me that Harvard embraced her so enthusiastically. It was not typically your most welcoming audience for a person like Mother Teresa or a religious leader, but they gave her one of the most resounding receptions that I’ve ever seen in my life.

We maintained that relationship over time. Mother contacted me many times and then came to Boston and New York. I travelled to Africa with her and was in India with her. And so I became a great admirer of hers. She used to tell me different stories about people she was trying to help, and I would put her in contact with people who could help her. I understood her and I understood her mission and I supported her 100%.

Can you tell us more about Mother Teresa’s visit to Boston? 

One day, Cardinal O’Conner of New York called me up when I was mayor of Boston. He told me: “Mother Teresa would like to come to Boston to visit you.” So I said, “That’s wonderful.”

The next day, one of the sisters from her order was at my office at City Hall, and she said: “Mother Teresa is waiting for you at a home in a rundown area of Boston.” So my wife and I went over and sat and talked with her for almost 3 hours. Mother explained that she wanted to build housing for unwed mothers and their infant children. I told her I could not deed the property to her because I was prevented by law, but that I would raise money for her to build one house. But Mother wanted three houses, and she wanted a property in back for a playground for the children, and another area for a health center.

I repeatedly told her that I couldn’t do that per se. I’d have to have a public auction, and if I had a public auction, people would surely come and bid on it, since it was very desirable property since it overlooked the Boston Harbor. It is located in the area of Boston where the University of Massachusetts is, and where the John F. Kennedy Library now is, so it potentially had great value.

It was a long meeting. Mother Teresa continually stressed the need for the housing for the women and children, while I continually repeated the law of the city. With that, when the meeting was about to conclude — because I thought it was at an impasse — we went outside where about 100 cameras were waiting for us. Normally, as mayor I would have gone to the microphone to greet the guests of our city. But instead Mother went right up to the microphone and thanked the people of Boston for electing this “wonderful boy” as their mayor.

Standing next to me, without my knowing he was invited, was the president of the largest bank of the city, as well as the head of the AFL-CIO, representing the building trades. They both received calls, supposedly from my office, inviting them to meet Mother Teresa and participate in “one of the most important announcements of the city’s history.” I asked them why they were there, and they said: “You invited me.” And so we all got hooked in.

Former Mayor of Boston Ray Flynn with Mother Teresa, June 1988, courtesy of Nancy Lane
Former Mayor of Boston Ray Flynn with Mother Teresa, June 1988, courtesy of Nancy Lane

Mother Teresa again thanked the people for electing this “wonderful boy.” She thanked the working men and women of the state for donating all their time and energy, and for doing the work for free, and she thanked the bank president for financing this project. And that was it. The housing was built, and the children had a wonderful home.

Have you told this story before?

It is a story I was never anxious to tell. But I told John Paul II this story one day, and from then on, every time he saw me, he always wanted me to tell the story to groups of priests, etc. And he always used to use the same line: “Ray might have been the mayor, but Mother Teresa was a smarter politician.” It’s a story we kind of kept to ourselves for obvious reasons, because that’s not the pure and holy saint we are honoring here today!

Jesus did say: “Be innocent as doves and wise as serpents!” But on a serious note, what captivated so many people about Mother was her presence. Can you comment on this?

I was sitting just feet away when one of the famous photographs of her with John Paul II was taken. The warmth and respect they had for one another was incredible; it was such and expression of genuine affection. I’ve traveled with popes and presidents and prime ministers, but that was a genuine and special relationship.

I’ve been friendly with two saints now, but Mother Teresa was special for me, because I know it’s the unsung heroes that are represented here today with Mother Teresa, not power.

Mother Teresa
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